When did immigration become illegal?

America is an immigrant nation. Right? We have the Statue of Liberty proudly declaring, “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” But since the statue was erected in 1875, I think we can all agree that a lot has changed.

When did those changes happen? Did America ever have an open door policy? Are debates about immigration only a contemporary issue?

In order to answer those questions, I went through the history of American immigration. This started in the late 1500’s.

What follows is a brief timeline of when, how, and why American immigration became illegal (as a side note, the timeline doesn’t exactly show the distance between years. Instead, each spot on the line acts as an information blurb)

Here we go. Prepare to scroll.

Quick breather. We’re about halfway through.

Presently, debates about immigration are contentious. And illegal immigration tends to dominate the conversation, overtaking the nuance about legal migration, refugee resettlement, and asylum seekers.

But by going through the history of American immigration, it’s clear that immigration policies have been fraught with selective processing, and American illegal immigration was created out of a fear of Chinese immigrants.

It is also clear that immigration legislation was created to preserve an American ideal, seeking to block change and progress.

In fact, illegal immigration is typically tied to fear and becomes topical during economic recessions. By tracing this pattern, from the 1860’s, to the early 90’s to now, it becomes even more obvious that illegal immigration can be a scapegoat.

Yes borders are important. But perhaps we can realize when policy moves regarding immigration are reactionary and in response to fear. Maybe immigration policy can embrace change by being accommodating instead of blocking certain elements of migration.