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The Development of US Immigration Policy

immigrants walking down road in cornfields
Randy Eccles
NPR Illinois/Adobe Firefly


On February 1st and February 16th, 2024, Dr. Isabel Skinner, Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Affairs, and Dr. Brooke Depenbusch, Assistant Professor in the Legal Studies Department, shared their professional insights with the Citizens Club of Springfield at the two-part event: Springfield’s Immigrant Stories. Audiences of around 125 Springfield residents turned out for each event and, at both, Skinner and Depenbusch drew on their expertise and teaching experience to help the audience better understand the roots and nature of contemporary questions related to immigration. Both professors are extremely grateful to the Club and the event organizers for their invitation and to their fellow panelists for this unique opportunity.

A link to footage of these events can be found at the bottom of this page. In this blog, they recap some key ideas which they shared at these events which may be of interest to the readers of Capitol Connection.

The Development of US Immigration Policy

Dr. Brooke Depenbusch:

When we look at the development of the United States’ immigration policy, we can divide it up into four eras. The first extended from 1776-1882. While this was a period of expansion in terms of the United States’ population and territory, this was also a period before the federal government placed restrictions on immigration. In other words, for this 100-year period there was no border patrol, there were no regularly-issued federal passports. During this period there were no, or at least very few, national-level laws that placed restrictions on who could immigrate into the country (Schoeppner).

It was not until a couple of decades after the Civil War that Congress passed the first restrictive immigration laws. So, this brings us to the second period, from the 1880s to the 1920s. This forty-year period is an important moment in the development of United States immigration policy. On the one hand, these were years of massive immigration to the United States. In particular, these were years when millions of immigrants were entering the United States from southern and eastern Europe (Spickard). But paradoxically, this was also the moment when the US was building up its “gatekeeping laws,” or laws that governed who would be allowed to enter and remain in the nation (Lee). This process of gatekeeping began in the 1870s and 1880s with federal laws that restrictively singled out immigrants on the basis of race and then class.

In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which provided, first, that no Chinese laborers would be allowed to enter the US and, second, that no Chinese immigrants would be eligible to naturalize or to apply for US citizenship. That same year, 1882, Congress also passed a law which provided that any person who seemed “likely to become a public charge” would not be allowed to enter the United States. Ten years later in 1891, Congress passed a law which provided that “public charges” could be deported from the country (Hirota). So, again, these were years when millions of immigrants were entering the US but, at the exact same time, Congress was passing more and more regulations which stipulated - on the basis of race and class - who would be eligible to enter and remain in the United States.

The third period in the restriction of immigration began in 1924 and reached up to 1965. In 1924, the growing pressure for restriction that had been building up over the last 40 years culminated in the Johnson Reed Act. The Johnson Reed Act was a highly restrictive piece of legislation that, for the next forty years, drastically reduced rates of immigration to the US. What did the Johnson Reed Act do?

First, for the first time in United States history it placed an overall numerical cap on immigration and said the US would only allow 150,000 immigrants to enter the country each year. It divided these 150,000 slots up between different nations and gave the highest number of quotas to western and northern European nations. Second, it said that no immigrant from Asia would be eligible to enter the United States. Building on and significantly expanding the principle of race-based exclusion, the law largely succeeded in preventing immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia from entering the country. Finally, and in contrast to its other restrictive provisions, the Johnson Reed Act exempted all western hemisphere countries from quotas. Why did it do so? It did so in part for diplomatic reasons, but also because large-scale farmers and growers in places like Texas and California depended on Mexican workers to harvest crops. They lobbied Congress not to place quotas on the number of Mexican immigrants who could enter the United States (Ngai). For the next 40 years that the Johnson Reed Act remained in effect, it did not totally cut off the flow of immigrants that entered the United States. But between 1924-1965 immigrants did make up a relatively smaller proportion of the overall population.

Finally, this brings us to the fourth period, which extends from 1965 to the present day. In the midst of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement, more Americans felt like the explicitly discriminatory features of the Johnson Reed Act contradicted American values. In 1965 Congress repealed Johnson Reed and enacted the Hart Celler Law. Hart Celler established a new framework, the basic features of which remain in effect to this day. Hart Celler provided that every nation would receive a cap of 20,000 visas per year. And it said that 75 percent of those visas would go to relatives of US citizens, 20 percent of those visas would go to highly skilled, highly educated immigrants, and 5 percent would go to refugees. Rates of immigration significantly picked up after the law’s enactment and, in particular, the numbers of immigrants from places like Africa, South Asia, and East Asia increased in the years after the law was passed (Lee).

But the law also created unforeseen complications. Remember that up to this point, there had never been a quota imposed on western hemisphere migration. There hadn’t been restrictions on the number of Mexican or Guatemalan immigrants who could enter the United States. By imposing a quota without simultaneously creating a legal path to entry for people like farm workers or people in the service industry, one of the effects that quickly followed in the wake of the law was a massive increase in the undocumented population of the United States. In other words, almost overnight a situation was created where there were millions of people who sought work in the United States, had employers who were eager to hire them, but did not have the protections of legal status (Minian).

From my perspective, looking at the development of the law helps us to see the origins of this major humanitarian and civil rights concern that continues to this day.

Dr. Isabel Skinner:

Springfield and the Lincoln Home during the 1850s-1908 (during the second period which Dr. Depenbusch described above) can provide us with a few interesting immigration stories that still have echoes today. According to NPR Illinois, Irish immigrants, a small population of the “early settlers of Sangamon Country”, became the largest group by 1850 as they fled the Irish potato famine that, tragically, killed around one million people. This group was made up of mostly unskilled workers with little or no formal education. Many sent home money, called remittances, to their family members back in Ireland. At this time, there was pervasive national anti-immigrant, and in particular anti-Catholic, anti-Italian and anti-Irish sentiment, in the US general public and among elected leaders and candidates. However, this did not stop Springfield’s Irish immigrants from celebrating their heritage at annual St. Patrick’s Day parades -still celebrated downtown today- and from drawing attention to the Irish struggle for independence during 1919-1921 (McClellan McAndrew, NPR Illinois).

Another group, Portuguese immigrants from the Madeira Islands, arrived in town in the mid-1800s after they fled religious persecution due to their conversion to Presbyterianism (Stratton and Mansberger). There is some evidence that the Madeira Portuguese immigrants received a warmer welcome than their Irish and Italian counterparts due to their Protestant faith. For example, a poem welcoming them was published in the Illinois State Journal. According to the National Park Service, both Irish and Portuguese domestic workers or “hired” girls worked in the Lincoln home alongside Black and White US-born employees. Meanwhile, during this time period, many newspapers ran want ads with the phrase “No Irish Need Apply” (National Park Service). This was also a time of much social upheaval in town -not to mention the cusp of the Civil War. For example, scholar Kenneth Winkle argues that during Lincoln’s life in Springfield, extensive internal migration and turnover in the US caused the city to be comprised of mostly short-term residents. In fact, less than 1% voted in consecutive elections during the 1850s (Winkle).

Unfortunately, immigrants to Springfield and nearby areas also faced violence during this time. According to records from the Federal Railroad Administration, the Carpenter Street Archeological site once contained part of a neighborhood called the “Badlands” which was largely populated by immigrants. This area was included in the path of destruction during the Springfield Race Riot of 1908 (Federal Railroad Administration). As the Sangamon County Historical Society, observes, Italian railroad workers' homes were also violently attacked in a riot in Clinton IL, also in 1908, causing 50 Italian residents to leave town. However, as Italians continued to immigrate to the US during the “Great Wave” of migration from 1900-1914, and many made their way up along the Mississippi to St. Louis and then onward, this community continued to grow. For example, more than 1,000 people, mostly from local Italian organizations, paraded in downtown Springfield in 1926 in a jubilant celebration of community and culture (SangamonLink).

For me, the connections of this moment and time, and these immigrant groups to the issues of today are manifold. First, I think that many Americans tend to romanticize European immigrants during other moments in US history as heroic and brave, and while there is certainly a lot to admire in these stories, it is important to remember that many fled their home countries in protection of their lives rather than came to the US by choice or simply in search of “a dream”. Furthermore, these immigrants were often denigrated or even faced violence upon their arrival. However, then, just as today, these immigrants had adversaries and allies among US-born locals, folks who spoke harshly and folks who opened their minds and doors to new neighbors. I hope we can follow the examples of those in the latter group.

Also, I noticed that in this historical story, religion played a particular role in this exclusion or inclusion. In my own research, I have studied the way Muslim refugees, an increasingly scrutinized group, are perceived (Skinner, Williams). Troublingly, when Muslim immigrants and Muslim Americans are rhetorically tied to national security concerns and terrorism, some of the most direct victims of global terrorism become ironically targeted for further persecution (Kerwin). Such negative stereotypes also undermine the important contributions of Muslim immigrants and Muslim Americans to our communities and society (Lajevardi). Beyond social support, because of the way our legal system operates, the retraction or expansion of the rights of small groups like refugees or Muslim Americans (both around ~1% of the US population) impacts the rights of all in America - as Dr. Depenbusch discusses below.

Immigrants, the Meaning of Citizenship, and the Law

Dr. Depenbusch:

I also want to emphasize that we can thank immigrants for pushing to define American citizenship in expansive ways that we often take for granted today.

For example, in 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified. It stated that all persons are entitled to equal protection of the law. Congress says this on paper, but what does this mean in practice? Immigrants played an enormous role in shaping the “common sense” meaning of the amendment that we take for granted today. They did so through litigation, by pressing the courts to define what the 14th Amendment would actually mean.

Take, for instance, the 1886 case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins. Yick Wo challenged a discriminatory San Francisco ordinance that, in its application, targeted Chinese immigrants in the city (Lew-Williams). When the case came before the United States Supreme Court, the court ruled that – even if a law appears neutral on its face – if it is administered or applied in a discriminatory fashion then it violates the equal protection clause. This is a great example of an instance where immigrants were responsible for getting the courts to establish principles that protect us all from discrimination and give substantive meaning to the idea that we all should be treated equally and equally protected by the law.

Dr. Skinner:

This history provides extremely important context for issues which are still top of mind today. However, I want to also explain some broader concepts and definitions that are important when learning and thinking about immigration issues. First, I want to stress that, in terms of the whole scope of human history, migration is very normal and was essential to our survival and development as a species. To this day, people migrate all the time and most migration is temporary or cyclical rather than permanent. Secondly, I want to point out that, throughout history and today, most people have moved or been moved for reasons beyond their choosing including in the bondage of slavery, due to forces of colonialism or neo-colonialism, or as victims of human trafficking (Dunbar-Ortiz, Goldin et al.).

There are a variety of reasons why people choose to leave one country for another, and social scientists and economists generally refer to these as “push and pull factors”. Economic collapses or poverty in one nation may provide a push whereas economic opportunities in another provide a pull. For example, global migration is fueled by a high demand for low-wage service in care work in wealthier nations, including former colonial powers in the Global North, and this demand is often met by immigrant workers from poorer nations, including former colonies, in the Global South. Family, friends, love, and interpersonal ties also provide a strong incentive for individuals and families to move. For example, a worker may sell their skills abroad to provide support for their loved ones back home or family members may make the journey to be reunited (Goldin et al.).

Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, many in the world do not have a choice but rather are forced to flee to survive. In fact, over 110 Million people are displaced worldwide -more than ever in history according to the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR). Forced displacement can be caused by war, terrorism, political repression, natural disasters, and food insecurity. Worryingly, many of these issues are likely to be exacerbated due to climate change. This distinction between a choice and a lack of a choice also comes with different legal protections and classifications as well.

Consider the following definitions from US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS):

  • Migrant: A person who leaves their country of origin to seek residence in another country
  • Refugee: Generally, any person outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on the person’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
  • Asylee: An alien in the United States or at a port of entry who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of nationality, or to seek the protection of that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution or the fear thereof must be based on religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion (emphasis added). 

One thing you should notice is that the only difference between a “refugee” and an “asylee” is that refugees, many of whom have spent many years in refugee camps, travel directly to their resettlement destination organized by the UN and in-country organizations whereas asylum seekers arrive at a seaport or border and attempt to gain protection. Both groups could be classified as humanitarian migrants, and these definitions indicate human rights obligations. Under both US and international law, seeking asylum is a right (USCIS, UNHCR). Therefore, when asked how long I think immigration processes should take, I urge readers to consider the traumatic experiences that caused humanitarian migrants to leave their homes in the first place and the lengthy journeys many have already been to before ever arriving in a resettlement community or at a port or border. I truly believe that the way we treat these folks speaks volumes about our society and to treat them well is in many ways the least we can do to reduce the global suffering caused by mass displacement. However, it is also important to recognize that resettled refugees and asylees are the “lucky ones”, the precious few, a tiny fraction of the overall number of displaced people. The burden for caring for displaced people is currently overwhelmingly borne by poorer nations neighboring countries experiencing war, disaster, or political strife (Goldin et al.). Thoughtful, substantial, and long-term solutions are required to meet these complex and seemingly intractable issues.

Challenging Immigration Myths

Dr. Skinner:

Finally, as someone who studies American Politics and Political Psychology, including related to immigration and minority politics, much of my research is centered around communication and especially stereotypes. My research and that of many other scholars demonstrates that public attitudes toward immigrants and immigration policies are symbolic rather than directly linked to factual realities (Williams et al.). However, I want to take a moment to highlight, and hopefully debunk, a couple of the major myths about immigrants to the US. I call these “myths” because these ideas, while persistent, are not supported by most evidence.

The first pervasive myth is that immigrants are criminals. While this claim has been oft repeated by some pundits and political leaders, mountains of social science data show there is no connection between immigration and crime. For example, an exhaustive report by The Marshall Project which looked at metro-level data from 200 cities between 1980-2016, for 136 out of 200, the immigrant population grew while the crime rate dropped. Put another way, the opposite relationship than the one mythologized was found in 70% of cases. I recommend readers play around with the interactive data tool offered by this site. Furthermore, some scholars have shown that immigrants are less likely than US-born residents to commit crimes (Abramitzky et al., Light et al.)

Second, another sticky myth is that immigrants harm the US economy. However, most economists and socio-political scholars will tell you that immigration has an overall positive impact on the US economy. Immigrants often do not fill the most desired jobs or compete with US-born workers but instead perform low-skill and low-wage work which is complementary. For example, produce pickers and harvesters literally provide the food on our table. Furthermore, as mentioned previously, immigrants fill highly demanded roles in expanding service and care sectors. Demographically, the US population is aging which requires an influx of younger workers, and, in particular, service and healthcare workers to take care of an aging population (PBS News Hour) . I also want to mention that even though many immigrants have less than a high school education when they arrive, highly skilled and highly educated immigrants also improve the US’ scientific research and technical capabilities.

Additionally, many immigrants, even undocumented immigrants, actually pay taxes through income and buying goods yet are not eligible for or do not enroll in public services. As a result, immigrants contribute to but take less from social safety net compared to US-born residents. For example, according to the Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $11B in taxes annually (Gee et al.). In addition to being hard workers, immigrants are also job creators. A study by MIT found that naturalized immigrants are more likely than US-born residents to found companies of all sizes and create jobs.

Throughout US history, concerns that immigrants will become a “public charge” or place a burden on taxpayers have proliferated. However, the overwhelming preponderance of evidence including the limited examples I shared above lead me to conclude the following: immigrants are givers, not takers. These economic contributions are not to mention the invaluable cultural contributions of immigrants to the US over its entire history.


Dr. Depenbusch and Dr. Skinner:

Again, these reflections were made possible by the Citizens Club of Springfield and their Springfield’s Immigrant Stories series. We both want to thank our amazing co-panelists. They represent incredible immigrant stories in Springfield and are all also wonderful people who contribute so much to our community: Driss El-Akrich (DPA), Xuna Hu, Vidya Sundareshan (MD), Monica Zanetti, Elizabeth Brago Boateng, Yves Doumen, Veronica Espina, and Sonthana Thongsithavong. We feel very fortunate to have met them and hope to remain in contact as friends and colleagues.

Thank you also to the organizers of these events: Dr. Beverly Bunch, Sammi Mander, Lingling Lui, Dr. David Steward, and John Kelker. Thank you also to the Center for State Policy and Leadership at UIS and to Randy Eccles and NPR Illinois for your reporting on and recording of these events. Thank you finally to our wonderful community of friends and neighbors who attended these events and made them a success!

Please consider watching the recorded sessions to learn more about their stories:

Part 1: History Challenges and Contributions

Part 2: Building a More Vibrant Springfield


Asylum-seekers.” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Abramitzky, Ran, et al.Law-Abiding Immigrants: The Incarceration Gap between Immigrants and the US-Born, 1850–2020. No. w31440. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2023.

Carpenter Street Underpass & Archeological Site”. Federal Railroad Administration.

Dizikes, Peter.“Study: Immigrants in the U.S. are more likely to start firms, create jobs.” MIT News. 2022.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. Not "a nation of immigrants": Settler colonialism, white supremacy, and a history of erasure and exclusion. Beacon Press, 2021.

Flagg, Anna. “The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant”. The Marshal Project. 2018.

Frazee, Gretchen. “4 myths about how immigrants affect the U.S. economy.” PBS News Hour. 2018.

Gee, Lisa Christensen, Matthew Gardner, and Meg Wiehe. "Undocumented immigrants’ state & local tax contributions." The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (2016).

Goldin, Ian, Geoffrey Cameron, and Meera Balarajan. "Exceptional people: How migration shaped our world and will define our future." Exceptional People. Princeton University Press, 2011.

Hirota, Hidetaka. “Moment of Transition: State Officials, the Federal Government, and the Formation of American Immigration Policy.” Journal of American History 99.4 (2013): 1092-1108.

Italian Immigration”. SangamonLink- Sangamon County Historical Society. 2016.

Kerwin, Donald. "The use and misuse of ‘national security’rationale in crafting US refugee and immigration policies." International Journal of Refugee Law 17.4 (2005): 749-763.

Lajevardi, Nazita. "The media matters: Muslim American portrayals and the effects on mass attitudes." The Journal of Politics 83.3 (2021): 1060-1079.

Lee, Erika. America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States. Basic Books, 2019.

Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Years. University of North Carolina Press, 2003.

Lew-Williams. The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Light, Michael T., Jingying He, and Jason P. Robey. "Comparing crime rates between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants, and native-born US citizens in Texas." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117.51 (2020): 32340-32347.

Lincoln Home Hired Girls”. Lincoln Home National Historical Site Illinois -National Park Service.

McClellan McAndrew, Tara. “The History of The Irish in Springfield.” NPR Illinois. 2017.

Minian, Ana Raquel. Undocumented Lives: The Untold Story of Mexican Migration. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton University Press, 2014.

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Stratton, Christopher and Floyd Mansberger. Middle Nineteenth Century Portuguese Immigrants in Springfield, Illinois: Context and Project History. Presented at Society for Historical Archaeology, Lisbon, Portugal. 2023.

  • Note: Stratton and Mansberger are local researchers who study Illinois Archeology at their organization Fever River Research: Illinois Archaeology.

Williams, Isabel. Elite Rhetoric and Public Attitudes Toward Refugee Policy. Diss. The University of Arizona, 2022.

Williams, Isabel, Timothy B. Gravelle, and Samara Klar. "The competing influence of policy content and political cues: cross-border evidence from the United States and Canada." American Political Science Review 116, no. 4. 2022.

Winkle, K. J. (1992). The Voters of Lincoln’s Springfield: Migration and Political Participation in an Antebellum City. Journal of Social History, 25(3), 595–611.

Isabel Skinner is an Assistant Professor in the School of Politics and International Affairs at UIS. Dr. Skinner received her PhD. in Government and Public Policy from the University of Arizona. Dr. Skinner's expertise is in American Politics, political behavior, and public opinion. Her research interests include immigration and refugee issues, race and ethnicity politics, and political psychology topics including attitude formation and the reception of political communication. Her work has been published in American Political Science Review, Public Opinion Quarterly, and International Journal of Public Opinion Research.
Brooke Depenbusch is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at UIS. Dr. Depenbusch is an interdisciplinary scholar whose research examines U.S. social policy and the ways that its contours are shaped through legal, political, and social struggle. Her current book project argues that the ongoing expansion of economic inequality as well as the weakness of the 21st-century welfare state have their origins in longstanding political and social struggles which reach back to the 1930s. Her work focuses on the contentious history of state and local public assistance programs.