Timeline of immigrant processing and visa policy in the United States
This page provides a timeline of key events related to immigrant processing and visa policy of the United States. It focuses on laws, policies, and programs affecting pathways for authorized entry to the United States and long-term immigrant and non-immigrant statuses. It is complementary to the timeline of immigration enforcement in the United States.
The programs discussed here mostly come under the purview of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations, and the U.S. Department of State agencies such as the Bureau of Consular Affairs. For the most part, it does not deal with programs under the purview of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the United States Border Patrol. There are some exceptions (such as the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, that is under the purview of ICE).
|Year||Month and date (if available)||Event type||Affected agencies (past, and present equivalents)||Details|
|1790||Legislation||Executive branch||The Naturalization Act of 1790 is passed, specifying the rules for granting citizenship in the United States. Citizenship is limited to free white persons of good character.|
|1798||Legislation||Executive branch||The Alien and Sedition Acts (a total of four bills) are passed by the 5th United States Congress (that is Federalist-dominated) and signed into law by President John Adams.|
|1819||Legislation||Executive branch||The Steerage Act of 1819, also known as the Manifest of Immigrants Act, is passed. The Act regulates the conditions of travel on ships landing in the United States, and imposes a requirement that ships submit a manifest of all immigrants aboard.|
|1855||Legislation||Executive branch||The Carriage of Passengers Act of 1855 is passed, replacing the Steerage Act o 1819.|
|1868||July 28||Treaty or trade agreement||Terms for what would later be known as the Burlingame Treaty between the United States and China are finalized. The treaty would be ratified by China in 1869. The Treaty grants most-favored-nation status to China, and allows free movement of people between the countries, but withholding the privilege of naturalization.|
|1870||July 14||Legislation||Executive branch||The Naturalization Act of 1870 is signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant after passing both chambers of the 41st United States Congress. The Act extends the naturalization process to persons of African nativity and to persons of African descent (going beyond the Naturalization Act of 1790 that was limited to free white persons) while still excluding the Chinese and others.|
|1875||Legislation||Executive branch||The Page Act of 1875, the first United States federal restriction on immigration, passes.|
|1881||October 5||Treaty or trade agreement||Executive branch||The Angell Treaty of 1880 is ratified. This modifies the previous Burlingame Treaty of 1868 between the United States and China, by temporarily suspending the migration of laborers (skilled and unskilled) from China.|
|1882||May 6||Legislation (landmark)||Executive branch||The Chinese Exclusion Act is signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur after passing both chambers of the 47th United States Congress. This extends the suspension of Chinese migration started by the Angell treaty.|
|1882||August 3||Legislation (landmark)||Executive branch||The Immigration Act of 1882 is signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur after passing both chambers of the 47th United States Congress. The Act mostly focuses on immigration enforcement but also creates new policies around excludable classes of immigrants.|
|1888||Legislation||Executive branch||The Scott Act is passed, after the failure of negotiations for the Bayard-Zhang Treaty. The Act applies the same criteria to re-entry of Chinese into the United States as were applied to initial entry by the Chinese Exclusion Act.|
|1889||Court case||Chae Chan Ping v. United States is decided by the United States Supreme Court against the petitioner. The case upholds the Scott Act and is one of the first of numerous court cases related to immigration policy and enforcement where the court rules in favor of the government.|
|1891||March 3||Legislation||Executive branch||The Immigration Act of 1891 is signed into law by President Benjamin Harrison, after being passed by the 51st United States Congress. The Act expands the categories of excludable migrants, provides for more enforcement at land and sea borders, and adds authority to deport and penalties for people aiding and abetting migration. It also creates an Office of Superintendent of Immigration, and places it under the Department of the Treasury.|
|1895||Organizational restructuring||Bureau of Immigration; modern equivalents are USCIS and CBP||The Office of Superintendent of Immigration is upgraded to the Bureau of Immigration.|
|1903||March 3||Legislation||Executive branch||The Immigration Act of 1903, also known as the Anarchist Exclusion Act, is signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, after passing the 57th United States Congress. The Act codifies existing immigration law and also provides more grounds for excluding suspected anarchists. It has little practical effect.|
|1903||Organizational restructuring||Bureau of Immigration; modern equivalents are USCIS and CBP||The Bureau of Immigration is transferred to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor.|
|1906||Organizational restructuring||Bureaur of Immigration and Naturalization; modern equivalents are USCIS and CBP||The Federal Naturalization Service is created, as the setting of policies for naturalization as well as the act of naturalization is now a federal responsibility. The Bureau of Immigration becomes the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization.|
|1907||February 20||Legislation||Executive branch||The Immigration Act of 1907 is signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt, after passing the 59th United States Congress. The Act provides more grounds for excluding immigrants.|
|1907||February||Commission||United States Congress||The United States Congress Joint Immigration Commission is formed by the United States Congress, to study the origin and consequences of recent immigration to the United States. It is known as the Dillingham Commission after its chairman, Republican Senator William P. Dillingham. The Commission completes its work in 1911, producing a 41-volume report. It would be influential in shaping the Emergency Quota Act and the Immigration Act of 1924, and in particular, the National Origins Formula.|
|1913||Organizational restructuring||Bureau of Immigration, Bureau of Naturalization; modern equivalents USCIS and CBP||The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization is split into the Bureau of Immigration and the Bureau of Naturalization, and both are placed under the United States Department of Labor.|
|1918||Legislation||Executive branch||A wartime requirement that visas are required for foreigners to enter the United States is made permanent. (not clear which legislation made this permanent?)|
|1918||October 16||Legislation||Executive branch||The Immigration Act of 1918, also known as the Alien Anarchists Exclusion Act of 1918, is signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson after passing the 65th United States Congress.|
|1921||May 19||Legislation (landmark)||Executive branch||The Emergency Quota Act, also known as the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921, the Per Centum Law, and the Johnson Quota Act, is signed into law by President Warren G. Harding after passing both chambers of the 67th United States Congress. It significantly reduces immigration quotas from countries around the world to 3% of the population of the country already present in the United States (this formula would later be called the National Origins Formula).|
|1924||May 24||Legislation (landmark)||Executive branch||The Immigration Act of 1924, also called the National Origins Act and the Asian Exclusion Act, is signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge after passing both chambers of the 68th United States Congress. This updates the National Origins Formula to reduce the percentage to 2%.|
|1924||Organizational restructuring||United States Border Patrol||The United States Border Patrol is created within the Bureau of Immigration.|
|1933||Organizational restructuring||Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS); modern equivalents are USCIS and CBP (and also ICE, though most ICE functions do not exist at the time)||The Bureau of Immigration and Bureau of Naturalization merge into the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).|
|1940||Organizational restructuring||Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS); modern equivalents are USCIS and CBP (and also ICE, though most ICE functions do not exist at the time)||The Immigration and Naturalization Service is transferred from the Department of Labor to the Department of Justice (DOJ), where it would stay for the rest of its life (till early 2003).|
|1943||Legislation||Executive branch||The Magnuson Act becomes law. The Act repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act, but in practice immigration from China is still significantly restricted, as a quota of 105 annual Chinese immigrants is calculated through (flawed) use of the National Origins Formula of the Immigration Act of 1924.|
|1952||June 27||Legislation (landmark)||Executive branch||The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 becomes law after both chambers of the 82nd United States Congress vote to override the veto of President Harry S. Truman. This is the first of two big overhauls of the immigration system (the second being in 1965). Subsequent legislations would often be framed in terms of modifications to this legislation.|
|1952||Organizational restructuring||U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs; current equivalent: Bureau of Consular Affairs||This also leads to the creation of the Bureau of Inspection, Security and Consular Affairs, which is responsible for issuing visas at foreign consulates to people who want to enter the United States. In 1954, the Bureau is renamed the Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs.|
|1961||September 21||Legislation||U.S. Department of State||The Fulbright–Hays Act of 1961, also known as the Mutual Exchange and Cultural Exchange Act of 1961 (MECEA), is signed into law by President John F. Kennedy after passing both chambers of the United States Congress. The Act encourages mutual education and cultural exchange between the United States and other countries, and in particular, leads to the creation of the J visa category.|
|1965||October 3||Legislation (landmark)||Executive branch||The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart–Celler Act for its co-sponsors, is signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson after passing both chambers of the 89th United States Congress. The Act would go into effect on June 30, 1968. As of 2017, it is the most recent radical overhaul of the immigration system in the United States.|
|1970||Legislation||Immigration and Naturalization Services, U.S. Department of State||The L visa is created by a 1970 Amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act.|
|1976||October 20||Legislation||Immigration and Naturalization Services||The Eilberg Amendment, sponsored by Joshua Eilberg after lobbying by the Association of American Universities, is signed into law. The legislation allows nonprofit research institutions to sponsor unlimited numbers of foreign nationals without having to meet previously required standards regarding wages and working conditions. It would later be cited as a precedent for the Immigration Act of 1990.|
|1979||Organizational restructuring||U.S. Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs||The Bureau of Security and Consular Affairs is restructured: its security functions are moved to the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and the organization is renamed te Bureau of Consular Affairs.|
|1980||Legislation||Executive branch||The 96th United States Congress passes the Refugee Act of 1980, standardizing the process of refugee resettlement. This leads to the creation of the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).|
|1981||January 20||Leadership change||Executive branch||Republican politician Ronald Reagan is sworn in as President of the United States.|
|1982||February 22||Leadership change||Immigration and Naturalization Services||Alan C. Nelson becomes the Comissioner of the INS, working under President Ronald Reagan.|
|1983||January 9||Organizational restructuring||Executive Office for Immigration Review, Board of Immigration Appeals, Immigration and Naturalization Services||The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) is created as part of the U.S. Department of Justice. The EOIR combines two pre-existing functions: the Board of Immigration Appeals (also originally under the DOJ) and the Immigration Judge function (carried out previously by the INS, which was at the time under the DOJ).|
|1985||February||Leadership change||U.S. Department of Justice||Edwin Meese becomes United States Attorney General. The Attorney General heads the U.S. Department of Justice, and prior to the September 11 attacks, the INS was under the Department of Justice.|
|1986||November 6||Legislation (landmark)||Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services||The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) is signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, after passing both houses of the 99th United States Congress after three years of legislative back-and-forth. The key sponsores are Alan K. Simpson and Romano L. Mazzoli, so the act is also known as the Simpson–Mazzoli Act. This combines an amnesty for people who have been present in the United States for a while, a restructuring of the H-2 program splitting it into the H-2A (unlimited temporary agricultural workers) and H-2B (other temporary workers), and more resources into enforcement. The Act also includes a provision for what would later become the Visa Waiver Program.|
|1987||October 21||Deferred action||Immigration and Naturalization Services||Alan C. Nelson, INS Commissioner announces Family Fairness, a deferred action policy for children (and, in rare cases, spouses) of people eligible to legalie per the IRCA, to solve the problem of split-eligibility families.|
|1988||July||United Kingdom||The United Kingdom becomes the first country to participate in the newly created Visa Waiver Program (VWP), a program for reciprocal visa-free travel between the United States and other countries.|
|1988||October 15||Leadership change||U.S. Department of Justice||Dick Thornburgh becomes Attorney General, succeeding scandal-engulfed Edwin Meese.|
|1988||November 18||Legislation (adjacent)||Executive branch||The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 is signed into law by President Ronald Reagan after passing both chambers of the 100th United States Congress. The Act, though not focused on migration, introduces the concept of aggravated felony to refer to murder, federal drug trafficking, and illicit trafficking of certain firearms and destructive devices. Aggravated felonies are grounds for removal and exclusion of aliens.|
|1989||January 20||Leadership change||Executive branch||Republican politician and incumbent vice-president George H. W. Bush becomes President of the United States, succeeding Ronald Reagan.|
|1989||June 16||Leadership change||Immigration and Naturalization Services||INS Commissioner Alan C. Nelson is fired, amidst clashes with Attorney General Dick Thornburgh who wants to bring the INS more firmly under his own control, as well as accusations against Nelson of mismanagement.|
|1990||February 5||Deferred action||Immigration and Naturalization Services||The Family Fairness policy is extended to spouses of IRCA-eligible people. The extension serves as a bridge to a legislation that is passed as part of the Immigration Act of 1990.|
|1990||?||Landmark legislation||Immigration and Naturalization Services||The Immigration Act of 1990 is signed into law by President George H. W. Bush. While mostly focused on legal temporary and permanent immigration, some provisions of the Act are relevant to enforcement. In particular, the Family Unity Policy passed as part of the Act supersedes the Family Fairness executive action.|
|1993||January 20||Leadership change||Executive branch||Democratic politician Bill Clinton becomes President of the United States, after defeating incumbent George H. W. Bush in elections.|
|1993||March 11||Leadership change||U.S. Department of Justice||Janet Reno becomes Attorney General.|
|1993||October 18||Leadership change||Immigration and Naturalization Services||Doris Meissner becomes INS Commissioner.|
|1994||January 1||Treaty or trade agreement||Executive branch||The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) comes into force. The agreement is between the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Though primarily pertaining to trade, the agreement also includes some provisions on facilitating easier movement across borders, and in particular leads to the TN visa.|
|1996||April 24||Legislation (adjacent)||Executive branch||The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 is signed into law by President Bill Clinton after passing both chambers of the 104th United States Congress. Though not focused on migration, the Act has provisions related to the removal and exclusion of alien terrorists and modification of asylum procedures.|
|1996||September 30||Legislation (landmark)||Immigration and Naturalization Services||Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 is signed into law by President Bill Clinton after passing both chambers of the 104th United States Congress. It includes a number of provisions facilitating various forms of immigration enforcement that would be rolled out over the next two decades.|
|1997||Legislation||Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act|
|1998||Legislation||American Competitiveness and Workforce Improvement Act (ACWIA).|
|2000||Legislation||American Competitiveness in the 21st Century Act (AC21).|
|2000||December 21||Legislation||Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent United States Citizenship and Immigration Services||The Legal Immigration Family Equity Act is passed. Among other things, the Act allows for the overlooking of unauthorized presence in the United States for people who have been in the queue for permanent residency for a long time. The Act primarily references immigrant processing functions now under USCIS rather than enforcement functions, but also contains some protection from removal proceedings. Specifically, protection from removal proceedings begins after the Form I-485 (green card application) is filed; people who are eligible for legalization in the future through this Act but are still in the queue may be subject to removal proceedings.|
|2004||Treaty or trade agreement||USCIS, U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs||The Singapore–United States Free Trade Agreement and Chile–United States Free Trade Agreementbecomes active. While mostly focused on trade, the agreement gives rise to the H-1B1 visa (available to people from Singapore and Chile), providing another option for people from the two countries who want to work in the United States.|
|2004||Legislation||USCIS, U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs||H-1B Visa Reform Act of 2004 and L-1 Visa Reform Act of 2004.|
|2005||Treaty or trade agreement||USCIS, U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs||The Australia–United States Free Trade Agreement becomes active. While pertaining mostly to trade, the Agreement also leads to the creation of the E-3 visa category, making it easier for people from Australia to come to the United States temporarily for work.|
|2013||March 27 to May 21||Port of entry processing||CBP Office of Field Operations||Form I-94 is made electronic at air and sea ports. The announcement in the Federal Register occurs on March 27, and the rollout happens from April 30 to May 21.|
- Timeline of immigration enforcement in the United States
- Timeline of Chinese immigration to the United States
- Timeline of migration-related nongovernmental organizations in the United States
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