Timeline of immigration enforcement in the United States

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This page provides a timeline of key events related to immigration enforcement in the United States. The focus is on enforcement activities such as those carried out by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, specifically the United States Border Patrol.

The following are not covered here: processing of entry of people at ports of entry (carried out by the CBP Office of Field Operations), laws and policies affecting visa processing and processing of immigrant and non-immgrant statuses within the United States (carried out by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs and the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services). However, exceptions are made when these actions tie in directly with immigration enforcement actions (e.g., in cases where some groups are being protected from immigration enforcement, or databases are set up to allow cooperation between these agencies and enforcement agencies).

Laws and programs that prevent aliens (unauthorized, or others) from accessing general public services or private employment or community participation opportunities are also included here.

Big picture

Time period People in charge Key developments
Prior to 1891 Many people There is no immigration enforcement to speak of. The only enforcement that occurs is at ports of entry, and this begins with the Immigration Act of 1882.
1891 to (approximately) 1986 Many people There is very little systematic immigration enforcement, either at the border or in the interior (excluding immigrant processing at ports of entry). Immigration enforcement happens in waves, with large, one-off operations such as the Mexican repatriation and Operation Wetback.
1983-1992 President: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush
Attorney General: Edwin Meese, Dick Thornburgh
INS Commissioner: Alan C. Nelson
The time period begins with the Immigration and Reform Control Act of 1986 that combines an amnesty with stricter border and interior enforcement. The period sees the creation of SAVE (a program to help determine an alien's eligibility based on immigration status), a deferred action program (the Reagan/Bush Family Fairness Programs), further tweaks to paths to legal status (the Immigration Act of 1990), and significant increases in resources available to the INS.
1993-2000 President: Bill Clinton
Attorney General: Janet Reno
INS Commissioner: Doris Meissner
This period is marked by significant growth of the enforcement machinery as well as enabling legislation. On the legislation side are the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (known as "welfare reform"). Enforcement includes the launch of E-Verify and the expansion of SAVE, as well as border operations such as Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line. Toward the end of the period, programs such as expedited removal and reinstatement of removal, authorized by IIRIRA, launch.
2001-2008 President: George W. Bush
INS Commissioner: James Ziglar
Secretary for Homeland Security: Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff
The September 11 attacks in 2001 result in a significant increase in focus on border security, and combating terrorism becomes an important focus of visa policy and immigration enforcement. The INS is disbanded and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is created; functions of the INS are transferred to new sub-agencies of this department. The period sees continued expansion of removal methods such as expedited removal and stipulated removal, the end of catch and release, and a number of enforcement initiatives such as Operation Endgame, Operation Front Line, Operation Streamline, Operation Jump Start, and Operation Return to Sender. Legislative efforts towards Comprehensive Immigration Reform fail.
2009-2016 President: Barack Obama
Secretary for Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano, Jeh Johnson
The era begins with continued ramp-up by the Obama administration of policies initiated in the Bush era, such as Secure Communities. State governments, beginning with Arizona, pass or attempt to pass legislation that uses state and local government resources to help enforce federal immigration law, leading to lawsuits. Starting with the 2011 Morton memos and the 2012 announcement of DACA, the Obama administration begins to carve out subsets of the unauthorized alien population that it will not try to deport, so that they can continue to live more easily in United States civil society.
2017 President: Donald Trump
Secretary for Homeland Security: John F. Kelly
The election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States could yield stronger immigration enforcement. Trump begins with a controversial "Muslim ban" that is overthrown by courts.

Full timeline

Year Month and date (if available) Event type Affected agencies (past, and present equivalents) Details
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.[1][2][3][4] It also creates an Office of Superintendent of Immigration, and places it under the Department of the Treasury.[5]
1904 Program rollout Executive branch Mounted watchmen under the United States Department of Commerce and Labor (which is tasked with immigrant processing and immigration enforcement) begin patrolling the border. However, efforts are sporadic. This is an early predecessor to what would later become the United States Border Patrol.
1915 March Program rollout Executive branch The United States Congress authorizes a separate group of mounted guards, called "mounted inspectors", who use horses, automobiles, motorcycles, and boats to patrol the border. However, these inspectors were immigration inspectors as well, i.e., they were juggling the job of processing entry at ports of entry along with patrolling the rest of the border. (Presently, the functions of immigrant processing and border monitoring are handled by separate divisions -- CBP Office of Field Operations and United States Border Patrol).
1924 May 28 Organizational restructuring United States Border Patrol The United States Border Patrol is created as an agency of the United States Department of Labor by the Labor Appropriations Act of 1924, to prevent illegal entries along the Mexico–United States border and Canada–United States border.[6] The first station is set up in Detroit, Michigan in June 1924.[7] The next station opens in July, 1924, in El Paso, Texas.[8]
1929 Program rollout Executive branch The Mexican Repatriation begins. It is an effort to deport people of Mexican origin and Mexican descent, including those who arrived both legally and illegally, and also including some who are United States citizens. It is initiated by President Herbert Hoover in the wake of the stock market crash of 1929. The program ends in 1936. Exact numbers of people affected are unclear, though estimates range from 500,000 to 2,000,000. One reason for the unclear estimates is that a lot of people leave voluntarily in the face of the depression, and some of them leave partly because of harassment by authorities (that is part of the repatriation program). The program ends in 1936.[9][10] American federal and state authorities blame Mexicans for the overall economic downturn,[11] and target Mexicans because of "the proximity of the Mexican border, the physical distinctiveness of mestizos, and easily identifiable barrios."[12]:29
1954 May Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services INS Commissioner Joseph Swing initiates Operation Wetback, a large-scale operation to crack down on illegal immigration from Mexico for agricultural labor. The program is launched while the Bracero program, a guest worker program for agricultural labor, is active. Despite the availability of the Bracero program, many employers and workers choose not to use the program because of the high compliance costs.
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.[13]
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).[14]
1985 February Leadership change U.S. Department of Justice Edwin Meese becomes United States Attorney General.[15][16] 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.[17]
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.[18]
1987 (approx)  ? Benefits management Immigration and Naturalization Services; federal, state, and local agencies that use thesystem The Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) program gets started.[19][20]
1988 Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Also involves interfacing with local law enforcement agencies The INS launches two programs: the Institutional Removal Program (IRP) and Alien Criminal Apprehension Program (ACAP), that are predecessors to what is now known as the Criminal Alien Program (CAP). The current program is managed by ICE.[21][22]
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 {resident 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.[23][24]
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.[13][25][26]
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.[27][28]
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.[29][30]
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 September 19 Program rollout United States Border Patrol Operation Hold the Line launches, initially with the name Operation Blockade, in the El Paso, Texas border sector. The operation is headed by Silvestre Reyes, the head of the El Paso Border Control at the time.[31][32]
1993 October 18 Leadership change Immigration and Naturalization Services Doris Meissner becomes INS Commissioner.[33][34]
1994 October 1 Program rollout United States Border Patrol Operation Gatekeeper is launched under Attorney General Janet Reno and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. The initial launch is at Imperial Beach Station in the San Diego Sector of the United States Border Patrol.[35]
1994 November (?) State ballot California A statewide ballot is held in California for California Proposition 187 (also known as the Save Our State (SOS) Initiative), an initiative to establish a statewide citizenship screening system and prohibit unauthorized aliens from accessing non-emergency healthcare, public education, and other services.[36] The initiative passes with a 59% vote.
1995 Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Stipulated removal is launched with the stated goal of alleviating overcrowding in federal, state, and local detention centers.[37]
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 August 22 Legislation (adjacent) Numerous federal and state government agencies Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act is signed into law by President Bill Clinton after passing both chambers of the 104th United States Congress. Though not focused on migration, the legislation includes provisions restricting migrant access to the welfare state, and would lead to expansion in the use of SAVE.
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 April 1 Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalents: U.S. Customs and Border Protection and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement The new, enhanced reinstatement of removal, as authorized by IIRIRA, becomes active.[38]
1997 April Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent: U.S. Customs and Border Protection Expedited removal begins to be applied gainst noncitizens seeking admission at designated ports of entry. Legal authority for expedited removal was present in the IIRIRA.[39][40]
1997 Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent United States Citizenship and Immigration Services E-Verify launches as the Basic Pilot Program. Employers enrolled in the program will have immigration records checked for any new employee, to alert employers to cases where their employees may be unauthorized to live and work in the United States. E-Verify would share some backend systems with SAVE.[41][42]
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.[43][44][45]
2001 January 20 Leadership change Executive branch Republican politician George W. Bush becomes President of the United States, after defeating incumbent vice-president and Democratic politician Al Gore in a closely contested election.
2001 September 11 Terrorist attack The September 11 attacks occur. These attacks, killing about 3000 people, lead to changes in the United States' border security and immigration enforcement apparatus.
2001 October 8 Leadership change U.S. Department of Homeland Security Tom Ridge becomes Assistant to the President on Homeland Security (to President George W. Bush), in preparation for the creation of a U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The move is a response to the September 11 attacks.[46]
2002 Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalent U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and state government of Florida The first 287(g) agreement is signed with the government of Florida. Under a 287(g) agreement, the INS (later, the ICE) provides training to some local law enforcement officers, who then use the training to identify people who might be removable aliens, and refer them for removal. 287(g) programs were named so after Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was added by the IIRIRA in 1996, but the first signed agreement happens only in 2002.[47]
2002 November Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalents: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement INS expands the application of expedited removal to people satisfying these three conditions:[39][48] (1) entered the U.S. by sea, either by boat or other means, (2) were not admitted or paroled into the U.S., (3) have not been continuously present in the U.S. for at least two years.
2002 November Program rollout Immigration and Naturalization Services; current equivalents: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services The credible fear screening process is introduced by the INS.[40][49] The introduction of this process is to address concerns about the wrongful removal of people eligible for asylum through the expanded expedited removal process.
2002 November 25 Organizational restructuring U.S. Department of Homeland Security The United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) comes into formal existence. Eventually, the functions handled by the INS (which was under the Department of Justice) would move to the DHS.
2003 March 1 Organizational restructuring Immigration and Naturalization Services and U.S. Department of Homeland Security The Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) (that was under the Department of Justice) is disbanded. Its functions are divided into three sub-agencies of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
2003 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, specifically the subdivision Detention and Removal Operations (DRO); current equivalent of subdivision is Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) The Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) office inside U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launches Operation Endgame with the goal of removing all removable aliens and suspected terrorists.[50][51]
2003 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement The National Fugitive Operations Program (NFOP) is created.[52] While part of ICE's efforts to deport criminal aliens, it is not part of the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) under which other related initiatives fall.[21]
2004 to 2008 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement United States Congress increases funding for the Criminal Alien Program significantly.[22]
2004 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Operation Frontline, a secretive government program aiming to capture and/or deport terrorists in the United States, is launched. Not much information about the program becomes publicly known. The program has been cited as an example of how the NSEERS has been used for profiling foreign-born people in the United States.[53][54][55]
2004 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement The use of stipulated removal is expanded significantly, under President George W. Bush.[37][56]
2004 Program rollout U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Expedited removal is expanded to apply to all parts of the United States within 100 miles of a land or sea border. It would apply only to people in the United States for less than 14 days, and only to third-country nationals or people with past criminal and immigration violations.[39]
2005 February 15 Leadership change U.S. Department of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff takes over as Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, succeeding Tom Ridge.[57]
2005 September Program rollout U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement The rollout of expedited removal is completed to all nine Border Patrol sectors along with Southwestern United States border.[39]
2005 October Program rollout U.S. Customs and Border Protection (specifically, Border Patrol) Michael Chertoff, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, announces that the catch and release policy would be phased out.[58][59] He confirms completion of the phase-out in late July 2006,[60] providing more details in August 2006 on how the policy might have reduced border-crossing.[61][62]
2005 December Program rollout U.S. Customs and Border Protection (specifically, Border Patrol) working together with U.S. Department of Justice An initial version of Operation Streamline is launched by the United States Border Patrol for Del Rio, Texas in response to a significant increase in the number of apprehended non-Mexican migrants, from 10,000 in 2004 to 15,000 in 2005.[63]
2005 Proposed legislation Executive branch A bill called the Border Protection, Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, sponsored by Jim Sensenbrenner, passes the House but fails to make it through the Senate. The bill includes a number of provisions for stricter interior immigration enforcement, including penalties for people who aid and abet unauthorized aliens. It is the impetus for the 2006 United States immigration reform protests.
2006 March Program rollout U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement The rollout of expedited removal to the entire United States border zone is completed.
2006 May Program rollout U.S. Customs and Border Protection (specifically, United States Border Patrol) and United States National Guard Operation Jump Start is launched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection working along with the United States National Guard. The National Guard helps man the border and build a border fence.[64][65]
2006 May 26 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE launches Operation Return to Sender, aiming to locate and deport the most dangerous illegal immigrants (including convicted felons and gang members) with a particular focus on Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members.[66][67]
2006 October 26 Legislation United States Border Patrol The Secure Fence Act of 2006 is signed into law by President George W. Bush, after passing both chambers of the 109th United States Congress.[68]
2008 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local law enforcement agencies The initial rollout of the Secure Communities program begins.[69] Secure Communities operates within the framework of ICE's Criminal Alien Program (CAP).[21]
2009 January 20 Leadership change Executive branch Democratic politician Barack Obama becomes President of the United States, after winning the Democratic primary with chief opponent Hillary Clinton, and a general election with Republican opponent John McCain.
2009 January 21 Leadership change U.S. Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, nominee of incoming President Barack Obama, becomes Secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, succeeding outgoing President George W. Bush's nominee Michael Chertoff.
2009 May 12 Leadership change U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement John T. Morton becomes director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.[70]
2010 April 23 State law Arizona Arizona governer Jan Brewer signs into law Arizona SB 1070 (Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act).[71] The Act makes it a state misdemeanor for aliens to not carrying registration documents (which is the green card for permanent residents and Form I-94 for most others) (this was already a federal misdemeanor per the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, though not enforced in practice). In addition, police officers are required to determine an individual's immigration status during a "lawful stop, detention, or arrest" when there is a reasonable suspicion that the person may be an illegal immigrant. The law also bars local officials and agencies from restricting enforcement of federal immigration laws. Scheduled to go live on July 29, 2010, the enforcement of the Act was delayed due to legal challenges. Some of its provisions were struck down, and some went live in June 2012.[72][73][74] The Act would inspire a lot of similar legislation and attempted legislation in other states over the next few years.[75]
2011 June 9 State law Alabama Alabama governor Robert J. Bentley signs Alabama HB 56, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, into law.[76]
2011 June 17 Enforcement priorities U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ICE director John T. Morton issues a memo on prosecutorial discretion, specifying enforcement priorities for ICE agents.[77][78][79] A second memo pertaining to prosecutorial discretion for witnesses and victims of crime was also issued on the same day.[80][79] The two memos are collectively known as the Morton memos and mark an important milestone in top-down directives on the use of prosecutorial discretion.
2012 June 15 Deferred action, enforcement priorities Executive branch, mainly USCIS and ICE United States President Barack Obama announces Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), also known as the de facto DREAM Act (due to its similarity to proposed legislation called the DREAM Act. This establishes temporary status for people who arrived in the United States as young children, allowing them to work in the United States and deferring their deportations.[81][82]
2013 January 22 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local law enforcement agencies The rollout of Secure Communities to all 3,181 jurisdictions in the United States is completed.[69]
2013 October 5 State law California California governor Jerry Brown signs the California Trust Act into law. The Act limits cooperation by state and local agencies with the ICE's Secure Communities program.[83][84]
2013 December 23 Leadership change U.S. Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson becomes Secretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, succeeding Acting Secretary Rand Beers.
2014 November 20 Deferred action, enforcement priorities U.S. Department of Homeland Security President Barack Obama announces a number of executive actions on immigration. Some of these involve the creation of deferred action categories and permissions for various aliens to work in the United States.[85] The other actions center around enforcement priorities, and are marked by two memos issued by Jeh Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security: one announcing updated enforcement priorities, and another discontinuing the Secure Communities program and replacing it with the Priority Enforcement Program.[86][87]
2014 December 23 Leadership change U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Sarah R. Saldaña is sworn in as the fourth director of ICE.[70]
2017 January 20 Leadership change Executive branch Republican politician Donald Trump becomes President of the United States, after defeating Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton in the general election.
2017 January 20 Leadership change U.S. Department of Homeland Security John Kelly, nominee of President Donald Trump, becomes Secretary of Homeland Security (the person in charge of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) succeeding Obama nominee Jeh Johnson.
2017 January 25 Program rollout U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, local law enforcement agencies Secure Communities is revived through Executive Order 13768 by newly elected President Donald Trump.[69]
2017 January 27 Executive order U.S. Customs and Border Protection (specifically, Office of Field Operations), U.S. Department of State (specifically, Bureau of Consular Affairs) One week into his presidency, Donald Trump signs Executive Order 13769, immediately suspending the entry of people (and issuance of new visas to people) from seven countries listed as State Sponsors of Terrorism.[88]

See also

References

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