History of Immigration Discrimination

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“The Anti-Chinese Wall” Cartoon

This 1882 cartoon shows stereotypical imagery of laborers, among whom are Irishmen, an African American, a Civil War veteran, Italian, Frenchman, and a Jew, building a wall against the Chinese. Congressional mortar is used to mount blocks of prejudice, non-reciprocity, law against race, fear, etc. Across the sea, a ship flying the American flag enters China, as the Chinese knock down their own wall and permit trade of such goods as rice, tea, and silk.

Table of Contents

History of Immigration Discrimination

History of Immigration Detention

History of Immigration Discrimination

Racist History of Illegal Immigration | Racist America History

Timeline of Immigration Discrimination

Click on each link to learn more

  • Naturalization Act (1790)
    • Restricted citizenship to free white people who had been in the U.S. for two years
      • Left out indentured servants, slaves, most women, Asian immigrants, etc
      • The right to vote, serve on juries and hold office was exclusively reserved for American citizens
  • 14th Amendment (1868)
    • Gave African Americans access to citizenship
      • Left out other non white people
  • Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)

PBS: The Chinese Exclusion Act

  • United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)
    • Determined the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted birthright citizenship to all persons born in the US regardless of race or nationality
  • Naturalization Act (1906)
    • Forced immigrants to learn English to become citizens
    • Maintained citizenship for white and black people only
  • The Immigration Act (1917) (Asiatic Barred Zone Act)
    • Law imposed literacy tests on immigrants
    • Banned new categories of “undesirables”
    • Barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone
  • The Immigration Act of 1924
    • It limited the overall number of immigrants
    • Established quotas based on nationality
    • Reduced immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa
    • Completely restricted immigrants from Asia, except for Japan and the Philippines.
    • At the same time it increased visas available to people from Britain and Western Europe
  • Mexican Repatriation (1929-1936)
    • Due to Dust Bowl/Great Depression 500,000-2 million Mexican workers, 60% US citizens, were deported
      • This was considered ethnic cleansing

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca: Deportations on Trial: Mexican Americans During the Great Depression

From the late 1920s to the late 1930s, men, women, and children, immigrant and U.S.- born, citizen and noncitizen, longtime residents and temporary workers all became the targets of a massive campaign of forced relocation, based solely on their perceived status as “Mexican.” They were rounded up in parks, at work sites, and in hospitals, betrayed by local relief agencies who reported anyone with a “Mexican sounding” name to what was then the Immigration Service, tricked and terrorized into “voluntary” deportation by municipal and state officials, and forcibly deported in trains and buses, to a country some hadn’t lived in for decades and others never at all.

Historian Mae M. Ngai argues that this 1930s campaign of mass deportations had little to do with law; it was a program of “racial expulsion,” rooted in racism. But unlike other racist and nativist efforts of the era, these deportations were not symbolized or driven by any signature piece of legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Immigration Act of 1924. Rather, they were orchestrated using a patchwork of federal and local authority, existing but seldom used deportation rules, and simple mob action against a vulnerable population.


  • Operation Wetback (1954)
    • Mass deportation of over a million migrant workers
    • Campaign of fear against immigrants
    • Mass human rights violations, Due process suspended for many
    • 100s died in poor transportation situations
    • 100s of US citizens deported
  • Congress terminated the bracero program (1964)
    • Gov guest worker program that, since the 1940s, had permitted millions of Mexicans to work legally in the United States.
    • Overnight millions of Latin American migrant workers who used to be “legal” became “illegal”
  • Immigration and Nationality Act (1965)
    • Eliminated the quota system based on nationality, significantly helping Asian immigrants
    • Prioritized immigrants who already had family members in the U.S.
    • Offered protection to refugees from areas with violence and conflict
    • Introduced for the first time a cap on Latin American immigrants allowed to be in the US

VOX: The racist history of US immigration policy

VOA: US Has Long History of Restricting Immigrants

“The U.S. Constitution, which went into effect in 1789, gave Congress “absolute authority” over immigration law, says Linda Monk, who wrote a book about the Constitution called “The Words We Live By.” The president executes those laws through regulations.

For about the first 100 years of American history, Congress did not place any federal limits on immigration.

During those years, Irish and German immigrants came to the U.S. in large numbers. Many Chinese immigrants did, too. In the 1860s, they came to work as laborers on the continental railroad and stayed.

Members of the American public disapproved of these groups. They did not like the Catholic religion that many Irish and German immigrants practiced. And they did not like Asian immigrants, whom they viewed as convicts, prostitutes, or competition for jobs.

So, in the late 1800s, Congress moved for the first time to limit the number of immigrants. Lawmakers targeted Asians, especially Chinese. The Page Act and the Chinese Exclusion Act banned most Chinese women and workers.

Restrictions on other nationalities

By the turn of the 20th century, the U.S. federal government had increased its role in immigration. It established Ellis Island in New York as the entry point for immigrants. And it oversaw a dramatic increase in the number of immigrants, especially from Italy and Eastern Europe. Many of the new arrivals were uneducated and had little money.

Once again, some people opposed the number and kind of immigrants entering the country. A group called the Immigration Restriction League was formed. They petitioned Congress to require immigrants to show that they could at least read.

Both Presidents Grover Cleveland and President Woodrow Wilson opposed the requirement. But in 1917, Congress approved the measure over Wilson’s objections. People who wished to settle in the U.S. now had to pass a literacy test.

In the 1920s, restrictions on immigration increased. The Immigration Act of 1924 was the most severe: it limited the overall number of immigrants and established quotas based on nationality. Among other things, the act sharply reduced immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa. And it completely restricted immigrants from Asia, except for Japan and the Philippines.

At the same time, the historian’s page at the State Department notes that the act made more visas available to people from Britain and Western Europe.

“In all of its parts, the most basic purpose of the 1924 Immigration Act was to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” the State Department history page concludes.

Major change

During the 1940s and 50s, the U.S. made some policy changes that increased – however slightly – the number and nationalities of immigrants.

Then, in 1965, a major change happened. Under pressure in part from the civil rights movement, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act. President Lyndon Johnson signed it.

The act eliminated the quota system based on nationality. Instead, it prioritized immigrants who already had family members in the U.S. It also sought to offer protection to refugees from areas with violence and conflict.

Even though the act kept some limits in place, the origins of immigrants changed dramatically. Instead of being from Western Europe, most immigrants to the U.S. by the end of the 20th century were originally from Mexico, the Philippines, Korea, the Dominican Republic, India, Cuba and Vietnam.”

LA Times: How grandma got legal

Today’s immigrants aren’t like our ancestors, some say. U.S. history says otherwise.

“‘MADE IN America — by immigrants” and “We too have a dream” read signs at the May 1 marches across the country. By invoking an American ideal, today’s newcomers are staking their claim as the latest generation of nation-builders. But their critics object to this appeal to history; they resent comparisons to previous generations of immigrants, who were legal.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), for example, says his grandparents — Dutch immigrants who settled in Nebraska — didn’t try to get ahead by breaking the law. Rather, they made it through “frugality … hard work, grit, honesty,” he says. “They would be very upset about people who didn’t do it the right way.”

Such comparisons between past and present miss a crucial point. There were so few restrictions on immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries that there was no such thing as “illegal immigration.” The government excluded a mere 1% of the 25 million immigrants who landed at Ellis Island before World War I, mostly for health reasons. (Chinese were the exception, excluded on grounds of “racial unassimilability.”)

What’s more, statutes of limitations of one to five years meant that even those here unlawfully did not live forever with the specter of deportation.

In the early 1900s, immigrants from Europe provided cheap, unskilled labor that made possible the nation’s industrial and urban expansion. They shoveled pig iron, dug sewers and subway tunnels and sewed shirtwaists. Even then, people born in the U.S. complained that the newcomers stole jobs, were ignorant, criminal and showed no desire to become citizens. The rhetoric was often unabashedly prejudiced against Italians, Jews, Poles and other “degraded races of Europe.”

In the conservative climate after World War I, Congress slammed shut the golden door. For the first time, the U.S. imposed numerical limits on immigration. Congress gave the smallest quotas to Eastern and Southern European countries and excluded all Asians; it also created the U.S. Border Patrol and eliminated statutes of limitations on deportation. It exempted countries of the Western Hemisphere, however, in deference to agricultural labor needs and the State Department’s tradition of pan-Americanism.

These quotas created illegal immigration as a mass phenomenon. And since that time, Americans have been of two minds about the problem. We want restrictions on immigration, but we hesitate to execute mass deportations. Congress has thus pursued border control, on the one hand, and legalization of the undocumented on the other.

Our legalization policies recognized that once a person settled here, had a family, a job and a home, he or she became a part of society. Separating families was seen as detrimental to individuals and society, and deportation was likened to banishment.

Here’s how hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants — mostly Europeans — became legal:

* The Registry Act of 1929 allowed immigrants who arrived before 1921 but had no record of their admission to register retroactively, for a $20 fee.

* From 1935 to the late 1950s, to keep families together, tens of thousands of Europeans unlawfully in the U.S. were allowed temporarily to go to Canada and reenter the States legally as a permanent resident.

* In 1940, Congress authorized the suspension of orders of deportation in cases of hardship, which it defined as “serious economic detriment” to the immigrant’s immediate family. The guidelines have become less generous, but the principle remains in the law.

In 1965, the U.S. repealed racial restrictions against Southern and Eastern Europeans and Asians, but the 1965 law also imposed quotas for the first time on Western Hemisphere countries. That created illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America.

The 1986 immigration reforms addressed the problem by legalizing nearly 3 million undocumented workers. It also called for increased enforcement — which didn’t stop illegal immigration, it just made it more dangerous.

President Bush wants Congress to provide today’s undocumented immigrants with a pathway to citizenship, to establish a guest worker program and to add the National Guard to police efforts at the border. History is only partly on his side.

Providing a route to legalization — even one that is much less generous than we’ve offered in the past — at least adheres to precedent. But history shows that as long as we restrict the number of legal entries, there will be a parallel stream of unauthorized ones, even with tough enforcement laws. And the European experience with guest worker programs should warn us that guests don’t always go home when they are supposed to.

To really tackle the problem, we might consider updating other policies from the nation’s past. Reinstituting a statute of limitations on deportation would limit the numbers of undocumented people in the country. We could also raise the ceiling on legal admissions — or eliminate it, especially for neighboring countries. This is not such a radical idea: The North American Free Trade Agreement has already lowered barriers to the movement of capital and products, and citizens of European Union states have free movement within the EU.

Legalizing the undocumented is just and humane. But unless we address the restrictions on legal admission that do so much to cause illegal entries, the cycle of enforcement and legalization will continue.”

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History of Immigration Detention

Rise of Immigration Detention: Clinton and Bush Junior

  • Early 1990s had higher tolerance for immigrants
    • Reagan’s 1986 amnesty law legalizing most illegal immigrants who came before 1982
    • 1990 immigration bill to increase number of accepted immigrants
      • Bush Senior states, “it recognizes the fundamental importance and historic contributions of immigrants to our country.”
  • Tolerance starts to reverse by mid 90s
    • By 1993, Clinton proclaims, “that America would not surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice.”
  • 1994 California’s Proposition 187
    • Falsely blamed immigrants for the recession and economy
    • Wanted to deny all public services to immigrants
    • Began wave of anti-immigrant rhetoric & policies across country
  • Clinton’s 1996 laws
    • Set of laws that expanded the U.S. immigration detention system by expanding the list of “crimes of moral turpitude,” including non-violent drug and other charges, for which both legal immigrants and undocumented non-citizens can be subjected to mandatory detention and deportation.
      • Significantly increased the people detained and deported
  • Increased immigration enforcement budget
    • Between 1990 and 2002, the budget of the Immigration and Naturalization Service increased fivefold.
  • ICE operation Endgame
      • Set 100% “removal” of all “removable aliens.”
        • Grandparents and children, business owners and colleagues, students and caregivers: All became the targets of ICE.
      • Claimed this was for security but never defended how this was to improved security
      • Budget for immigration enforcement double from $6.2 billion in 2002 to $12.5 billion in 2006.
  • Sept 11 new agencies and policies
    • Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)
    • Bush Jr moved immigration management from DOJ to DHS, reframing immigration as a security issue.

Rise of Immigration Detention: Obama and Trump

  • Obama continued immigration enforcement as a security issue trend
    • By 2013,
      • US was spending more on immigration enforcement than on FBI, Secret Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and all other federal criminal law enforcement agencies combined
        • Holding more people in immigration detention than those serving sentences in the federal prison system
      • In 2014 started Family case management program
        • Instead of detaining asylum seekers, assigned them case managers to guide them through the complex process
          • Costs 1/10 cost of detaining and had a 99% rate for showing up to hearings
        • Trump canceled this program in 2017

“The Obama administration later tried to re-prioritize ICE’s operations by focusing the deportation force on “felons, not families.” Yet this guidance not only rested on a false dichotomy (felons have families, after all) but also reinforced the fusion of immigration and “threat” in the public conversation. Although advocacy efforts, court challenges and public criticism pushed the administration to narrow its enforcement priorities in 2014 and resulted in a decline in ICE arrests, the deportation machinery remained robust” Carly Goodma, Angry that ICE is ripping families apart? Don’t just blame Trump. Blame Clinton, Bush and Obama, too.

  • Trump’s Zero Tolerance
    • Presidential campaign full of anti-immigrant rhetoric
    • Immediately signed executive order to
      • Double number of ICE officers
      • Deputized more local police departments to track down immigrants
      • Broadened ICE priorities
      • Limited due process and discretion
    • As DHS secretary, John Kelly authorized ICE to take action against all “removable noncitizens”
    • Trump admin introduces zero tolerance
      • Criminally prosecute all unauthorized immigrant
      • Family separation policies were created as parents were held in federal detentions

GQ: How the Trump Administration’s Border Camps Fit into the History of Concentration Camps

People today tend to think of Nazi death camps as defining the term “concentration camp.” But before World War II, this phrase was used to describe the detention of civilians without trial based on group identity. During a rebellion in Cuba in 1896, the Spanish Empire swept rural peasants—mostly women and children—off the land. Declaring them a threat, Spanish forces held them behind barbed wire in fortified cities. Around 150,000 people died. Three years later, America opened its own concentration camps for women and children as part of an effort to suppress a revolt in the Philippines during the Philippine-American War.

Around the globe in southern Africa, the British government opened its own concentration camps in the new century, embracing civilian detention as a civilizing force for an “uncultured” people. Unsanitary camp conditions and inadequate food triggered medical crises. By the time the British moved to address the disaster they had created, it was too late for many detainees. Tens of thousands of children died.

These camps opened and closed in different settings but never vanished from the face of the earth. In southern France during the Spanish Civil War, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled across the border, ending up in camps without sanitation or food. In Myanmar in 2012, more than a hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims were segregated into camps that left the community vulnerable to ethnic cleansing years later.

Today’s U.S.-Mexico border camps are the heirs of these concentration camps. Putting people in similar conditions will unleash illness and death. The more people who are detained, the larger these crises will become.

By the time a country gets to the point that those in power and a majority of their supporters embrace policies that back up virulent rhetoric and accept detention as the central response to a political or humanitarian problem, it is very difficult to undo.

From its first days, the Trump administration has mouthed dehumanizing rhetoric about migrants. On the day Trump announced his candidacy, he fired his opening salvo against Mexicans, and, as president, he has only continued in the same vein about all migrants crossing the southern border. Setting up measures like a weekly immigrant crime report during the first weeks of the administration, the White House underlined the president’s antagonistic approach.

In a tweet on Monday night, Trump wrote about plans for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to initiate mass immigration arrests and removal: “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States. They will be removed as fast as they come in.” While the scope of deportation that Trump is threatening appears to be unlikely given current resources, attempts at mass deportation typically cause additional detention crises, in transit camps and at transportation sites charged with moving detainees. This operation will only further degrade the system.

This year, we have seen the border camps grow and the declaration of a phony national emergency that is turning into a real one. If the administration were focused on humanitarian issues, these facilities might have more in common with refugee camps. But the administration has repeatedly lied about family separation, claiming at first that it wasn’t happening, while taking children from parents as a form of deterrence. President Trump’s antipathy to Mexicans and Central Americans is being transformed into policy at the highest levels of the most powerful government in the world. In combination with miserable conditions on the ground and brutal acts by agents charged with enforcement, U.S. detention camps—which were already abysmal under several prior presidents—have evolved into a more dangerous entity.

Decades of stoking resentment have polarized views on immigration. Embracing harsh rhetoric in 1993, President Clinton helped reverse tolerance for migrants by proclaiming that America would not “surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice.” During his administration, the Republican Congress went further, expanding detention broadly for migrants, reducing their ability to get legal representation, and making it easier to deport them. Clinton embraced this legislation, and future administrations followed suit.

Even if additional resources are provided for those in detention, if those resources are accompanied by further militarization of the border, the administration’s policies will be working at cross purposes with each other. If the detention-centered approach is kept, no amount of aid will keep these camps from becoming part of the American landscape for years to come. Arresting immigrants for even minor infractions and ramping up detentions at the border, the administration has also rescinded Obama-era easing of some rules for migrants with U.S.-born children or no criminal record, thereby expanding a backlog of cases that already stretched for years. Intentionally jamming a faltering system can overload it beyond repair.

A camp in a country in which the leader openly expresses animosity toward those interned, in which a government detains people and harms them by separating children from their parents or deliberately putting them in danger, is much closer to a concentration camp than a refugee camp. Nothing we are doing is likely to repeat Auschwitz, or to come anywhere close to it. But the history of concentration camps shows us that when it comes to this kind of detention, even when a government isn’t plotting a genocide, shocking numbers of people can still end up hurt—or dead.

Freedom for Immigrants: A short history of immigration detention



1790 Naturalization Act – U.S. citizenship may be granted to free white persons of “good moral character”; Native Americans, slaves, indentured servants, free blacks, and Asians were effectively excluded.

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1798 Alien and Sedition Acts – Allowed for deportation of persons deemed “dangerous to the safety and security of the United States”


1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh – Ruling that established the U.S. government’s sovereignty over Indian law and land based on the “doctrine of discovery,” or European colonization of the New World

1830 Indian Removal Act – Set in motion decades of forced removals of Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, and Ponca Native American nations from the southeastern United States, known as the “Trail of Tears”

1850 Fugitive Slave Act – Provided for a federal, bureaucratized system of returning slaves who had absconded from one state to another state or territory

1850 First Privately-Run Prison – California state prison leased out to private management; it was plagued by mismanagement, corruption, and escapes before being returned to state management in 1860.

1865 Passage of the 13th Amendment – This Amendment abolishes slavery, but with a loophole, “except as punishment for crime,” paving the way for the convict lease system that allowed for prison labor to be contracted out to private interests for profit throughout the American South.

1875 Page Act – Banned forced laborers and women suspected of prostitution from Asia

1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act – Prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the United States for 10 years, marking the first class of people excluded based on race. The Act provided for the nation’s first immigration inspectors and a process of deportation.


1889 Chae Chan Ping v. United States – Case challenging the Chinese Exclusion Act, but ruling held that excluding immigrants from entering the country was an extension of sovereignty belonging to the U.S. government. This would come to be known as the “plenary power” doctrine, in which the power to control immigration is conceded to the executive and legislative branches.

1891 Immigration Act – Created the first immigration department, created classes of excludable immigrants, and created new border enforcement procedures

1892 Geary Act – Required all Chinese laborers to register with the government or be subject to arrest, one-year imprisonment, and then deportation


– The first dedicated immigration detention facility in the world, Ellis Island Immigration Station in New Jersey, opened

1893 Fong Yue Ting v. United States – Ruling held that expelling immigrants was an extension of sovereignty belonging to the U.S. government (known as the “plenary power” doctrine); and deportation was not punishment for a crime, and therefore, the Constitutional protections did not apply in these procedures. This case has been cited subsequently by the Supreme Court over eighty times.

1893 – Congress passed the first law requiring the detention of any person not entitled to admission. In their discretion, immigration officers would release some, mostly white,  immigrants on bond.

1896 Wong Wing v. United States – Ruling held that unlawful residency was not a crime, and therefore immigrants unlawfully in the country were to be arrested and forcibly removed from the country without formal imprisonment. This case essentially created the civil immigration detention system by holding, “We think it clear that detention or temporary confinement, as part of the means necessary to give effect to the provisions for the exclusion or expulsion of aliens, would be valid.”


1904 – Guards for the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor began patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border

1907 – The Gentleman’s Agreement, an informal agreement between the United States and Japan, effectively restricting immigration from Japan

1910 – The second dedicated immigration detention facility in the United States, Angel Island Immigration Station in California, opened

1921 Emergency Quota Act – Restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3 percent of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the 1910 census. The formula was designed to favor Western European countries, as they had a higher quota, and drastically limit admission of immigrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act (also known as the National Origins Act and Asian Exclusion Act) – Restricted immigration further to the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 2 percent of the number who were already living in the United States before the 1890 census. Intended to “preserve American homogeneity,” the Johnson-Reed Act provided a pathway to citizenship for European immigrants while restricting Asians, Arabs, and most Africans completely.

1924 American Indian Citizenship Act – Most native peoples did not have citizenship until the passage of this act. Yet even after its passage, some native peoples weren’t allowed to vote until as late as 1957 because the right to vote was governed by state law.

1924 – The U.S. Border Patrol was officially formed through the Labor Appropriation Act.

1928  -The convict leasing system ends, with Alabama being the last state to outlaw it.


1929 Immigration Act – Also known as Senator Coleman Livingston Blease’s bill, this Act targeted Mexicans and undermined rulings in Wong and Ting that decriminalized unlawfully residing in the U.S. Instead, this Act targeted people unlawfully entering the U.S. Unlawful entry would be a misdemeanor punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to 1 year in prison, and unlawfully re-entry would be a felony punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to two years in prison.

1929 to 1936 – Mexican Repatriation occurs throughout the Great Depression, including mass round-ups and deportations of Mexicans and Filipinos. Estimates of total deportations range from 500,000 to 2M, of whom a likely 60% were U.S.-born citizens.

1939 – Over 44,000 cases prosecuted in previous 10 years under the Immigration Act of 1929.  Convictions on immigration charges surpassed all other federal crimes (except for alcohol charges under prohibition laws).

1940 – Angel Island Immigration Station in California closed.

1942 – As a World War II measure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, establishing U.S. sites as military zones and providing for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans over the course of the war, as well as German-Americans and Italian-Americans suspected of serving as enemy spies.

1943 – The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed and replaced with a quota.

1942 Creation of the Bracero Program -It provided temporary agricultural visas for people from Mexico in an effort to fill the World War II farm-labor shortages in the United States

1946 The School of the Americas (SOA) is formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, a U.S. military program (still in effect) to exert imperialistic influence over Latin America and train Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, anti-communism, torture, and surveillance techniques. Former Panamanian president Jorge Illueca has called SOA, which has trained over 60,000 foreign soldiers, the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been forcibly displaced by the effects of this program.


1952 Immigration & Nationality Act – Established the grounds for which a noncitizen can be blocked from entering the United States or deported, including criminal history or radical political views. It also allowed for authorities to use discretion to grant noncitizens release from detention on bond, based on community ties and pending a final determination of removability. This, combined with the end of the era of Chinese Exclusion, led to a decline in the systematic use of immigration detention (except during periods of targeted deportations of Mexicans in the 1950s and Haitians in the 1970s).

1954 – Ellis Island Immigration Station in New Jersey closed.


1954 to 1956 “Operation Wetback” – A targeted immigration enforcement campaign launched by the Eisenhower administration during which over 1M Mexicans, many who arrived under the Bracero Program, were targeted for deportation

1964 Bracero Program ends

1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act – Repealed 1921 national origins quotas, which had insured that immigration was primarily reserved for European immigrants, and replaced it with a preference system based on immigrants’ family relationships with U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. However, by placing limits on immigration from Latin America for the first time, this Act led to a rise in “unauthorized immigration” from this region in subsequent decades.

1966 – Australia opened its first immigration detention facility in the country, the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre.

1970 – First dedicated immigration detention facility in Europe opened in England, the Harmondsworth Detention Centre, although France’s immigration detention regime dates back to 1970, as well.

1980 to 1981 – The United States begins a new round of mass immigration detentions in response to the migration of Cubans in the “Mariel Boatlift,” in addition to Haitians and Central Americans fleeing totalitarian governments and civil war.

1981 – President Ronald Reagan announces a new detention policy aiming to punish and deter Latin American migration, including the detention of asylum seekers. Reagan also launched a renewed “War on Drugs” that would pave the way for the increased militarization of border enforcement and conflation of drug and immigration enforcement through interdiction programs.

1981 – The Reagan administration opens the Fort Allen Detention Center on a former U.S. Navy Base in Puerto Rico to detain Haitians.  This facility was already being constructed by the Carter administration to detain Cuban and Haitian refugees.

1982 – Hong Kong passes an Immigration Bill, leading to the creation of the first immigration detention camps in the country. These are believed to be some of the first facilities in East Asia.

1982 – South Africa opened the first immigration detention center, the Lindela Holding Facility. Previously, immigrants were detained in prisons. This is believed to be one of the first dedicated facilities in Africa, although former European colonies most likely detained immigrants for decades prior.

– The Reagan administration forms its Mass Immigration Emergency Plan, requiring that 10,000 immigration detention beds be located and ready for use at any given time.

1983 – The world’s first private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which changed its name in 2016 to CoreCivic, was formed. CCA enters into its first federal government contract for an immigration detention facility in Texas. Immigrants were first detained at a hotel owned by CCA, while the Houston Contract Detention Facility was being built.

1984 – GEO Group, formerly The Wackenhut Corporation, was formed.

1985 – CCA’s second facility opens in Laredo, Texas, and is the first immigration detention facility to detain infants and children.

1986 The Immigration Reform and Control Act – granted a blanket amnesty for undocumented arrivals and placed sanctions on employers of unauthorized workers; the latter went largely unenforced.

1987 GEO Group wins its first federal government contract for the Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado, an immigration detention facility.

1988 The Anti-Drug Abuse Act – Required the mandatory detention of all non-citizens who had committed an “aggravated felony,” beginning a new era of mandatory immigration detention.

1988 President George H.W. Bush issued a national apology to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, awarding reparations of $20,000 to each family subjected to internment.

1990 – Australia opened its first private prison, run by Corrections Corporation of Australia (CCA), owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)/CoreCivic

1991 – The United States opens an immigration detention facility, the Migrant Operations Center, at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Before this naval base was used to hold prisoners of war indefinitely as part of the “War on Terror,” this facility was used to hold asylum seekers and refugees.

1993 – Following the lead of the United States in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of The Bahamas opens its first dedicated immigration detention facility in the Caribbean, the Carmichael Road Detention Center.

1994 – The United States, Canada, and Mexico enter into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); in effect, resulted in long-term job loss and economic stagnancy in Mexico and the displacement of Mexican small farm operators and workers.

1994 “Operation Gatekeeper” – Border enforcement program under the Clinton administration that provided for the doubling of Border Patrol officers, construction of 5 miles of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California, and additional fencing in Arizona. These measures forced migrant routes into more treacherous desert regions, resulting in increased deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands–over 7,000 as of 2017.

1995 – Series of uprisings in for-profit immigration detention facilities


1996 The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) 

Together known as “The 1996 Laws,” this set of laws has had the greatest impact on expanding the U.S. immigration detention system by expanding the list of “crimes of moral turpitude,” including non-violent drug and other charges, for which both legal immigrants and undocumented non-citizens can be subjected to mandatory detention and deportation. These laws can be applied retroactively, and also impose 3-year, 10-year, and lifetime bars on returning to the U.S. after deportation.


2001 Zadvydas v. Davis – Case limiting the “plenary power doctrine,” or the authority of the U.S. government to detain immigrants indefinitely, if they do not have a country that will receive them after their are ordered deported.

2001 – A terrorist attack launched by the group Al-Qaeda on September 11 hijacked four commercial airplanes and killed 2,753 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, effectively beginning the U.S. “War on Terror.” The U.S. government passes the USA PATRIOT Act to expand surveillance capacities and heightens its targeting of Arab and Muslim immigrants for detention.

2002 – Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison established in Cuba; the base had previously been used as an immigration detention site from the 1970s-90s to detain Cubans and Haitians.

2003 Demore v. Kim – Supreme Court ruling upholding the federal government’s right to detain legal immigrants during deportation proceedings.

2003 Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is dissolved and reformed into three branches: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The immigration detention system now falls under the purview of ICE.

2005 – “Operation Streamline” begins, allowing for the criminal prosecution of people apprehended at the border and to be held in privately-operated Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons and administered by the Bureau of Prisons.

2008 – The Bush administration pilots the “Secure Communities” program, strengthening federal immigration and local law enforcement partnerships.

2009 Immigration Detention Bed Quota – Passed by Congress, DHS must now maintain a minimum of 34,000 detention beds across the country on any given day.

2009 – Obama administration temporarily ends practice of family detention, although the Berks Family Detention Center remains in operation

2011 – The Obama administration expands the “Secure Communities” program, which relies on federal and local law enforcement partnerships to carry out ICE’s detention priorities.

2011 – Ecuador opens Hotel Hernon, followed by Hotel Carrión (opened in 2013). These are the first dedicated detention facilities in South and Central America, although Ecuador passed legislation in 1971 to allow for the detention of unauthorized migrants.

2012 – The Obama administration established the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, providing temporary work status and relief from deportation for those who arrived in the United States as minors and meet certain requirements.

2012 – Israel opens the Holot Detention Center, the largest in the world to date, with capacity to hold up to 10,000 migrants.

2014 – The Obama administration resumes practice of family detention in response to increase of unaccompanied minors, women and child migrants from Central America.

August 2016 – The U.S. Justice Department and DHS announce they will phase out the use of private prisons; private prison industry stocks plummet.

November 2016 – Donald J. Trump is elected president; private prison industry stocks rise.

January 2017 – At the end of President’ Obama’s term, detention numbers are at a record high of over 40,000 per day and the Obama administration has deported over 3 million people, more than all presidents since 1890 combined.

January 2017 President Trump signs Executive Order on immigration, promising to fortify and expand U.S. immigration enforcement capacities and the detention system.

October 2017The Dignity Not Detention Act passes in California, the first law of its kind to restrict the growth of for-profit immigration detention contracting on a statewide level. This law was drafted and co-sponsored by Freedom for Immigrants.

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