Vanderbilt Law Review


Kerry Abrams

First Page



Most histories of immigration law are histories of restriction. This emphasis is hardly surprising: beginning in 1875, Congress passed increasingly draconian acts, mostly targeting Chinese immigrants, which ultimately led to the outright exclusion of nearly all Asian immigrants. Then, in the 1920s, Congress enacted quotas aimed at keeping the U.S. population primarily white, with an emphasis on immigrants from northern and western European stock. And throughout history in general, immigration law has focused not only on excluding but also on deporting those immigrants deemed undesirable.

In addition to focusing on exclusion, immigration law history has also been preoccupied with federal law after 1875. This emphasis is explained in large part because immigration law is exclusively federal today, and the first restrictive federal immigration law, which banned Chinese prostitutes and criminals, was passed in 1875. Before 1875, restrictive federal immigration law was virtually nonexistent. But immigration was widespread and actively encouraged at all levels of government in the mid-nineteenth century. Immigrants from Europe flooded the East Coast of the United States, partly as a result of the revolutions of 1848 and the Irish Famine of 1845-1849. By 1870, forty percent of the residents of several major cities, including New York and Chicago, were foreign-born. Immigration was even more important to the development of the West Coast.