During the earliest years of the nation, little attention was paid
to regulating the flow of immigrants into the United States.
One exception came in 1798, shortly after the formal adoption of the
federal government, when Congress approved four laws that collectively
became known as the Alien and Sedition Acts. A driving force behind
these laws was a fear that radical agents of the French revolution somehow
might stir up widespread discontent in the United States. One of the
four laws established a 14-year residency requirement for those who
wanted to become naturalized citizens. Two other laws gave the president
the power to expel aliens in the event of war and in those situations
when he believed an alien represented a threat to security whether a
state of war existed or not. A fourth law, directly flouting the free-speech
provisions of the Bill of Rights, made criticizing the government or
its officials a crime.
The actual effects of the Alien and Sedition Acts were mostly domestic.
Federal prosecutors in the administration of President John Adams used
the provision restricting the criticism of government to send a member
of Congress to prison for a speech he gave in the House of Representatives.
A handful of news people were also prosecuted and sent to prison for
the same crime.
During the middle of the 19th century a new wave of public concern
swept the nation as the total number of immigrants coming to the United
States sharply increased and more and more Catholics from Ireland and
Germany and Jews from Germany fled the famines, depressions, stifling
social systems and authoritative governments of Europe. It was during
this period that the Know Nothing party, officially known as the Native
American party, flourished in the United States. The Know Nothings advocated
such measures as increasing the naturalization period from 5 to 21 years
and excluding Catholics and immigrants from holding office.
But it wasn't until 1882 that Congress passed the nation's first comprehensive
immigration act. It prohibited the entry of "lunatics",
"idiots" and those likely to become public charges. The 1882
law also delegated authority to the Secretary of Treasury to administer
and enforce immigration policy. In the same year, Congress passed the
Chinese Exclusion Act, barring the entry of all Chinese laborers.
A few years later, in 1891, riding on a new wave of anti-immigrant
feeling that was supported by the progressive labor movement, a still
festering anti-Catholic sentiment and prominent New England figures
like Henry Cabot Lodge, additional legislation was approved establishing
a permanent superintendent of immigration and extending the list of
inadmissable aliens to polygamists and those suffering from "loathsome
and contagious diseases."
Ellis Island in New York harbor became the nation's primary immigration
station on January 1, 1892. In 1902 the station became the center of
the first of a long line corruption and brutality scandals that would
sweep over United States efforts to regulate immigration. President
Theodore Roosevelt was shocked and appointed a respected Wall Street
lawyer to clean up the problems.
In Washington, the organization that had become known as the INS was
moved from the Treasury Department to the Department of Labor in 1913.
The agency was transferred to its present location within the Justice
Department by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940.
The impact of two very different traumatic events in U.S. History --
the great depression of most of the 1930s and the years of war from
the late 1930's to the 1945 -- had a single result when it came to the
work of the INS: immigration to the United States slipped to the lowest
number since the 1820s. With this decline the INS became a sleepy backwater
within the Justice Department.
As the post-war years proceeded, a series of events led to a slow but
steady growth in the number of immigrants coming to the United States.
These events included the Cold War struggles in Cuban and Central America,
the U.S. War in Vietnam, and the very different economic conditions
in Mexico and the United States. As a result, according to the INS,
more lawful immigrants entered the United States between 1981 and 1990
than in any period since the first decade of the century. Another indication
of just how attractive the United States has become can be found in
the number of visitors coming to the United States. In 1997, there were
320 million visitors, in 1988 197,000.
As a result of such increase -- and most recently the events of 9/11
-- the effectiveness of the INS has once against became a front-burner
political issue for the president, Congress and many governors. Laws
increasing the penalties for certain immigration-related activities
have been approved. In June of 2002, President Bush asked Congress to
transfer the agency from the Justice Department to the Department of
Homeland Security. During the last decade the INS staff almost doubled,
jumping to just under 32,000 employees in 2001. One result: the INS
for the last three years has ranked first among the major investigative
agencies in terms of its share of all federal criminal convictions.
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