Part of understanding our ancestor's journey is understanding the laws and regulations at the time. The topic of immigration laws and restrictions, and when they began is one that comes up frequently. There's a very good Timeline of Major US Immigration Laws from 1790 - 2006, but it also includes a lot of laws on naturalization, deportation, and changes to enforcements of these laws. So, here's my breakdown of the most important parts:
The first federal immigration act to restrict who could come into the country was the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the entry of East Asian forced laborers and "immoral" East Asian women, which is less racist than it sounds. It was an attempt to reduce the amount of Chinese women being trafficked into the country for prostitution. In 1870, roughly half of Chinese women in the US were prostitutes, keeping in mind many of those not recorded as prostitutes were children, so it's probably safe to say most adult Chinese women in the US were prostitutes. It was difficult to prove one wasn't a prostitute, so it was effectively a ban on most, if not all, Chinese women. It was heavily enforced, much more so that the ban on forced laborers.
It was shortly followed by the much more significant Immigration Act of 1882 and the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Immigration Act banned anyone considered a "convict, lunatic, idiot, or person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge." You may think that would only affect the mentally or physically disabled, or sick, but it could also include pregnant or single women considered to not have financial support from a man, like a father, brother, husband, etc. It also put a tax of 50 cents on each incoming foreigner, to be paid by the ship's owner. I imagine this may have driven up the cost of passenger tickets, making it harder (but not impossible) for the most destitute of people to immigrate, though I can't say that was the intention - the intention was merely to raise funds for the regulation of immigration.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was pretty much as racist as it sounds, it suspended immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. Over the next 20-some years, there continued to be additional laws that further restricted Chinese immigration, and allowed for easier deportation of existing Chinese residents, such as the 1888 Scott Act, which prohibited lawful Chinese residences from returning to the US if they left. Also, the 1892 Act to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States aka the "Geary Act", which required all Chinese citizens living in the US to obtain certificates proving their lawful residence, and any Chinese person found unlawfully living in the US, instead of being deported, could be imprisoned and sentenced to one year of hard labor. Fortunately, the hard labor part was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1896 under the 5th Amendment, but it was probably a small win for the Chinese who continued to be harshly discriminated against.
Also worth noting is that although there was never a law with specifics, from 1892 to 1924, the determination of who was likely to become a public charge was left to the discretion of immigration officers, who typically required immigrants have a certain amount of money at the time of immigration. The amounts varied by the immigration officer, but if you did not meet their requirement, you could be deported. How unfair to not have a set national limit on this so immigrants were prepared and could save up enough money. However, there was a backup option if you didn't have enough money: there were immigrant aid societies who would sometimes cover the missing required funds. Some people refer to this as a "sponsorship" but sponsors as they are today (someone who promises to support an immigrant and be financially responsible for them until they get a job and can support themselves) were not required until during the Great Depression in the 1930s.
In 1917, the harsh laws restricting Chinese immigration were extended to essentially most of Asia and the Middle East with the 1917 Immigration Act. It also prevented immigration of anarchists, persons previously deported, and all individuals over 16 who are deemed "physically capable of reading" but who cannot read (of any origin).
But basically, if you were literate, not a convict, not likely to become a public charge, and not Asian, there were no restrictions on your entry up to this point. That changed starting in 1921, and became even worse in 1924.
The 1921 Emergency Quota Act was the first to set "quotas" based on nationality, meaning it limited the number of immigrants from each foreign nation allowed in. The limit was set to 3% of the number of existing residences from those nations based on the 1910 census. So if there were 1,360,000 people on the 1910 census who were born in Italy, only 3% of that, or 40,800 Italians would be allowed to immigrate per year. This significantly reduced the amount of overall immigrants into the country.
In 1924, the quota was reduced to a mere 2% with the 1924 National Origins Act, and more than that, it was based on the 1890 census instead of the 1910 census. It may seem like an odd choice to go with an older census year, as it would be less up to date, but it was a strategic, and arguably discriminatory decision, as it restricted southern and eastern Europeans more than others. Most southern and eastern Europeans immigrated after the 1890s, so basing the quota on the 1890 census meant their numbers were smaller, making their quota smaller. This was the first act to discriminate against certain Europeans (good thing all my Italian ancestors were here by 1914). There were exceptions: students, citizens of Western Hemisphere nations, people of certain occupations, and wives and children of US citizens were all exempt. The act also for the first time required visas be obtained abroad before entry.
Granted, in 1927 the discriminatory selection of the 1890 census was changed to the 1920 census. However, you can see the dramatic drop in immigration due to these two acts in the historical stats. In 1910-1919, the number of people immigrating from Europe was 4,985,411, but in 1920-1929, there were only 2,560,340. By the 1930s, there were only 444,399 immigrants from Europe. The Golden Age of Immigration was over.
The next major immigration changes came in the 1940s, when they actually allowed for more immigration due to the war. During the war, Mexican temporary agricultural workers were allowed in with the 1942 Bracero Agreement, and following the war, the War Brides Act (1945) accepted foreign wives and children of US soldiers into the country. Finally, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowed for 200,000 people displaced from their homelands by Nazi persecution into the US, which actually doesn't seem like a huge number in comparison to the millions that were immigrating prior to 1921.
In 1965, regulations shifted from the quota based system to one of united families. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act based admittance on immigrants relationship to a US citizen or lawful permanent resident family member or US employer. However, caps were placed on the total number of immigrants admitted each year in most family and employer based categories. Additionally, a limit of 120,000 was placed on the total number of permanent residents admitted from the Western Hemisphere.
There were also a number of refugee acts in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and I could go on up to modern times, but it becomes more and more complicated, and this is only a look at the history of immigration laws and regulation. Hopefully, it's helped you have a good understanding of your ancestor's experience in coming to the US, depending on the time period.
- Timeline of Major US Immigration Laws 1790-Present
- Immigration Legislation Timeline
- Wikipedia Immigration Act of 1882
- Wikipedia Immigration Act of 1924
- USCIS Early American Immigration Policies
- USCIS Public Charge Provisions of Immigration Law: A Brief Historical Background
- Family Tree Magazine Genealogy Q&A Researching Immigrants' Homeland Departure
- Yearbook of Immigration Statistics - Homeland Security