America, the dream, the melting pot: where people come to live in freedom and realize their dreams. Even though the United States is considered a mere toddler on the spectrum of history compared to other countries, the land of the free was home to many peoples long before it became recognized as a country. Its beginning was harsh, when the first inhabitants flowed into North America and banded together to survive, building dwellings and foraging for food. So, how did things progress from the ancient wide-open borders to today’s walls and migrant detention centers?
Moving forward means change, and change is not always welcome.
Christopher Columbus has the distinction of discovering America, but that isn’t true. When he sailed to the New World in 1492 with the Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina, the land was already occupied. In fact, about 15,000 years earlier, the first settlers found this land by crossing the Bering land bridge that connects Alaska and Siberia. Until the 1970s, they were called the “Clovis” people, when their DNA was extracted from an 11,000-year-old settlement discovered near Clovis, NM. Vikings have been credited with settling on the East Coast more than 500 years before ol’ Christopher sailed in and took the glory.
They’re Coming to America
In 1776, United States of America became a country after winning its independence from Mother England. The call went out to populate the land, and hopeful travelers, among them the weary, sick, hungry, and persecuted for their religion, made their way to the Colonies. It was a time of open borders.
But restrictions came just 14 years later, in 1790, when Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which allowed free white persons of “good character” to apply for citizenship, as long as they had been living in the US for two or more years. Of course, nonwhite persons were denied basic constitutional protections.
And eventually immigration to the United States began to take legal shape.
Immigration to Detention Centers – It Didn’t Take Long
Detention centers didn’t appear out of thin air once Donald Trump became president. No, they’ve been around since almost the birth of this nation. At first, they were necessary to process the many immigrants looking to start a new life, but later, as the population exploded, the centers were needed to vet threats to our nation and its citizens. Here is a timeline of immigration control:
1798 – Alien and Sedition Acts: Just two decades after opening borders and encouraging immigrants, the government realized that not everyone seeking a new life in the United States had honorable intentions. New laws were introduced for deportation of persons deemed “dangerous to the safety and security of the United States.”
1882 – Chinese Exclusion Act: Europeans had been swarming into the country, for a hundred years by this time, but with the spurred growth of industrialization and urbanization, other nationalities started to pour in. In the 1850s, the US saw a spike in Chinese immigrants, who came to work in the gold mines, build railroads, and support agriculture. Americans feared they were losing jobs to the newest immigrants, and so they created the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting the entry of Chinese laborers. This was first legal restriction on a specific immigrant group.
1891 – Immigration Act of 1891: This act barred people convicted of certain crimes, polygamists, and the sick or diseased. To determine immigrants suitable for entry, a federal office of immigration was created, and inspectors were stationed at certain ports of entry. A precursor to today’s Border Patrol?
1892 – Geary Act: Still concerned about the influx of Chinese, lawmakers formulated the Geary Act, which went further than the Immigration Act by restricting migrants from China and requiring Chinese already in the country to register with the government and carry paperwork. Failure to do so could result in a year’s imprisonment and then deportation.
1892 – First Detention Center Opens: In January 1892, the first detention center to handle the inflow of immigrants opened on Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Annie Moore, a teenager from County Cork in Ireland, was the first person processed.
1893 – Detention of Immigrants: This is the first law Congress passed on detention of immigrants who were not entitled to admission. Immigration officers decided whom to release, which were mostly white immigrants on bonds.
1904: Patrolling the Border: Guards for the US Department of Commerce and Labor began patrolling the US-Mexico border 125 years ago.
1907 – Gentleman’s Agreement: Just as earlier fears about the Chinese, Californians worried that the Japanese were going to take their jobs and depress the economy. The United States and Japan signed the Gentleman’s Agreement, whereby Japan agreed to limit Japanese immigrants to America to business and professional men. The United States under President Theodore Roosevelt urged San Francisco to stop the segregation of Japanese students in its schools.
1910 – Immigrants Control New York City: By 1910, approximately three-quarters of the city’s population consisted of new and first-generation immigrants.
1910 – New Immigration Detention Facility: The second detention facility, Angel Island Immigration Station in California, was opened.
1917 – Literacy Required: As World War I elevated fears, the Immigration Act of 1917, which outlined literacy requirements for immigrants wishing to enter the country, was established. It also stopped most immigration from Asian countries.
1921 – Emergency Quota Act: Favoring Western European countries and limiting immigrants from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe, the Emergency Quota Act restricted the number of immigrants from any country to 3% of the number of residents from the same country living in the United States as of the 1910 census.
1924 – Enter the Border Patrol: This is the official birth of the Border Patrol, formed to secure the Mexico and Canada borders.
1929 – Immigration Act: This targeted those who entered the US illegally. Unlawful entry became a misdemeanor punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to one year in prison. Anyone caught with unlawful re-entry would receive a felony.
1942 – Mexicans for Labor: World War II brought about labor shortages; to solve that issue the United States and Mexico formed the Bracero Program. This allowed Mexican agricultural workers to temporarily enter the United States. The program lasted until 1964.
1942 – Concentration Camps: No, not AOC’s definition of today’s detention centers. World War II instilled fear in Americans, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 establishing internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans as well as German-Americans and Italian-Americans, afraid there might be enemy spies among them.
1965 – Hart-Celler Immigration Act: The first major overhaul of America’s immigration system ended the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which set limits on the percentage of nationalities that could immigrate. The old system was replaced with a seven-category preference system that called for skilled immigrants and family reunification.
1980 – Mariel Boatlift: Mass immigration detentions were conducted because of the migration of Cubans in the Mariel Boatlift as well as Haitians and Central Americans fleeing oppressive governments and civil war.
1981 – New Detention Policy and War on Drugs: President Ronald Reagan’s new policy sought to punish and thereby deter Latin American migration, which also included asylum seekers. He renewed his War on Drugs, which increased militarization of border enforcement.
1985 – Detention Facility for Infants and Children: Laredo, TX, was the site of the first immigration detention facility to hold infants and children, opened by Corrections Corporation of America, which in 2016 changed its name to CoreCivic.
1994 – “Operation Gatekeeper”: The Clinton administration upped the ante on border enforcement and doubled Border Patrol officers, constructed five miles of wall along the Mexico border in San Diego, CA, and fencing in Arizona. Because access was more difficult, the trek to cross the borders became more dangerous. More than 7,000 migrants had died as of 2017 in the process of crossing illegally.
2001 – USA Patriot Act: More security measures were established after 9/11, including the expansion of surveillance and the targeting of Arab and Muslim immigrants for detention.
2003 – Department of Homeland Security: Immigration and Naturalization Service is dissolved, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services, Customs and Border Enforcement, and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are created.
2005 – “Operation Streamline”: This allows for people apprehended at the border to be criminally prosecuted and held in Criminal Alien Requirement prisons.
2011 – “Secure Communities” Program: The Obama administration expanded this program, which relied on federal and local law enforcement to work together to carry out ICE’s detention priorities.
2012 – DACA Sees Light: The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was established by Obama. It provided temporary work status as well as freedom from deportation for “Dreamers,” those who were minors when they illegally entered the United States, as long as they met certain requirements.
2014 – Family Detention: The Obama administration continued the practice of family detentions because of the increased number of unaccompanied minors and women migrants from Central America.
January 2017 – Obama’s Record: As Obama ended his presidency, detention numbers were at a record high, with more than 40,000 per day and more than three million people deported. This is more than all presidents combined since 1890.
2017 – Trump Era Begins: President Donald Trump issued two executive orders, both called “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” This entailed stopping travel and immigration from six major countries — Chad, Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia — as well as those from North Korea and Venezuela. These travel bans caused a political outcry in those on the left that continues today.