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The Nation’s Immigration Laws, 1790 to Today and Beyond

The United States has long been—and continues to be—a key destination for the world’s immigrants.

Fifty years ago, the U.S. enacted a sweeping immigration law, the Immigration and Nationality Act, which replaced longstanding national origin quotas that favored Northern Europe with a new system allocating more visas to people from other countries around the world and giving increased priority to close relatives of U.S. residents.

Just prior to passage of the 1965 law, residents of only three countries—Ireland, Germany and the United Kingdom—were entitled to nearly 70% of the quota visas available to enter the U.S. (U.S. Department of Justice, 1965).4 Today, immigration to the U.S. is dominated by people born in Asia and Latin America, with immigrants from all of Europe accounting for only 10% of recent arrivals.

The 1965 law undid national origin quotas enacted in the 1920s, which were written into laws that imposed the first numerical limits on immigration. Those laws were the culmination of steadily tightening federal restrictions on immigration that began in the late 1800s with prohibitions or restrictions on certain types of immigrants, such as convicts, in addition to a ban on Chinese migrants and later virtually all Asian migrants.

The report is organized as follows: Chapter 1 provides an overview of the nation’s immigration legislation, with a focus on key changes since 1965. It is accompanied by an interactive timeline highlighting U.S. immigration legislation since 1790. Chapter 2explores the impact of post-1965 immigration on the nation’s demographics up to 2015 and provides a look forward at the future impact of immigration with new Pew Research population projections through 2065. Chapter 3 looks at the post-1965 flow of immigrants through the lens of the recently arrived, exploring changes in the group’s origins and other characteristics. Chapter 4 explores the U.S. public’s views of immigration and immigration policy. Chapter 5 provides a statistical portrait of the nation’s immigrants from 1960 to 2013 and is accompanied by an online interactive statistical portrait of the foreign born and an online interactive exploring the top country of origin among immigrants in each state from 1850 to 2013. Appendix A explains the report’s methodology, including for the population projections. Appendix B contains a U.S. immigration law timeline. Appendix C includes 1965 to 2065 population tables, and Appendix D contains the survey topline.

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