The USA is Evolving into a Nation of Immigrants -A Video History of Immigration in the USA

By: Patricia Ann Talley, Editor.

Immigration is one of the key issues facing the United States today. To make an intelligent decision on this topic, one must understand the true history of immigration in America – a history that is not often taught.

Most of the world and most USA citizens think of America as a “land of immigrants. But, the fact is that America is “evolving” into a land of immigrants. Initially, by law, the United States only permitted “white immigrants” – Native Americans, Africans, and all others were excluded from its citizenship. Racial and nationality restrictions for immigration in America did not end until 1965, and the country still has a “failed” system for Latin and Asian immigrants.

Why is this important to know? Again, knowing the truth about history helps one to make intelligent decisions about the future. Next, the demographics of America are changing, and young immigrants and people of color will be needed to help support the retirement benefits of the country’s aging population. It is critical to the economy of the country that these young people participate in its future prosperity.

In 2012, the Public Broadcast System (PBS) produced a film about race and immigration in America. Here are some short videos that will explain this history to you.

1790 Naturalization Act – The First Immigration Law for “Whites Only”: Upon declaring independence from England, the leaders of the new nation wanted to create a distinct American nationality. The first immigration legislation was in 1790, which allowed individuals to apply for citizenship if they were a “free white person,” being of good character and living in the United States for two years. This excluded Native Americans, white indentured servants, most white women, free and enslaved Africans, and all other non-white persons born on American soil.Elder women of the Shinnecock Nation by Andrew Brannan

Native Americans did not receive citizenship in the new nation. Photo: Elder women of the Shinnecock Nation by Andrew Brannan from

1868 – 14th (1868) and 15th Amendments (1869) to the Constitution: The 14th Amendment grants citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States, but this did not include Native Americans, who did not receive citizenship until 1924. The 15th Amendment gave citizenship (voting rights) to African males living in the country, but this right was often denied until the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

1882 – The Chinese Exclusion Act: This was the first law to restrict immigration to the United States in any way. For ten years, this act kept Chinese people from immigrating to the United States and prohibited them from becoming citizens. It was passed as a response to growing anxieties over unemployment and declining wages, which many Americans attributed to the Chinese who came to build the railroads in the West.


1896 – US Supreme Court Sets “One Drop Rule” to Determine “Blackness”: The 1790 Naturalization Act opened immigration and citizenship to “whites” only, but allowed for the importation of enslaved Africans. Following the Civil War to abolish slavery, the 15th Amendment in 1869 gave citizenship to African males living in the country, but the country implemented a strict system of racial segregation, which prevented blacks and people of color from participating in much of its social and economic growth. How do you determine race? In 1896, the Court ruled that race is determined by “one drop” of black blood. Racial segregation extended to all “non-whites.”

Racial Segragation

1919 – 19th Amendment Gives Citizenship/Vote to Women: Native American women did not receive this right until 1962; Black women and other women of color were often denied this right until the Voting Rights Act of 1964.

Womens Vote

1922 – Japanese Excluded in Ozawa vs. The United States: In 1914, Takao Ozawa, born in Kanagawa, Japan applied for U.S. citizenship after residing in the United States for twenty years. His petition to naturalize was denied since naturalization was limited to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity,” and “persons of African descent.” Ozawa argued that his skin was “lighter” than most, but the Supreme Court ruled that Ozawa as Japanese did not qualify as Caucasian and was ineligible for citizenship. He even showed the court his “white” underarms!

1923 -Indians Excluded in The United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind: In 1923, Bhagat Singh Thind, a native of Punjab, India, applied for citizenship after he was honorably discharged from the U.S. army in 1918. A veteran, he was denied citizenship under the law which limited naturalization to “free whites” only. Despite the concession of the courts that Indians were to be considered Caucasians, they also stated that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.”

1924 – The Johnson Reed “Quotas Act” Limits Immigration by Nationality: This act imposed a national origins quota that limited the annual number of immigrants allowed. Immigrants of any one nationality could not exceed 2% of the population of that nationality already residing in the U.S. according to the 1890 census, thus maintaining a majority white population. Asians were entirely excluded from the origins quota and were not allowed entry under any circumstances.

1924 – Congress Grants Citizenship to All Native Americans Born in the U.S.: Until 1924, Native Americans were not citizens of the United States. Many Native Americans had, and still have, separate nations within the U.S. on designated reservation land. In 1924, Congress granted citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. and gave them the right to vote, but many states overtly did not allow Natives to vote until 1962.

1952 – McCarran-Walter Immigration Act Abolished Racial Restrictions: This act abolished racial restrictions found in United States immigration and naturalization statutes going back to the Naturalization Act of 1790, which had limited naturalization to immigrants who were “free white persons.” But, the act retained a quota system for nationalities and regions, and eventually established a preference system which determined which ethnic groups were “desirable” immigrants, placing great importance on labor qualifications.

1964 – The Civil Rights Act Outlaws Discrimination by Race: This act outlawed discrimination and segregation in public facilities, government, and employment based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The act was an attempt to bring an end to the racial discrimination that influenced policy and limited the rights of citizens. Originally meant to protect the rights of black males, it was soon amended to include everyone in the United States and set the basis for the Immigration Act of 1965.

1965 – Hart-Cellar Immigration Act Abolishes National Quotas in Immigration: This act changed American immigration policy by abolishing the national origins quota system that had been in structure since the 1920s, replacing it with a preference system that focused on immigrants’ skills and family relationships with citizens or residents of the U.S.

But, America created the system of undocumented immigrants from Asia and Latin America.

How does this affect the future? As recently as 1980, 80 percent of the United States was white, but results of the 2010 Census depict a rapidly changing nation. Demographics show an aging white population on the decline. By 2042, the US population will be made of less than 50% white people with people of other racial and ethnic groups in the majority. The Hispanic population is driving this change. These young workers will be needed to support the country’s economic system. This demographic change will have an impact on America’s future – particularly as it pertains to politics and leadership!

About the Author: Patricia Ann Talley, originally from Detroit, Michigan, has resided in Mexico for over 19 years where she consults in the area of economic development and the preservation of indigenous and African cultures.


American Library of Congress:

PBS Election Special: “Race in 2012”

Indiana University Library:

Densho Organization Encyclopedia, Naturalization Act of 1790:

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