The first European settlers were arriving in a land without government as we understand it today, and the earlier settlers (e.g. American Indians from Asia) didn't grant them citizenship. There was a period of colonisation where anyone could choose to just turn up and live there - and indeed not everyone went to the US by choice.

When did the US first start classifying people as Illegal Immigrants?

  • related (not dupe): politics.stackexchange.com/questions/1392/…
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 17:40
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    Do you mean the exact legal expression "illegal immigrant", or a general concept that some people immigrated according to the law and some violated the immigration law?
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 17:45
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    During the "period of colonization" you mention, there was no such thing as a "United States." "Illegal immigrant" is not an official classification of any sort other than meaning "someone who immigrated to the U.S. in violation of U.S. immigration law." Considering those laws obviously didn't exist prior to the existence of the U.S. itself, mentioning settlers in the colonial period is kind of silly.
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 23:20
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    @reirab I disagree. It highlights that at some point there was a conscious decision to introduce a restriction on free movement, before asking when it happened.
    – Phil Lello
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 23:25
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    @PhilLello All it highlights is that at some point the United States started existing. I suppose you can argue when that point was, but the most reasonable candidates would probably be the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the surrender of the British forces in the Revolution, or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Needless to say, the "U.S." didn't restrict anything before the U.S. existed. Some native tribes weren't happy with their new neighbors, but their military power proved insufficient to stop said immigration whether they wanted to allow it or not.
    – reirab
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 23:35

1 Answer 1

  • Up until 1880s, most immigration was handled on state level, not federal. So there really was no law to violate to become "illegal".

    Immigraton Commission under Treasury was only formed as a result of The Immigration Act of 1891.

  • Technically, the first federal rules on who could and couldn't enter was earlier. As per Wiki:

    In 1875, the nation passed its first immigration law, the Page Act of 1875, also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, outlawing the importation of Asian contract laborers, any Asian woman who would engage in prostitution, and all people considered to be convicts in their own countries

  • Relatedly, the concept of registered aliens was a product of Alien Registration Act of 1940, which introduced form AR-3 (Green Card ancestor).

    However, the Act and the form were applicable to BOTH legal and illegal aliens, and thus aren't fully applicable to be related to your question.

So the cutoff date would be 1875 for federal law.


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    @PhilLello It was an attempt to stop the circumvention of anti slavery laws, not an attempt to prevent immigration by Asians. Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 17:58
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    @PhilLello - This was likely in part because at the time there was a concern (probably California driven, if I had to guess) that immigrants from Asia - especially China - were dumping the labour market by working for lower wages.
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 17:59
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    Chinese laborers were being purchased and brought over and used for manual labor. They had no rights to leave as they were under contract, and recieved effectively no pay as they would have to pay more for their meals than they were paid to work. It was essentially slavery. It was mostly Railroad and mining jobs Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 18:01
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    @Chad - regardless of context, that is not how the voters at the time saw the issue. To random joe, "X makes me get paid less => I want to prevent X from happening".
    – user4012
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 18:03
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    @Chad Sadly, in the Page Act of 1875 SEC. 14. That hereafter no State court or court of the United States shall admit Chinese to citizenship; and all laws in conflict with this act are hereby repealed..
    – Phil Lello
    Commented Mar 31, 2016 at 18:18

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