Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

The first U.S. immigration law: Welcoming for some, not for others

When did the United States enact its first immigration law? Most people are familiar with the restrictive laws that took shape in the the late 19th century, notably the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But as Politico pointed out in an interesting short piece yesterday, the nation's first immigration law was enacted March 26, 1790, in the second session of the first Congress.

It was by no means inclusive. Immigrants had to be considered white to apply for U.S. citizenship, for starters. Indentured servants and slaves, even freed ones, were not considered "persons" eligible to apply. Citizenship could only be passed down through paternal lines. But for those who were deemed eligible, it didn't take much. From Politico:

The Naturalization Act of 1790 specified that "any alien, being a free white person," could apply for citizenship, so long as he or she lived in the United States for at least two years, and in the state where the application was filed for at least a year. The new law also provided that "children of citizens of the United States that may be born "¦ out of the limits of the United States shall be considered as natural born citizens."

Men and women aliens were covered, as were their children younger than 21. However, citizenship could devolve only through the father and did "not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States." The law also excluded indentured servants, free blacks and slaves, who were regarded as "property" and not "persons."

When these requirements were met, an immigrant could file a naturalization petition with "any common law court of record" where he or she lived.

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