From the beginning, US immigration law has been about race.
The 1790 Naturalization Act offered US citizenship only to “free white persons.”
The Chinese were nearly all banned by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which also made those Chinese already here ineligible for naturalization.
The 1917 Immigration Act created the Asiatic Barred Zone, added a vast zone of East, Southeast, and South Asians and the Persian and Arab world to the exclusions.
Until 1921, all white immigrants to the United States were legal immigrants, although a variety of entry criteria were made to exclude the poorest, radicals, homosexuals, and the disabled.
Then, explicitly racist people passed two immigration acts (in 1921 and 1924) designed to rebalance immigration away from Southern and Eastern Europe. They created the concept of illegal immigrants, and quotas. They You can read President Calvin Coolidge’s intentions here:
Criminalizing immigration has always been a racist move. And illegal alien has always been a legal gloss on racially undesirable immigrant.
Among the immigrants on the white side of my family: a German fleeing conscription and the Franco-Prussian War, and Polish Jews in an era of pogroms. Draft dodgers and war refugees. They got here before 1921, so they didn’t break the law to enter. Instead, fear of people like them inspire those racist laws.
It’s easy to see now how the Chinese who overstayed their bonded labor status and gave birth to citizen children were heroes. Likewise the Chinese who became “paper sons” to bring their families and countrymen in. And so we’re the Italians and Slavs and Jews who defied the 1924 law (many of whose relatives, like mine, would not make it through World War II and the Holocaust). People who come here so their kids can have a better life, racist laws be damned, were heroes then and are heroes now.
Image at top: Racial types and criminality infographic by anthropologist and eugenicist Earnest Hooton, an advocate of immigration controls.