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Pre-1820

Before 1820, any regulation of immigration was a function of the state.  "An Act to Regulate Passenger Ships and Vessels of 1819" was the first federal legislation to regulate how immigrants came into the United States.  This act did not restrict anyone from coming in.  Rather, it attempted to improve the conditions on board the ships on which incoming passengers came.  By requiring the master of the ship to prepare a list of the incoming passengers, the government could get an idea of how much space existed on board for each passenger.  The lists were to be prepared upon arrival in the United States and given to the customs official of that port.  The lists came to be known as Customs Passenger Lists.  This act mandated that these lists be copied each quarter and sent to the Secretary of State.  These copies usually contain the name of vessel, name of port of embarkation, name of port of arrival, and the names of the passengers.

For laws affecting the importation and service of indentured servants in the Virginia Colony, see: Colonial Laws Concerning Immigrant Servants.

1875

There were not any restrictions on immigration into the United States until 1875.  In this year, Congress enacted legislation prohibiting two classes of aliens from entering the country: criminals and prostitutes. 

1876

1876 Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for states to regulate immigration and to tax incoming passengers. Up to this time, the states had been head taxing incoming passengers to compensate for the public costs of imprisoning immigrants that became criminals and of housing insane immigrants.  By this ruling of the Supreme Court, these taxes would continue, but now under the regulation of the federal government.

1882

The "Passenger Act of 1882" changed what information was to be included in the Customs Passenger List prepared by the master of the ship.

There was also a federal immigration law issued in the year 1882.  The Treasury Department was given administrative control over immigration.  A 50 cent head tax to pay for public charges (taking care of the lunatic and the criminals) was also put in place.

1891

By the Immigration Act of 1891, in addition to criminal and prostitutes, incoming polygamists and seriously contagious people were to be deported.  The office of "Superintendent of Immigration" was created under the Treasury Department, which further centralized control of immigration to the federal government.  Ship master had to list name, nationality, last residence, and destination of every alien immigrant.

1893

The Immigration Act of 1893 did not change restrictions from 1891 much, but required that ship manifests now be delivered to an inspector of immigration instead of a customs official.  Manifests were now to be made at the time & place of embarkation rather than at debarkation.  To be included on this manifests were full name, age, sex; married or single; calling or occupation; able to read or write; nationality; last residence; sea port for landing in the US; final destination, if any, beyond the seaport of landing; who paid for the passage; whether in possession of money; whether going to join a relative and his name and address; whether ever before in the United States, and if so when and where; other facts that may cause the passenger to excluded.

References

All of the above is simply my extraction from the following book:

  • Tepper, Michael H. American Passenger Arrival Records: A Guide to the Records of Immigrants Arriving at American Ports by Sail and Steam. Updated and enlarged. Baltimore, Maryland: Genealogical Publishing, 1993. (Family History Library book 973 W27am 1993.)

In the course of these changes in legislation of immigration, there never existed a mandate to enter through the Port of New York or any other particular port for that matter.  Convenience and cost alone dictated through which port immigrants came.  The Port of New York happened to be by far the most popular.


 

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