Legal History of Immigration

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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.

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 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.

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