How long have immigration laws been around?

law booksMy writing last week about a theology of foreignness has sparked some conversation about immigration law. From what I can tell, the first true immigration law in the United States was passed in 1882, designed to limit (and temporarily prohibit) Chinese immigration. Before that, it seems that laws were only made as to who could become a citizen.

I’m having trouble finding much about immigration controls in other countries. There are records, going back to biblical times, of the expulsion of certain people groups or of the enslavement of others. I’ve heard that the Romans controlled the movements of people to some degree, with Roman citizenship granting freer travel. I know that Mexico unsuccessfully tried to limit colonization of its northern lands, what is now the southern U.S. That seems to refer to homesteading and the granting of property, not the mere presence within the country.

Am I wrong to think that immigration laws as we know them are a relatively new thing? Can someone point me to better sources of information?

Why the curiosity? Partly because of the people who proudly boast: “Our ancestors came here legally.” (And I’m sure they inquired about native American immigration laws before doing so!) Another part is the idea of what the Bible has to say about immigration laws. Directly speaking, I say it says nothing, for such didn’t seem to exist at those times. Or am I mistaken?

Anyway, some of you are much better than I at researching historical facts. Please point me to the resources that will enlighten me on this subject.

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4 thoughts on “How long have immigration laws been around?

  1. It is my understanding from my research over the years that the first legislation addressing citizenship was the Naturalization Act of 1790. Citizenship was only available to “free white persons of good moral character.” Residency of two years was required and should reside in the same place for one years at the time of application for citizenship. Nothing in the law states that no one could immigrate. It does not appear from my research that people were barred from coming into this country. Have I missed something?

  2. Rafael,

    While I haven’t done extensive investigation, that’s what I’ve come up with. Before the 1882 law, laws in the United States had to do with who could become a citizen, not who could be in the country.


  3. Tim said “Why the curiosity? Partly because of the people who proudly boast: “Our ancestors came here legally.” ”
    Tim if as you say there was no law against it, “they came here legally”. Heck, I remember when I would drive around in my 1953 Ford coupe, with no liability insurance, nor seat belts. “legally”.

  4. Laymond, that’s true. And the University of Phoenix has never lost a football game. In both cases, it’s nothing to brag about.

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