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Family Tree Friday: More on U.S. immigration law–the Immigration Act of 1882

by on July 16, 2010


Most people today equate Ellis Island with the typical immigration experience in U.S. history–the “huddled masses” coming through immigration processing centers before being allowed entrance into the country.  Well, it actually took many decades after 1820–when the United States first started regulating immigration (see my previous blog post!)–for U.S. immigration law to reach that point, but the ball began rolling with the Immigration Act of August 3, 1882 (22 Stat. 214).  This act instituted the practice of examining immigrants before they were granted legal entrance into the U.S.  The process, however, differed from the later Ellis Island experience.  Under the 1882 act, state governments conducted medical inspections of incoming aliens via boards of commissioners and other officials who worked under contract to the U.S. Customs Service.  The inspections were not only intended to quarantine specific public health hazards, but also to identify certain classes of individuals who were deemed unacceptable to become U.S. citizens–including convicted felons, lunatics, and paupers (or persons unable to support themselves without becoming a public charge).  These inspections were also conducted on board the vessels before the immigrants were allowed to land, and anyone barred admittance to the U.S. was immediately sent back to their country of origin (except for felons convicted of political offenses, who were considered political refugees entitled to protection under the U.S. Constitution).  To pay for these new regulations, the Act also imposed a 50 cent duty or head tax per alien passenger.  Because the U.S. Customs Service retained authority to enforce the Immigration Act of 1882, passenger arrival records essentially remained the same as those created under the Steerage Act of 1819.  The next major change in immigration law, which ushered in the Ellis Island experience, did not come along until ten years later (more on that in my next blog!)


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