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    The growth of the US immigration system

    Surrounded by members of Congress, President Bush George W. Bush signs the Homeland Security Act on November 25, 2002.
    Surrounded by members of Congress, President Bush George W. Bush signs the Homeland Security Act on November 25, 2002.

    1790: The US Naturalization Act provided the first guidelines for the granting of US citizenship.

    1798: Congress enacted the first measures to allow for the detention and deportation of noncitizens. The Alien and Sedition Acts permitted deportation of any noncitizen considered dangerous to the peace and safety of the United States or whose home country was at war with the United States. The acts, passed when the United States was on the brink of war with France, also criminalized any malicious criticism of the US government.

    1875: The Supreme Court declared that the federal government was responsible for the enforcement of the country’s immigration laws.


    1891: The Immigration Act established detailed guidelines for the federal government to regulate the increasing flow of immigrants coming into the country for jobs, and a new immigration station was opened the next year on Ellis Island in New York.

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    1933: The Immigration and Naturalization Service was created as a central authority to regulate the flow of immigrants while protecting the country’s borders.

    1940: On the eve of World War II as immigration became a national security concern, the Immigration and Naturalization Service was moved to the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice. The Alien Registration Act required all noncitizens in the United States to register with the government, leading ultimately to the creation of the identification card for legal residents known as the “green card.”

    1986: President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act to legalize almost 3 million illegal immigrants and toughen illegal immigration laws. Ironically, the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States grew following the reforms.

    1988: Congress enacted the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, requiring mandatory detention of immigrants who have been convicted of certain crimes and awaiting deportation. The number of people incarcerated awaiting deportation skyrocketed over the next two decades.


    1996: The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act significantly expanded the list of convictions for which an immigrant could face mandatory detention. Immigrants found to have been in the United States illegally for a year or more would have to wait 10 years before attempting to return, or face criminal prosecution.

    2002: After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Congress created the Department of Homeland Securityas a Cabinet-level department to oversee national security, including the immigration system. The Immigration and Naturalization Service was abolished and its duties were shared by three new agencies: Citizenship and Immigration Services; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Customs and Border Protection. The Department of Justice retained control over immigration courts.

    2011: Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained approximately 429,000 foreign nationals, an all-time high and an increase of 18 percent from 2010. The agency boasted that it deported a record number of criminal immigrants, 216,000, reflecting the Obama administration’s push to target illegal immigrants who present a safety threat.

    2012: The four federal agencies that make up the core of the US immigration system comprise more than 90,000 employees and have a combined budget of more than $20 billion.

    Milton J. Valencia

    Milton J. Valencia can be reached at