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Prior to the ratification of the formation of the United States government (1789), there was no immigration any way comparable to today. Those who came prior to the founding of the nation were migrating to colonies established by European empires. When, by the end of the 17th Century, Great Britain had gained control of the 13 colonies that became the original United States, migration into Colonial America came almost exclusively from the British Isles. The importation of Africans through the Atlantic slave trade, while an integral part of American history is not a part of the history of immigration to America.

The Naturalization Act of 1790 established a uniform rule for naturalization in an area previously controlled by states.  The law stated that “…any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.”

Immigration numbers were not recorded until 1820, with annual immigration to the United States prior to that year estimated around 65,000 per decade.

Decade is 1820-1829, etc.

The modern immigration system began with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, though the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Cellar Act), an amendment to the 1952 law, led to a marked increase in immigration numbers. That law eliminated the 1924 national-origin quotas and resulted in the majority of immigration coming from non-European countries. It also prioritized family-sponsored immigration over employment/skills-based entrants.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) granted amnesty to 3 million illegal aliens in exchange for the promise of increased border security and interior enforcement, making it illegal for employers to hire those who were not authorized to work in the United States. Instead of declining, illegal immigration began to rapidly increase again after as it became apparent that  successive Administrations would largely decline to enforce the law against illegal employers. Today, the illegal alien population in the United States is estimated at 13-15 million.

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the quotas established in 1965, more than doubling annual legal immigration and annual admissions which has averaged more than one million a year since then. The 1990 law also mandated the creation of a bipartisan commission to examine U.S. immigration policy and to make recommendations for its improvement. This led to the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, commonly known as the Jordan Commission.