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Immigration Timeline

Landmarks in U.S. Immigration History

The Borders that Divide/The Ties that Bind
The immigration history of the United States is linked to both man-made and natural events and situations around the world. Natural disasters, economics and political and social unrest can all influence who, why, and when people have come to this country. U.S. immigration policies reflect this country's emotional and political climate in reaction to or in anticipation of these events and occurrences.
12,000 Years Ago
People travel from Asia to Alaska by foot over the Bering land bridge and probably by boat. They gradually migrated southward along the Pacific Coast.
Spaniards and their Indian allies carry out the conquest of the Aztec Empire in central Mexico and establish what they called "New Spain." Exploration and colonization spread from Mexico City in all directions and into the West.

Portuguese-born Juan Rodriquez Cabrillo becomes the first European to explore California sailing under the flag of Spain.

At the time of European contact, the Pacific Coast is densely populated by native people organized in tribes. California's aboriginal population is estimated at over 300,000 with over 1,000 distinct groups speaking 60 languages.

Sir Francis Drake, an Englishman, sails along the California Coast.
Spanish begin to establish missions throughout California. The missions of California were not solely religious institutions but instruments designed to bring about a total change in culture in a brief period of time.

The Declaration of Independence is signed and the 13 British colonies become the United States of America.

In the west, Captain Juan de Bautista de Anza leads an overland settlement expedition of 300 from Tumacacori to the Golden Gate of San Francisco Bay.

English Captain John Cook touched land at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island. The promise of fortunes to be made in the sea otter trade brought English merchants and later American traders.
Spain recognizes Britain's Oregon claim.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 first establishes a process for becoming a naturalized United States citizen. It is restricted to "free white persons."

Naturalization Act restricts citizenship to "free white persons" who reside in the United States for five years and renounce their allegiance to their former country.

The Alien and Sedition Acts permit the President to deport any foreigner deemed to be dangerous. A revised Naturalization Act imposes a 14-year residency requirement for prospective citizens.
Congress reduces the residency requirement for citizenship to five years.
Lewis and Clark Expedition - exploring Northwest United States - opened the new West to traders, trappers, and settlers all the way to the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. Native American Sacagawea assists them. Sacagawea was a member of the Shoshone tribe, one of 50 different tribes encountered on the journey.
The importation of slaves into the United States is prohibited.
Russians establishes a post at Fort Ross north of San Francisco to supply their Alaskan possessions.

The first Chinese immigrants arrive in the United States at what is now San Francisco.

Mexico wins independence from Spain. Mexican independence opens the California door to trade with other countries, especially the United States.

Jedediah Smith, a New York-born mountain man explorer, becomes the first white man to travel overland from the Rocky Mountains to California, arousing the interest of the U.S. government in California and Oregon Country.
Pennsylvania permits bilingual instruction in English and German in its public schools.
The Mexican government secularizes the missions. The vast mission landholdings are taken over by the government, which in turn awards them as land grants to Californios.

Marcus and Narcissa Whitman open an American Protestant mission among the Cayuses Indians that later becomes an important way station on the Oregon Trail.

A period of mass immigration to the U.S. occurs due to the Irish Potato Famine, crop failures in Germany, the onset of industrialization, and failed European revolutions.

Missionaries report the "wonders" of the Oregon Territory leading to "Oregon Fever" for expansion.

Irish emigrants arrive in California and Washington seeking jobs.

John Fremont surveys the West in an expedition for the U.S. Army in which he discovers that much of the West was a "Great Basin."

Anglo-American settlers rebel against their Mexican hosts and form the short-lived secessionist Bear Flag Republic.

The boundary line of the United States and Mexico is disputed and the United States conquers California, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. From 1845 to 1849, President James K. Polk's embrace of Manifest Destiny - a term coined by magazine editor John O'Sullivan in 1845 - completes the broad outlines of America's geography. During his single term as President, the United States pushed its boundaries to the Pacific - wrestling California and the Southwest from Mexico, admitting Texas to the Union, and crowding Britain out of the Pacific Northwest.
Gold Rush of California caused people to migrate west for a better life. Californians use Chinese immigrants as part of the work force.
Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluding the Mexican War, extends citizenship to approximately 80,000 Mexican residents of the Southwest.
Miners emigrate from the gold mines in Chile.
The Compromise of 1850, devised by Senators Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas, admits California as a free state.
Know Nothing political party unsuccessfully seeks to increase restrictions on naturalization.
Chinese immigrants are prohibited from testifying against whites in California courts.

Foreign Miners Tax and the 1862 Police Tax, as well as court decisions such as People vs. Hall, are designed and enacted to make Chinese immigrants' lives more difficult.
The first Colored Convention of California was held in Sacramento's Bethel African Methodist Church to wage a formal statewide campaign against statutory disenfranchisement.

After gold is discovered in the 1850s and the region's economy is stimulated by agriculture, Oregon becomes the 33rd state.

American Civil War begins with Confederates firing on Union Soldiers. Immigration decreases during the American Civil War.

Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation frees the slaves.

Immigration is encouraged to fill jobs left vacant from war and to settle unpopulated areas in the country.

Civil War ends. Four million slaves freed.
The first Japanese laborers arrive in Hawaii seeking a new way of life. Most of them work in the sugar plantations while some complete the migration to Southern California.
The Burlingame Treaty recognizes the right of Chinese to emigrate to the United States.
Union Pacific was completed becoming the first transcontinental railroad. Chinese were 80 - 90% of the workforce and built one of the most difficult parts of the railroad, over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Paradoxically, the completion of the railroad made it possible for competing white immigrant labor to displace, replace or expel Chinese laborers.
Naturalization Act limits American citizenship to "white persons and persons of African descent," barring Asians from U.S. citizenship.

Page Law bars entry of Chinese, Japanese, and "Mongolian" contract laborers, felons, and women for the purpose of prostitution. It also includes family members (wives) of Chinese immigrants. Not until 1970, almost 100 years later, following the major overhaul of immigration laws in 1965 did the Chinese community finally achieve a normal gender ration of one man to one woman.
Anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco lead to treaty barring Chinese unskilled laborers.
Modification of the Burlingame Treaty allows U.S. to limit but not prohibit Chinese immigration.
The nation grows in population due to the migration of millions of immigrants looking for new places of employment and better living conditions. Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Russian and other Eastern Europeans enter the United States. Most move to cities, where they find jobs in factories. Living conditions are very poor.
Suspension of the Burlingame Treaty for 20 years bars Chinese immigration. All residents in the U.S. could remain and were permitted to leave and re-enter with a Certificate of Return.

Chinese Exclusion Act bars the entry of all Chinese, with the exception of exempt classes (government officials, merchants, tourists and students).

Immigration Act of 1882 levies a tax of 50 cents per immigrant and makes several categories of immigrants ineligible to enter the United States, including "lunatics" and people likely to become public charges.
Statue of Liberty, a gift from France, erected at Liberty Island.
Alien Contract Labor Law prohibits any company or individual from bringing foreigners into the United States under contract to perform labor here. The only exceptions are for domestics and skilled workmen who would help establish a new trade or industry.
The Scott Act stops the issuance of return certificates to Chinese laborers and forbids re-entry for those who left the U.S. on temporary visits to China.
Washington becomes the 42nd state in the Union.
Congress makes polygamists, "persons suffering from a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease," and those convicted of "a misdemeanor involving moral turpitude" ineligible for immigration. The act establishes the Bureau of Immigration within the Treasury Department.
Immigrants begin entering the United States at Ellis Island. Over 12 million immigrants, mostly from Europe, are processed there over a thirty-year period.
Ellis Island Immigration Station opens.

Geary Act extends Chinese Exclusion for 10 more years and requires registration of all laborers within one year and issuance of certificates of registration.
1893 - 1897
The Stock Market crashes and another depression envelopes the country.
Gresham-Yang Treaty voids the Scott Act and allows laborers with re-entry permits to enter the U.S.

In the landmark case of Wong Kim Ark v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the doctrine of birthright citizenship-that an individual born in a country is a citizen of that country.
After President William McKinley is assassinated by a Polish anarchist, Congress enacts the Anarchist Exclusion Act, which allows immigrants to be excluded on the basis of their political opinions.

The Act of 1903 excludes persons who advocate or believe in the overthrow of the government by violence.

Exclusion laws are extended to include U.S. territories (i.e. Hawaii) and prohibit immigration of Chinese laborers to the mainland.

Expatriation Act declares that an American woman who marries a foreign national loses her citizenship.

Gentleman's Agreement: The United States and Japan agree not to restrict Japanese immigration in exchange for Japan's promise not to issue passports to Japanese laborers for travel to the continental United States. Japanese laborers are permitted to go to Hawaii, but are barred from migrating from Hawaii to the mainland. The agreement allows family members of those already in the U.S. to emigrate, which included "picture brides."
Angel Island Immigration Station is put into operation near San Francisco - primarily as a result of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It serves as a processing and detainment center for over one million immigrants, mostly from Asia, during 30 years of operation.
Angel Island Immigration Station opens.
California's Alien Land Law prohibits "aliens ineligible for citizenship" (Chinese and Japanese) from owning property in the state. It provides the model for similar acts in other states.
1914 - 1918
World War I: U.S. involvement 1917 - 1918.
Russians immigrate to California in the wake of the Russian Revolution.
Congress enacts a literacy requirement for immigrants over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The law requires immigrants to be able to read 40 words in some language. It immediately effects Mexican and French Canadian immigration. The law also specifies that immigration is prohibited from Asia, except from Japan and the Philippines.
A major wave of Filipinos leave the Philippines for the United States.
Quota Act limits annual European immigration to 3 percent of the number of a nationality group in the United States in 1910. The act favored England and northern European countries over southern and eastern European ones.

Alien wives of American citizens, irrespective of race, can no longer acquire U.S. citizenship through marriage.

Cable Act partially repeals the Expatriation Act, but declares that an American woman who marries an Asian still loses her citizenship.

In the landmark case of United States v. Bhaghat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court rules that Indians from the Asian subcontinent could not become naturalized U.S. citizens.

The Johnson-Reed Act limits annual European immigration to 2 percent of the number of nationality group in the United States in 1890.

Oriental Exclusion Act prohibits most immigration from Asia (Chinese and Japanese), including foreign-born wives and children of U.S. citizens of Chinese ancestry.
The Stock Market crash leads to the Great Depression.
The Tydings-McDuffie Act, which provided for independence for the Philippines on July 4, 1946, strips Filipinos of their status as U.S. nationals and severely restricted Filipino immigration by establishing an annual immigration quota of 50.
Refugees from the Dust Bowl conditions migrate to California and the Pacific Coast to seek jobs and a new place to live.

World War II begins in Europe and Asia.
The Alien Registration Act requires the registration and fingerprinting of all aliens in the United States over the age of 14. The act classifies Korean immigrants as subjects of Japan.
Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, war declared by the United States. Defense industries are mobilized on the Pacific Coast and workers are recruited from all over the country leading to overnight growth of communities.
Filipinos are reclassified as U.S. citizens, making it possible for them to register for the military.

Executive Order 9066 authorizes the military to evacuate 112,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific coast and placed them in ten internment camps.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed as a result of China's allegiance to the U.S. during World War II.

By the end of the 1940s, all restrictions on Asians acquiring U.S. citizenship are abolished.

Congress creates the Bracero Program a guest worker program bringing temporary agricultural workers into the United States from Mexico. The program ended in 1964.

In the case of United States v. Korematsu, the Supreme Court upholds the internment of Japanese Americans as constitutional.

The War Brides Act allows foreign-born wives of U.S. citizens who had served in the U.S. armed forces to enter the United States.

FiancÚs of American soldiers were allowed to enter the United States.

The Luce-Cellar Act extends the right to become naturalized citizens to Filipinos and Asian Indians. The immigration quota is 100 people a year.

The Displaced Persons Act permits Europeans displaced by the war to enter the United States outside of immigration quotas. More than 395,000 people from war-torn European countries are accepted.
1950 - 1953
The Korean War.
The Internal Security Act, passed over President Harry Truman's veto, bars admission to any foreigner who is a Communist or who might engage in activities "which would be prejudicial to the public interest, or would endanger the welfare or safety of the United States."

McCarran Walter Immigration Act, passed over President Harry Truman's veto, affirms the national-origins quota system of 1924 and limits total annual immigration to one-sixth of one percent of the population of the continental United States in 1920. The act exempts spouses and children of U.S. citizens and people born in the Western Hemisphere from the quota. The total quota for Asia is 2,990, compared with 149,667 for Europe and 1,400 for Africa.

Refugee Relief Act extends refugee status to non-Europeans.
Operation Wetback forces the return of undocumented workers to Mexico.
United States accepts qualified Haitian workers due to poverty and job market.

700,000 Cubans flee communist takeover.

1960 - 1965
Vietnam War: U.S. advisory involvement.

U.S. admits 15,000 Chinese refugees from Hong Kong.
A wave of Mexican, Cuban, Filipino, Italian and Taiwanese immigrants enter the United States.

Immigration and Nationality Act abolishes the national origins quota system, repeals the Asia Pacific Triangle barred law, gives priority to family reunification and abolishes prior restrictive laws based on bigotry, prejudice and unwarranted fears. Ceilings of 120,000 from east and 170,000 from west hemispheres are established. Mexican, Cuban, Filipino, Italian, Taiwanese immigrants enter United States.
1965 - 1973
Vietnam War: U.S. combat involvement.
About 20,000 to 25,000 Jamaicans a year are now coming to America.

Southeast Asians emigrate and are resettled from Vietnam in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon. The majority settle in California.

A worldwide immigration ceiling is introduced.

Indo-Chinese refugees seek political asylum.
The Refugee Act is enacted in response to the boat people fleeing Vietnam. It grants asylum to politically oppressed refugees. Ten million permanent immigrants are admitted legally to the United States. Illegal immigration adds several million more to the population.

The Immigration Reform and Control Act gives amnesty to approximately three million undocumented residents and provides punishments for employers who hire undocumented workers.

The Redress Act provides $20,000 compensation to survivors of the World War II internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans.

The Immigration Act of 1990 increases the number of immigrants allowed into the United States each year to 700,000.
Haitians migrate to the United States. These events lead to a 1993 Supreme Court decision, a1996 statutory adoption of a new legal standard, and a special 1998 law permitting certain Haitian migrants to apply for permanent residency in the United States.
California voters enact Proposition 187, later declared unconstitutional, which prohibits providing of public educational, welfare, and health services to undocumented aliens.
Welfare Reform Reconciliation Act of 1996 cuts government aid programs and will have a great effect on immigrants across America.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act strengthens border enforcement and makes it more difficult to gain asylum. The law establishes income requirements for sponsors of legal immigrants.

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, Congress makes citizenship a condition of eligibility for public benefits for most immigrants.
Congress restores benefits for some elderly and indigent immigrants who had previously received them.

The Agricultural Research, Extension, and Education Reform Act and the Noncitizen Benefit Clarification and Other Technical Amendments Act restore additional public benefits to some immigrants.

The American Competitiveness and Work force Improvement Act increases the number of skilled temporary foreign workers U.S. employers are allowed to bring into the country.
The World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon are attacked by terrorists on 9/11.
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