An Analysis of the Causes of Change in the United States Immigration Laws, 1917-2016

Document Type : Research Paper


1 Assistant Professor of Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran

2 PhD in Regional Studies, Faculty of Law & Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran


Distinctly recognized as one of, if not the most, influential factors in shaping societies, immigrants and their movement create a dynamic shift in the fabric of not only their country of origin but their host country as well. This transformational phenomenon influences every aspect of individual and societal life from culture and religion to politics and even way of thinking; to the point where it is impossible to distinguish a clear ‘before and after’ while studying the advancement of a country. Historically, the United States of America has been heralded as a country of immigrants, and a great ‘melting pot’. Americans take pride in their multinational ancestry and immigrant forefathers who helped build and shape their unique nation. Without a doubt, immigrants are significant factors in the American success story and its countless scientific and technological advances since WW II. This country has been constantly growing and evolving in a manner which is considered an advantageous asset in its quest for superior international status.
All things considered, it is near impossible to scrutinize U.S. immigration policies without a better understanding of the general context in which they are formulated and implemented. One of the main goals is to address the domestic and international factors that have shaped key U.S. immigration laws from 1917 to 2016. In this paper, several key factors influencing U.S. immigration policymaking will be explored, including legislation, economics, and culture. The main research questions to be examined are: 1.To what extent have international factors affected the U.S. legislation regarding the legal and illegal immigration? 2. How has U.S. immigration laws, regulations, and policies influenced its foreign politics, domestic socioeconomic conditions and cultural values? With the help of a neoclassical theoretical framework, the causes and consequences of changes in its immigration policies are analyzed during the 1917-2016 time period. In the research hypothesis, the authors argue that the roots of the evolution of US immigration policies can be traced back to the domestic socio-economic and cultural factors, but American foreign  policy and its standing in the international system have also influenced its immigration laws and policies.
The findings in this article illustrate that United States immigration policies have been evolving since its inception; and its historical progression clearly demonstrates that American lawmakers have sought to take advantage of laws and regulations that were tailored to the specific circumstances in any given time period. Legislators throughout the decades under investigation have attempted to bring about changes in various substantive areas of the country by changing immigration policies in order to use them as effective instruments of foreign and domestic policies. These changes in immigration laws and policies have affected a variety of key domains including the demographic, economic, cultural characteristics as well as political and security environment of the country.
A review of the international developments that took place in the background of the enactment of these laws show that, although the international environment has been somewhat a contributing variable, the transformation of immigration laws has been related to domestic variables more strongly than previously speculated. Actually, the American people themselves have been the main driving force behind the changing nature of these laws. The nationally-rooted laws have revolutionized American society in such a way that their impact is evident in every domain of the society. With the growth and maturity of the fledgling country, its immigration system has also evolved from an affiliated, subordinate  unit to an independent institution within the federal government. The significance of this organization can be clearly seen in the aftermath of the 9/11 events, when the security situation inside the country shifted from a relatively-closed state to a completely-closed state. However, one cannot ignore the role played by the international environment as an effective factor in enabling and facilitating the changes in the U.S. immigration system over the years.
Today, the US immigration system is arguably a prominent factor in shaping many aspects of the country’s development. Therefore, it is an important subject to be addressed by dedicating academic time and attention to analyze the causes and consequence of the immigration laws for the U.S. domestic and foreign policy priorities, and for the international community as a whole. In reference to the question of the factors influencing American immigration policy, it is noteworthy to mention that over time, the immigration system has moved from an externally- to internally- influenced system, taking into consideration that the international environment has always played a key role in policymaking. Furthermore, it is argued that that United States is an evolving state that constantly adapts to its domestic conditions.
Although foreign policy considerations have always played an indisputable role, over time as the system has evolved, the United States domestic security priorities have become increasingly significant factors in immigration policymaking. Moreover, contrary to popular belief and the nostalgic romanticism of this ‘melting pot’, revolutionary changes in immigration policy have invariably led to newly constructed barriers. Moreover, despite the fact that the legacy of this nation is built on the efforts of immigrants, the new potential migrants are in fact perpetually prevented open access and must overcome countless hurdles to gain entry into the country. These restrictions will remain in effect for the time being, but the striking projected demographic condition shows that in the near future, immigrants and their children will make up the majority of the American population. In turn, this will inevitably affect all aspects of policy-making, and there will undoubtedly be a significant shift in the immigration system.


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Volume 51, Issue 2
September 2021
Pages 408-387
  • Receive Date: 02 July 2018
  • Revise Date: 23 August 2021
  • Accept Date: 12 September 2021
  • First Publish Date: 12 September 2021