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A Brief History of Immigration Screening in the United States

Given the current political landscape and the continued calls from members of the Republican Party for stricter screening of immigrants, specifically made by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, the topic of immigration testing and criteria has been a subject of great debate. While it remains to be seen whether Trump’s proposed methods of screening out terrorist sympathizers will ever be realized, the truth of the matter is that immigration screening is nothing new. In fact, tests, interviews, and selective criteria have played a role in considering admission to the country for centuries, with some groups who belong to certain political and moral ideologies having consistently been barred from entering the country.

The first form of basic immigration requirement was set in 1790 when Congress declared that individuals who sought citizenship must fulfill a two-rear residency before being considered. Later in 1875, Congress passed the Page Act, the first direct immigration-criteria law which declared that people and groups could be selectively excluded as immigrants based on specific criteria, with port inspectors reserving the right to question and screen immigration candidates. These exclusions would expand in 1882 with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts, which barred Chinese laborers and many other ethnic Chinese individuals from entering the country, regardless of their nationality. This restriction would not be lifted until the 1950s.

Possibly the largest expansion immigration exclusions came attached to the Immigration Act of 1891. Under this law, the list of “undesirables” was broadened to include “idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become a public charge,” along with individuals suffering from contagious diseases, polygamists (who are still banned to this day), felons, and individuals convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude” (also still banned). President Theodore Roosevelt would later authorize the addition of anarchists to this list in 1903.

These restrictions were applied most famously at Ellis Island and other immigration inspection stations during the immigration boom at the turn of the century. Each potential immigrant was required to submit to both medical and cognitive testing and, if they passed, further questioning by clerks and interpreters. Immigrants were also required to have at least $30 on their person and answer questions regarding their criminal history, political beliefs, and philosophical ideals.

In 1917, all previously excluded groups were combined into one catch-all, do-not-admit list, while also adding alcoholics and individuals of Asian-Pacific descent. Later, as a result of the “Red Scare” of the 1950s, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act was passed to eliminate immigrants who advocated for the international, economic, and governmental doctrines of communism.

In modern times, some basic criteria still remain from older exclusion legislation, though the immigration system has grown far more complex. Under the most recent State Department rules, individuals can still be excluded from entering the United States under the Immigration and Naturalization Act if they have certain contagious health conditions or a criminal history, as well as those who have ties to terrorist organizations or totalitarian political parties.

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