Immigration Timeline With Old Curmudgeon’s Annotation

Adapted from Freedom for Immigrants which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in California.


The following is adapted from Freedom for Immigrants a 501(c)(3) non-profit based in California which promotes the sharing of their information.

1929 Immigration Act – Also known as Senator Coleman Livingston Blease’s bill [D-SC], this Act targeted Mexicans and undermined rulings in Wong and Ting that decriminalized unlawfully residing in the U.S. Instead, this Act targeted people unlawfully entering the U.S. Unlawful entry would be a misdemeanor punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to 1 year in prison, and unlawfully re-entry would be a felony punishable by $1,000 fine and/or up to two years in prison.

1929 to 1936 – Mexican Repatriation occurs throughout the Great Depression, including mass round-ups and deportations of Mexicans and Filipinos. Estimates of total deportations range from 500,000 to 2M, of whom a likely 60% were U.S.-born citizens.

1939 – Over 44,000 cases prosecuted in previous 10 years under the Immigration Act of 1929.  Convictions on immigration charges surpassed all other federal crimes (except for alcohol charges under prohibition laws).

1940 – Angel Island Immigration Station in California closed.

1942 – As a World War II measure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, establishing U.S. sites as military zones and providing for the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans over the course of the war, as well as German-Americans and Italian-Americans suspected of serving as enemy spies.

1943 – The Chinese Exclusion Act is repealed and replaced with a quota.

1942 Creation of the Bracero Program  It provided temporary agricultural visas for people from Mexico in an effort to fill the World War II farm-labor shortages in the United States

1946  The School of the Americas (SOA) is formed at Fort Benning, Georgia, a U.S. military program (still in effect) to exert imperialistic influence over Latin America and train Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, anti-communism, torture, and surveillance techniques. Former Panamanian president Jorge Illueca has called SOA, which has trained over 60,000 foreign soldiers, the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.” It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been forcibly displaced by the effects of this program.



1952 Immigration & Nationality Act – Established the grounds for which a noncitizen can be blocked from entering the United States or deported, including criminal history or radical political views. It also allowed for authorities to use discretion to grant noncitizens release from detention on bond, based on community ties and pending a final determination of removability. This, combined with the end of the era of Chinese Exclusion, led to a decline in the systematic use of immigration detention (except during periods of targeted deportations of Mexicans in the 1950s and Haitians in the 1970s).

1954 – Ellis Island Immigration Station in New Jersey closed.

1954 to 1956 “Operation Wetback” – A targeted immigration enforcement campaign launched by the Eisenhower administration during which over 1M Mexicans, many who arrived under the Bracero Program, were targeted for deportation

1964 Bracero Program ends

1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act – Repealed 1921 national origins quotas, which had insured that immigration was primarily reserved for European immigrants, and replaced it with a preference system based on immigrants’ family relationships with U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. However, by placing limits on immigration from Latin America for the first time, this Act led to a rise in “unauthorized immigration” from this region in subsequent decades.

1966 – Australia opened its first immigration detention facility in the country, the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre.

1970 – First dedicated immigration detention facility in Europe opened in England, the Harmondsworth Detention Centre, although France’s immigration detention regime dates back to 1970, as well.

1980 to 1981 – The United States begins a new round of mass immigration detentions in response to the migration of Cubans in the “Mariel Boatlift,” in addition to Haitians and Central Americans fleeing totalitarian governments and civil war.

1981 – President Ronald Reagan announces a new detention policy aiming to punish and deter Latin American migration, including the detention of asylum seekers. Reagan also launched a renewed “War on Drugs” that would pave the way for the increased militarization of border enforcement and conflation of drug and immigration enforcement through interdiction programs.

1981 – The Reagan administration opens the McAllen Detention Center on a former U.S. Navy Base in Puerto Rico to detain Haitians.  This facility was already being constructed by the Carter administration to detain Cuban and Haitian refugees.

1982 – Hong Kong passes an Immigration Bill, leading to the creation of the first immigration detention camps in the country. These are believed to be some of the first facilities in East Asia.

1982 – South Africa opened the first immigration detention center, the Lindela Holding Facility. Previously, immigrants were detained in prisons. This is believed to be one of the first dedicated facilities in Africa, although former European colonies most likely detained immigrants for decades prior.



1983 – The Reagan administration forms its Mass Immigration Emergency Plan, requiring that 10,000 immigration detention beds be located and ready for use at any given time.

1983 – The world’s first private prison company Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which changed its name in 2016 to CoreCivic, was formed. CCA enters into its first federal government contract [Reagan Administration] for an immigration detention facility in Texas. Immigrants were first detained at a hotel owned by CCA, while the Houston Contract Detention Facility was being built.

1984 – GEO Group, formerly The Wackenhut Corporation, was formed.

1985 – CCA’s second facility opens in Laredo, Texas, and is the first immigration detention facility to detain infants and children [Reagan Administration].

1986 The Immigration Reform and Control Act – granted a blanket amnesty for undocumented arrivals and placed sanctions on employers of unauthorized workers; the latter went largely unenforced [Reagan Administration].

1987 – GEO Group wins its first federal government contract for the Aurora Detention Facility in Colorado, an immigration detention facility [Reagan Administration].

1988 The Anti-Drug Abuse Act – Required the mandatory detention of all non-citizens who had committed an “aggravated felony,” beginning a new era of mandatory immigration detention.

1988 President George H.W. Bush issued a national apology to Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, awarding reparations of $20,000 to each family subjected to internment.

1990 – Australia opened its first private prison, run by Corrections Corporation of Australia (CCA), owned by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)/CoreCivic

1991 – The United States opens an immigration detention facility, the Migrant Operations Center, at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Before this naval base was used to hold prisoners of war indefinitely as part of the “War on Terror,” this facility was used to hold asylum seekers and refugees [George H. W Bush Administration].

1993 – Following the lead of the United States in Cuba and Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of The Bahamas opens its first dedicated immigration detention facility in the Caribbean, the Carmichael Road Detention Center.

1994 – The United States, Canada, and Mexico enter into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); in effect, resulted in long-term job loss and economic stagnancy in Mexico and the displacement of Mexican small farm operators and workers.

1994 “Operation Gatekeeper” – Border enforcement program under the Clinton administration that provided for the doubling of Border Patrol officers, construction of 5 miles of a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in San Diego, California, and additional fencing in Arizona. These measures forced migrant routes into more treacherous desert regions, resulting in increased deaths in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands–over 7,000 as of 2017.

1995 – Series of uprisings in for-profit immigration detention facilities



1996 The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) 

Together known as “The 1996 Laws,” this set of laws has had the greatest impact on expanding the U.S. immigration detention system by expanding the list of “crimes of moral turpitude,” including non-violent drug and other charges, for which both legal immigrants and undocumented non-citizens can be subjected to mandatory detention and deportation. These laws can be applied retroactively, and also impose 3-year, 10-year, and lifetime bars on returning to the U.S. after deportation [Bill Clinton Administration].


2001 Zadvydas v. Davis – Case limiting the “plenary power doctrine,” or the authority of the U.S. government to detain immigrants indefinitely, if they do not have a country that will receive them after their are ordered deported [Clinton Administration]

2001 – A terrorist attack launched by the group Al-Qaeda on September 11 hijacked four commercial airplanes and killed 2,753 people in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, effectively beginning the U.S. “War on Terror.” The U.S. government passes the USA PATRIOT Act to expand surveillance capacities and heightens its targeting of Arab and Muslim immigrants for detention [Bush Administration].

2002 – Guantanamo Bay U.S. military prison established in Cuba; the base had previously been used as an immigration detention site from the 1970s-90s to detain Cubans and Haitians.

2003 Demore v. Kim – Supreme Court ruling upholding the federal government’s right to detain legal immigrants during deportation proceedings.

2003 Creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) – The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is dissolved and reformed into three branches: U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The immigration detention system now falls under the purview of ICE [Bush Administration].

2005 – “Operation Streamline” begins, allowing for the criminal prosecution of people apprehended at the border and to be held in privately-operated Criminal Alien Requirement (CAR) prisons and administered by the Bureau of Prisons [Bush Administration].

2008 – The Bush administration pilots the “Secure Communities” program, strengthening federal immigration and local law enforcement partnerships.

2009 Immigration Detention Bed Quota – Passed by Congress, DHS must now maintain a minimum of 34,000 detention beds across the country on any given day [Obama Administration].

2009 – Obama administration temporarily ends practice of family detention, although the Berks Family Detention Center remain in operation

2011 – The Obama administration expands the “Secure Communities” program, which relies on federal and local law enforcement partnerships to carry out ICE’s detention priorities.

2011 – Ecuador opens Hotel Hernon, followed by Hotel Carrión (opened in 2013). These are the first dedicated detention facilities in South and Central America, although Ecuador passed legislation in 1971 to allow for the detention of unauthorized migrants.

2012 – The Obama administration established the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, providing temporary work status and relief from deportation for those who arrived in the United States as minors and meet certain requirements.

2012 – Israel opens the Holot Detention Center, the largest in the world to date, with capacity to hold up to 10,000 migrants.

2014 – The Obama administration resumes practice of family detention in response to increase of unaccompanied minors, women and child migrants from Central America.

August 2016 – The U.S. Justice Department and DHS announce they will phase out the use of private prisons; private prison industry stocks plummet.

November 2016 – Donald J. Trump is elected president; private prison industry stocks rise.

January 2017 – At the end of President’ Obama’s term, detention numbers are at a record high of over 40,000 per day and the Obama administration has deported over 3 million people, more than all presidents since 1890 combined.

January 2017 President Trump signs Executive Order on immigration, promising to fortify and expand U.S. immigration enforcement capacities and the detention system.

October 2017 – The Dignity Not Detention Act passes in California, the first law of its kind to restrict the growth of for-profit immigration detention contracting on a statewide level. This law was drafted and co-sponsored by Freedom for Immigrants.

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