Controls in the Antebellum United
Gerald L. Neuman
It is well known that the United States imposed no quantitative limitations on immigration until the 1920s. It is too often forgotten that the federal government and many of the states sought to impose a variety of qualitative controls on migration, even before 1875, the year from which federal immigration law is conventionally dated. These laws emerged from a fragmented policymaking structure, including the laws of the several states, congressional legislation, and international treaties. In some instances, federal law supported state policies; in other instances they may have conflicted. Substantively, the migration controls of the antebellum period (i.e., preceding the Civil War of 1861–1865) may be grouped under five general headings: regulation of the movement of alien criminals; regulation of movement of the poor; regulation connected with labour regimes, including slavery; quarantine; and regulation of the movement of free blacks.
Implementation of these policies was also institutionally complex. State laws were enforced, with varying degrees of efficiency, by state executive officials, sometimes with the assistance of state courts. Federal laws authorized enforcement by federal officials and federal courts, and sometimes by state courts as well. Federal officials also cooperated in the enforcement of some state laws, including diplomatic intervention with foreign governments that supported emigration inconsistent with state policies.