First group of Korean immigrants enter Hawaii

On January 13, 1903, the RMS Gaelic arrives in Honolulu, bringing with it the first Korean immigrants to the United States. The Hawaiian Star calls the 102 newcomers “a possible solution for the problem of labor on plantations,” foreshadowing the difficult lives that await them in the recently-acquired U.S. territory.

As the Star’s framing suggests, early Korean immigration to the United States was largely a product of American planters’ need for cheap labor. The “problem” the paper referenced was sugar and pineapple plantation owners’ difficulties with their mostly-Japanese workers, and their solution had been to send recruiters to Korea. Christian missionaries also stimulated the first wave of Korean immigration to the United States: missionaries Horace Allen and George Herbert Jones had recruited over half of the Koreans aboard the Gaelic from the Naeri Methodist Church near Inchon.

Many of the workers moved on to the Pacific coast of the mainland United States when their contracts were up, and the Korean American diaspora community went on to play an important role in the Korean Independence Movement. The racist Immigration Act of 1924, colloquially known as the Oriental Exclusion Act, put an abrupt end to Korean immigration to the U.S. for a time, but many Koreans still found their way to the U.S. as students. Another wave of Korean immigrants would arrive starting in 1950, most of them fleeing the civil war in their country. Today, there are over 1.8 million Korean Americans, and Koreatowns exist in many U.S. cities—Honolulu’s received official recognition from the State of Hawaii in 2016. January 13 is now recognized nationally as Korean American Day.

READ MORE: Asian American Milestones: Timeline


U.S. immigration station Angel Island opens in San Francisco Bay

Referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” Angel Island in California‘s San Francisco Bay opens January 21, 1910, as America’s major port of entry for Asian immigrants. Over the next 30 years, an estimated 100,000 Chinese and 70,000 Japanese are processed through the station.

Established as a military reserve during the Civil War, 20 acres of 740-acre island was transferred for use as an immigrant station in 1905, according to the National Parks Service.

With San Francisco serving as a key immigration entry point for Asian immigrants, Angel Island, located 6 miles off the city’s coast, was a preferred location for a station over the mainland. “Its location allowed for greater control over immigrant entry to the U.S., prevented immigrants on the island from communicating with immigrants on the mainland, and slowed the introduction of new or deadly diseases to the general population,” according to the parks service.

After arriving by ship in the bay, immigrants without official documentation were ferried to the island where, the parks service notes, they were quarantined by race and sex “regardless of familial bonds” with children younger than 12 allowed to remain with their mothers. Medical examinations and other hearings could take days to years in a “prison-like environment.”

In 1940, the station was moved to mainland San Francisco, and Angel Island is now a California state park.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline


First Japanese immigrant arrives in the U.S.

Called the U.S.’s first ambassador to Japan, a 14-year-old fisherman by the name of Manjiro is considered America’s first Japanese immigrant, arriving in the country on May 7, 1843, by way of a whaling ship.

According to the National Endowment of the Humanities, the boy and his crew were caught in a violent storm, with their ship eventually washing up on a desert island 300 miles away from their coastal Japanese village. Rescued five months later by an American whaling ship, Manjiro was adopted by American Capt. William Whitfield, who renamed him John Mung and brought him back to the states to his home in Massachusetts.

Manjiro eventually returned to Japan, where he was named a samurai and worked as a political emissary between his home country and the West, the NEH reports.

According to the National Museum of American History, it was about 20 years later, in the 1860s, when groups of Japanese immigrants began arriving in the Hawaiian islands, where they worked in sugarcane fields. From there, many relocated to California, Washington and Oregon.

From 1886 to 1911, the Library of Congress adds, 400,000-plus Japanese women and men immigrated to America, particularly to Hawaii and the West Coast. In commemoration with Manjiro’s early arrival, Congress, in 1992, established May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. 

READ MORE: Asian American Milestones: Timeline


U.S. and Mexico sign the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement

Month Day
August 04

On August 4, 1942, the United States and Mexico sign the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement, creating what is known as the “Bracero Program.” The program, which lasted until 1964, was the largest guest-worker program in U.S. history. Throughout its existence, the Bracero Program benefited both farmers and laborers but also gave rise to numerous labor disputes, abuses of workers and other problems that have long characterized the history of farm labor in the Southwestern United States.

The program was born from necessity, as the federal government worried that American entry into World War II would sap the Southwest of much of its farm labor. Manual laborers (braceros in Spanish) from Mexico became an important part of the region’s economy, and the program outlasted the war. The program guaranteed workers a number of basic protections, including a minimum wage, insurance and safe, free housing; however, farm owners frequently failed to live up to these requirements. Housing and food routinely proved to be well below standards, and wages were not only low but also frequently paid late or not at all. Years after the program ended, many braceros were still fighting to receive the money that had been deducted from their salaries and allegedly put into savings accounts. Due to these broken promises, strikes were a common occurrence throughout this period.

Over 4.6 million contracts were issued over the 22 years of the Bracero Program. Though Congress let the program expire in 1964, it set the stage for decades of labor disputes and a dynamic of migrant labor that still exists today. The 60s and 70s saw the rise of the United Farm Workers, a union composed largely of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, which continued fighting many of the same inequalities that faced the braceros. To this day, migrant labor from Mexico continues to be a vital part of the Southwestern economy as well as a source of political and racial tension.

READ MORE: When Millions of Americans Stopped Eating Grapes in Support of Farm Workers


Immigration act passed over President Wilson’s veto

Month Day
February 05

With more than a two-thirds majority, Congress overrides President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the previous week and passes the Immigration Act. The law required a literacy test for immigrants and barred Asiatic laborers, except for those from countries with special treaties or agreements with the United States, such as the Philippines.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States received a majority of the world’s immigrants, with 1.3 million immigrants passing through New York’s Ellis Island in 1907 alone. Various restrictions had been applied against immigrants since the 1890s, but most of those seeking entrance into the United States were accepted.

However, in 1894, the Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston and subsequently petitioned the U.S. government to legislate that immigrants be required to demonstrate literacy in some language before being accepted. The organization hoped to quell the recent surge of lower-class immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. Congress passed a literacy bill in 1897, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it. In early 1917, with America’s entrance into World War I three months away, xenophobia was at a new high, and a bill restricting immigration was passed over President Wilson’s veto.

Subsequent immigration to the United States sharply declined, and, in 1924 a law was passed requiring immigrant inspection in countries of origin, leading to the closure of Ellis Island and other major immigrant processing centers. Between 1892 and 1924, some 16 million people successfully immigrated to the United States to seek a better life.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Since 1965


Ellis Island closes

Month Day
November 12

On November 12, 1954, Ellis Island, the gateway to America, shuts it doors after processing more than 12 million immigrants since opening in 1892. Today, tens of millions of Americans can trace their roots through Ellis Island, located in New York Harbor off the New Jersey coast and named for merchant Samuel Ellis, who owned the land in the 1770s.

On January 2, 1892, 15-year-old Annie Moore, from Ireland, became the first person to pass through the newly opened Ellis Island, which President Benjamin Harrison designated as America’s first federal immigration center in 1890. Before that time, the processing of immigrants had been handled by individual states.

Not all immigrants who sailed into New York had to go through Ellis Island. First- and second-class passengers submitted to a brief shipboard inspection and then disembarked at the piers in New York or New Jersey, where they passed through customs. People in third class, though, were transported to Ellis Island, where they underwent medical and legal inspections to ensure they didn’t have a contagious disease or some condition that would make them a burden to the government. Only two percent of all immigrants were denied entrance into the U.S.

SEE MORE: 20 Ellis Island Immigration Photos That Capture the Hope and Diversity of New Arrivals

Immigration to Ellis Island peaked between 1892 and 1924, during which time the 3.3-acre island was enlarged with landfill (by the 1930s it reached its current 27.5-acre size) and additional buildings were constructed to handle the massive influx of immigrants. During the busiest year of operation, 1907, over 1 million people were processed at Ellis Island.

With America’s entrance into World War I, immigration declined and Ellis Island was used as a detention center for suspected enemies. Following the war, Congress passed quota laws and the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply reduced the number of newcomers allowed into the country and also enabled immigrants to be processed at U.S. consulates abroad. After 1924, Ellis Island switched from a processing center to serving other purposes, such as a detention and deportation center, a hospital for wounded soldiers during World War II and a Coast Guard training center. In November 1954, the last detainee, a Norwegian merchant seaman, was released and Ellis Island officially closed.

Beginning in 1984, Ellis Island underwent a $160 million renovation, the largest historic restoration project in U.S. history. In September 1990, the Ellis Island Immigration Museum opened to the public and today is visited by almost 2 million people each year.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline 


President Coolidge signs Immigration Act of 1924

Month Day
May 26

President Calvin Coolidge signs into law the Immigration Act of 1924, the most stringent U.S. immigration policy up to that time in the nation’s history.

The new law reflected the desire of Americans to isolate themselves from the world after fighting World War I in Europe, which exacerbated growing fears of the spread of communist ideas. It also reflected the pervasiveness of racial discrimination in American society at the time. Many Americans saw the enormous influx of largely unskilled, uneducated immigrants during the early 1900s as causing unfair competition for jobs and land.

READ MORE: U.S. Immigration Timeline

Under the new law, immigration remained open to those with a college education and/or special skills, but entry was denied to Mexicans, and disproportionately to Eastern and Southern Europeans and Japanese. At the same time, the legislation allowed for more immigration from Northern European nations such as Britain, Ireland and Scandinavian countries.

A quota was set that limited immigration to two percent of any given nation’s residents already in the U.S. as of 1890, a provision designed to maintain America’s largely Northern European racial composition. In 1927, the “two percent rule” was eliminated and a cap of 150,000 total immigrants annually was established.

The law particularly angered Japan, which in 1907 had forged with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt a “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” which included more liberal immigration quotas for Japan. By 1924, strong U.S. agricultural and labor interests–particularly from California, which had already passed its own exclusionary laws against Japanese immigrants–favored the more restrictive legislation signed by Coolidge.

The Japanese government viewed the American law as an insult, and protested by declaring May 26 a national day of humiliation in Japan. The law fanned anti-American sentiment in Japan, inspiring a Japanese citizen to commit suicide outside the American embassy in Tokyo in protest.

Despite becoming known for such isolationist legislation, Coolidge also established the Statue of Liberty as a national monument in 1924.


Chinese miners are massacred in Wyoming Territory

Month Day
September 02

On September 2, 1885, 150 white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, brutally attack their Chinese coworkers, killing 28, wounding 15 others, and driving several hundred more out of town.

The miners working in the Union Pacific coal mine had been struggling to unionize and strike for better working conditions for years. But at every juncture the powerful railroad company had bested them. Searching for a scapegoat, the angry miners blamed the Chinese. The Chinese coal miners were hard workers, but the Union Pacific had initially brought many of them to Rock Springs as strikebreakers, and they showed little interest in the miners’ union. Outraged by a company decision to allow Chinese miners to work the richest coal seams, a mob of white miners impulsively decided to strike back by attacking Rock Spring’s small Chinatown. When they saw the armed mob approaching, most of the Chinese abandoned their homes and businesses and fled for the hills. But those who failed to escape in time were brutally beaten and murdered. A week later, on September 9, U.S. troops escorted the surviving Chinese back into the town where many of them returned to work. Eventually the Union Pacific fired 45 of the white miners for their roles in the massacre, but no effective legal action was ever taken against any of the participants.

The Rock Springs massacre was symptomatic of the anti-Chinese feelings shared by many Americans at that time. The Chinese had been victims of prejudice and violence ever since they first began to come to the West in the mid-nineteenth century, fleeing famine and political upheaval. Widely blamed for all sorts of social ills, the Chinese were also singled-out for attack by some national politicians who popularized strident slogans like “The Chinese Must Go” and helped pass an 1882 law that closed the U.S. to any further Chinese immigration. In this climate of racial hatred, violent attacks against the Chinese in the West became all too common, though the Rock Springs massacre was notable both for its size and savage brutality.

READ MORE: Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen


McCarran-Walter Act goes into effect, revising immigration laws

Month Day
December 24

The McCarran-Walter Act takes effect and revises U.S. immigration laws. The law was hailed by supporters as a necessary step in preventing communist subversion in the United States, while opponents decried the legislation as being xenophobic and discriminatory.

The act, named after Senator Pat McCarran (Democrat-Nevada) and Representative Francis Walter (Democratic-Pennsylvania), did relatively little to alter the quota system for immigration into the United States that had been established in the Immigration Act of 1924. The skewed nature of the quotas was readily apparent.

Immigrants from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany were allotted two-thirds of the 154,657 spots available each year. However, the act did specifically remove previously established racial barriers that had acted to exclude immigrants from nations such as Japan and China. These countries were now assigned very small quotas.

The changes that were of more concern for many critics centered on the act’s provision of much more strenuous screening of potential immigrants. It banned admission to anyone declared a subversive by the attorney general and indicated that members of communist and “communist-front” organizations were subject to deportation.

In defending the act, Senator McCarran declared, “If this oasis of the world should be overrun, perverted, contaminated, or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished.” President Harry S. Truman took a very different view, calling the legislation “un-American” and inhumane.

When the bill was passed in June 1952, Truman vetoed the bill. Congress overrode his veto, and the act took effect in December. The McCarran-Walter Act set America’s immigration standards until new legislation was passed in 1965.