What is the Immigration and Nationality Act?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 March 2020
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The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 is a United States federal law that outlines the permissions and restrictions regarding immigration to the US. Also known as the McCarren-Walter Act, after its two main sponsors, the Immigration and Nationality Act, or INA, remains in effect in the 21st century, though several provisions have been modified and many amendments added to the original text. Famously controversial for many reasons, the INA was vetoed by President Harry Truman, and only passed through an overrule vote in the legislature.

The origins of the Immigration and Nationality Act can be traced to several related issues in the early 1950s. Though US immigration law had existed since shortly after the American Revolution, many historians attribute the initial impulse for a new immigration statute to a desire for a more comprehensive and focused doctrine following the shifting international relationships created by World War II. In addition, at the dawn of the Cold War, much of US policy began to reflect the growing anti-Communist sentiment in the nation. Additionally, lasting enmity with some Asian countries, particularly Japan, led to a push to revise the visa system on a preferential basis.


Senators McCarran and Walter, who would both go on to play significant roles in the government-run anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s, presented the Immigration and Nationality Act as a means of improving national security, as well as an attempt to formally codify the disparate laws guiding immigration. One of the major changes to existing law presented in the bill was a revision of quota systems that based allowed number of immigrants on nationality rather than race. In what some call “one step forward, one step back,” the new bill eased immigration standards for some racially-excluded immigrants, while severely limiting quotas of allowed visas for people of certain nationalities. Visas were also given based on preferential rank, which used factors like national origin, skilled labor, and the existence of relatives with US citizenship, to determine legal status. After more than a decade of fiery argument, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 revised the quota system to allow a more even distribution of visas between nations.

The other major controversial notion in the bill was the exclusion of immigrants based on health, criminal history, and, most significantly, ideology. This provision was used for decades to exclude immigrants presumed to have Communist tendencies, often without any sort of proof. In addition, immigrants found to be practicing or associating with Socialist or Communist groups were subject to deportation. Though many of the ideological grounds for deportation were repealed in the 1990s, the door on ideological exclusion was re-opened following the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States.


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