The United States government began to formalize control over immigration following the American Revolution. Management of immigration required gathering information about the people who already resided here and documenting the new immigrants arriving daily.
The new federal government needed data about the nation’s inhabitants for planning and distributing revenues and taxes, as well as for allocating Congressional seats among the states to ensure equal representation. To accomplish their objectives, a decennial (every ten years) census was formally established under Article 2 of the US Constitution, with the first to commence in 1790. Immediately following this, a heated debate ensued in Congress “to establish a uniform system of naturalization, the terms on which foreigners shall be admitted to the rights of citizens.” Over time, Census data would be used to track rates and sources of immigration and its impact on population growth in the states. New York State has consistently ranked in the top five states with the highest number of foreign-born population since 1850.
Throughout the eighteenth century, many people immigrating to the United States who were too poor to afford regular berths on ships would be placed in “steerage” or cargo areas of a ship, where horrifying conditions of overcrowding, filth, disease, and death pervaded. In response to this, Congress enacted the 1819 Steerage Act, requiring every ship coming into the United States to produce a manifest (or list) of its human cargo, including each passenger’s age, sex, occupation, country of origin, and destination. The Act imposed a heavy fine for every person over a threshold relative to the size of the ship and required that ship captains report any deaths.
While it was intended to improve conditions for trans-Atlantic travelers, the act was not well enforced, so steerage conditions remained extremely hazardous for poor immigrants throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. In fact, “coffin ships” became notorious in the late 1840s for the number of desperate Irish immigrants in crowded, disease-ridden ships during the Potato Famine.
In addition to the Steerage Act of 1819, quarantine laws were imposed on ship owners to reduce the spread of diseases such as yellow fever. These laws were vigorously resisted by New York companies, who felt they were unable to compete with the foreign shippers not subject to such laws in New York ports.