Racism and nativism shaped immigration law in the United States. Particular laws in the present continue to be harsh toward nonwhite immigrants, and nativist tendencies emerge in controversies over immigration.

In 1790, a policy determined that only whites could naturalize to become U.S. citizens. Exclusion policies for potential Chinese immigrants began in 1882. The Immigration Act of 1924 put restrictions and racial quotas on the number of people allowed to enter the United States, especially southern and eastern Europeans. The U.S. Border Patrol originated in 1924.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, Mexicans and Mexican American U.S. citizens faced roundups and deportations. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act ended racial quotas and allowed family reunification and skill-based immigration. Unintended consequences of the 1965 act included increasing immigration from India, China, Japan, Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Latin America, and the Caribbean. U.S. society as a whole targeted Mexicans for extra surveillance into the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Now Muslim and Arab-looking persons are targets of anti-immigrant stances. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed amid nativist sentiments that believed Mexicans stole jobs, abused the welfare system, and refused to assimilate to the United States. In the same vein in the early 1990s, Proposition 187, in California, also was an attempted push against undocumented immigrants to take away social supports and education. Three laws passed in 1996 increased deportations, especially men accused of drug offenses. In 2010 Arizona bill S.B. 1070 attempted to racially profile Latinos and Latino immigrants. Ninety-eight percent of deportees are sent to South or Central America. The laws passed in 1996 continue to split families apart and cause hardships for immigrants. Anti-immigrant attitudes remain, now held against Muslim or Arab-appearing immigrants. For example, in January 2017, the White House passed an executive order to try to ban people from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from coming to the United States.