Likely to become a public charge
In recent weeks, "likely to become a public charge" has made an appearance in the debates about immigration. To judge by how the phrase has been received, one might think this was something new, but this is most definitely not the case: it appears in the Immigration Act of 1882 (An act to regulate Immigration, 47th Congress, Sess. I, Chap. 376, passed August 3, 1882. 22 Stat 214), the first federal law seeking to regulate immigration. That law made "becoming a public charge" one of the criteria for denying entry to an immigrant.
Later immigration laws fleshed out the criteria first identified in the 1882 law, establishing six categories for exclusion. Immigrants who were deemed to fall into any of them were to be sent back to their place of embarkation at the expense of the shipping company that transported them.
One set of economic issues used the terminology "likely to become a public charge" explicitly. Examples of those not eligible for entry included paupers, beggars, vagrants, people without a useful skill, cripples and those with other handicaps, those incapable of taking care of themselves, and unaccompanied minors.
The other five categories were:
Medical issues, defined to be any "loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,'' such as tuberculosis, smallpox, typhus, cholera, favus, trachoma, etc. The objective here was to keep contagious diseases, and the costs of treating people suffering from them, out of the country. The nature of this provision can be understood by noting that pinkeye was taken off the list when a cure was discovered that costs only a few dollars.
Psychological and intellectual problems such as insanity, lunacy, epilepsy. idiocy, having low intelligence, etc. Illiteracy, in any language, added only in 1917, could be deemed to fall into this category.
Moral issues with a strong emphasis on sexual behavior like prostitution or polygamy, as well as chronic alcoholics. In later versions, prostitution was expanded to include anyone involved in the business in any way.
Conviction of a felony or other serious crime involving moral turpitude. This category was expanded to include those who advocated the use of violence to overthrow the government or the Constitution, anarchists, and anyone who favored political assassination or destruction of public property. People convicted of political crimes weren't barred.
People with employment contracts for common labor. Professionals, including professors, artists, lecturers, ministers, and others who would not compete with native-born or naturalized workers were exempted. This category and earlier laws banning the arrival of contract laborers, Chinese exclusion laws, and the assignment of immigration to what would evolve into the Department of Labor all point to a mindset in which immigration was seen in terms of its impact on native and naturalized labor and the potential for depressing wage rates.
Taken in conjunction with the imposition of a head tax (starting at $0.50 in 1882, then rising) intended to defray the entire cost of running the immigration service, these categories make clear that the objective was to prevent immigration from creating a burden of any sort on those already living in America — i.e., the people who elect the members of Congress.
The criteria identified above applied only to those arriving by ship; the rules were quite different for people crossing from Mexico or Canada, plus some of the nearby islands. People from those places were expected to go home in short order; in some sense, they were regarded more as visitors than as potential immigrants.
Very few prospective immigrants were sent back, largely because the shipping companies screened potential immigrants to keep those who were likely to be rejected from boarding — they didn't want to risk having to bear the cost of returning anyone back to Europe. Twenty-five million immigrants arrived under these standards, mainly the ancestors of today's white ethnic groups, which were the basis of immigration law until 1924, when national quotas were added to prevent changes in the ethnic composition of the American people.
One last detail should bring this all into focus: these laws governed legal immigration. Illegal immigration obviously operated without any standards at all. What has changed that would make abandonment of any standards desirable?