Originally, in the 1700s and the early 1800s, it was relatively easy to come to America. Any immigrant who had enough money to come to America could generally do so with relatively few restrictions. After the Civil War, however, many states began to restrict US immigration and by 1875, the Supreme Court determined that US immigration should be a matter handled by the government at the federal level. By the 1880s, Congress passed its first legislation concerning immigration, in response to poor conditions and a huge increase in the number of immigrants entering the country.
It was not until the 1930s that the INS, the precursor to today’s USCIS, was created. In 1891, the Office of Superintendent of Immigration was created and was overseen by the Treasury Department. By 1895, the office was so important that it was renamed the Bureau of Immigration, with additional authorities and responsibilities. By 1906, a separate Naturalization Service and Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization were created and by 1913, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was separated into the Bureau of Naturalization and the Bureau of Immigration. In 1933, these two bureaus were combined again to make INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service).
The INS was created by Executive Order 6166, and it was created in part to reduce the large workload placed on both the Bureau of Naturalization and the Bureau of Immigration. With new citizenship testing created in the 1920s and the new regulations surrounding immigration, these was more work for the bureaus and as the INS, workers could handle the workload more efficiently.
A number of important changes occurred around the time the INS was created. Civil Service exams and merit testing was introduced around this time, so that workers hired by the INS were going through this procedure and the result was a workforce better able to deal with the volume of work. As well, immigration levels reduces quite a great deal in the 1930s, partly due to the Great Depression. As a result, in the early days of the INS, the agency focused on deportation. In the 1930s, a number of repatriation programs were created and the INS was involved with these as well.
In the late 1930s and into the 1940s, as the world prepared for war, immigration came to be seen not only as an economic issue but also a possible security risk. As a result, the INS, which was overseen by the Department of Labor, came to be overseen by the Department of Justice in 1940. When the US joined World War II, many employees of the INS left to serve their country, leaving the agency short of experienced and trained workers. At the same time, the headquarters of the agency were relocated to Philadelphia for the duration of the war.