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Q. Were sponsors required of immigrants coming to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
A. Sponsorship in US immigration has a complex history. Today, the term refers to family members who sponsor relatives under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which repealed the national origins quota system and gave priority to family reunification. Sponsors also can be companies who bring employees to the United States, referring to visa requirements and application for a “green card.” 
Sponsoring laborers was outlawed by the 1885 Contract Labor Law, which forbade Americans from engaging in labor contracts with overseas individuals prior to their immigration, and banned ship captains from transporting immigrants under labor contracts. Family Tree Magazine immigration expert Sharon DeBartolo Carmack explains, “Officials wouldn’t release an immigrant to a ‘sponsor,’ because there was worry of contract labor, white slave trading, prostitution, etc., especially if it was a woman traveling alone. It still went on, but underground. That’s why passenger lists began reporting who paid for a traveler’s voyage.” Women traveling alone or with small children were often detained until a husband or male relative arrived to collect them.
You may have heard that during the period of mass immigration through Ellis Island, beginning in 1892, US arrivals with little funds had to rely on a sponsor to enter the country. “The amount of money they had to have on them—perhaps $30—depended on the time period, and if they didn’t have it, they were supposedly deported,” Carmack says. Immigrant aid societies sometimes served as informal sponsors.
The term is also used in naturalization for people who could attest to how long the immigrant had lived in the United States.
From the January/February 2014 Family Tree Magazine