The Law: Federal legislation that set immigration quotas for individual countries that were based on the number of foreign nationals living in the United States in 1890
Date: Signed into law on May 26, 1924
Also known as: National Origins Act; Johnson- Reed Act; Asian Exclusion Act
Significance: The act represented the first major attempt to restrict immigration into the United States. The establishment of a quota system limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe (primarily Jewish and Slavic) while allowing significant immigration from northern and western Europe. Asians were specifically excluded from immigration.
Application for the readmission to the United States of a Brooklyn restaurateur who had returned to China for a visit. The letter cites the terms of the Immigration Act of 1924. (NARA)
The Immigration Act of 1924 was a continuation of the Immigration Act of 1917 and attempted to fix loopholes in immigration restriction established by the earlier law. In the decades prior to 1917, what was effectively unlimited immigration resulted in nearly ten million people legally entering the United States. Many of these people came from eastern Europe and Russia. The onset of World War I significantly reduced the ability of Europeans to enter the United States. The war itself, and the subsequent entry of the United States into the war in April, 1917, resulted in a nationalistic fervor within the American population that in turn resulted in modifications to existing immigration laws. The effect was to severely alter the demographics of those permitted to enter the country.
Previous immigration laws, particularly those that governed immigration from Japan—Chinese were already barred, the result of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—were largely restrictive solely on the basis of a "Gentlemen’s Agreement”: Since 1907, Japan had voluntarily restricted emigration of its citizens to the United States. The major concern of the Immigration Act of 1917 was the large influx of eastern Europeans, many of them illiterate, as well as "Asiatics”—the term used for Asians. In February, 1917, the act was passed over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson and became law. Provisions of the act included the exclusion of "undesirables” such as criminals, those deemed insane or "idiots,” and alcoholics. The most controversial portion of the act, creating an "Asiatic Barred Zone,” kept out immigrants from eastern Asia, particularly those from India. The Philippines were not included since the islands were an American possession, nor was Japan included.
Other provisions increased the "head tax” to eight dollars. Finally, a literacy test was imposed on future immigrants. Any persons over the age of sixteen would have to be literate. However, this particular provision was relatively loose in its restrictions. As long as a husband was literate, neither his wife nor other family members had to be literate as well. The literacy test proved to be of no more than minor significance. During the last year in which the act was law—July, 1920, to June, 1921—only some fourteen hundred immigrants were denied entry as a result of illiteracy, compared with more than one million who attempted to enter. Nevertheless, the act of 1917 represented the first broad attempt to restrict immigration into the United States.
The recognition that more than 800,000 immigrants had been admitted to the United States during 1920-1921 illustrated the loose restrictions imposed by the immigration law of 1917. Of particular concern was the fear that many of these immigrants from Russia or eastern Europe, many of them Jewish, were Bolsheviks or other kinds of radicals. The Red Scare (1919-1920) represented a symptom of the growing concern that revolutions taking place in Europe could spread to American shores. The Immigration Act of 1921, while merely a stopgap until more encompassing legislation could be passed, reflected that fear. Unlike the 1917 law, the 1921 act limited the annual number of immigrants from each country to 3 percent of that nation’s nationals present in the United States according to the 1910 U.S. Census. Total immigration was set at 357,000 persons.
Introduced by Congressman Albert Johnson in the House of Representatives and David Reed in the Senate, the Immigration Act of 1924 was intended to permanently restrict the immigration numbers from "undesirable” areas of the world— particularly from Russia and eastern Europe.
In addition to having fears about radicalism, congressional leaders were concerned about the large influx of workers willing to work for substandard wages; not surprisingly, among the supporters of the bill were the leaders of the growing unions among American workers. The fear of "cheap labor” was largely directed toward eastern Europeans. During World War I, large numbers of Latin American workers, particularly from Mexico, had entered the United States to supplement the labor force related to war industries or farming, especially in the sparsely populated Southwest. The importance of these workers was reflected in their exemption from the quota system as established by the act. In the years prior to implementation of the act, immigrants from Latin America represented approximately 30 percent of total immigration.
Changes in the demographics of the United States in the years between 1880 and 1920 played perhaps the most significant role in defining the language of the bill. The perception had been that the United States had been settled largely by western European stock, primarily Protestant, and nearly entirely white. Black people, freed fromslavery only in recent generations, and mostly uneducated and living in poverty, were either excluded or simply ignored in the argument.
By the 1920’s, nearly one-third of the American population consisted of immigrants and their families. The birthrate among this segment of the population suggested that the proportion of the population they represented would continue to increase. Moreover, intelligence tests administered to U.S. Army recruits during World War I were interpreted to mean that southern and eastern Europeans were of lesser intelligence than northern Europeans. The mythology of the superiority of the Nordics, or northern and western Europeans, was addressed in a popular book written by the American anthropologist Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Grant argued that both physical and mental characteristics of eastern European immigrants were below the standards of the dominant Protestant stock. Unless restrictions were placed on this population—and a program of eugenics was considered as a portion of such control— both the quality of life and the characteristics of a Protestant-dominated society would suffer. Limits to immigration represented the clearest support for Grant’s arguments. The effect on Asian or African immigration was even greater. The 1924 act excluded Asians "and their descendants” as well as descendants of "slave immigrants.”
The greatest influx of immigrants from eastern Europe had occurred in the two to three decades prior to the start of World War I in 1914. Thus, the basis for the quota was changed from the U.S. Census of 1910 to that of 1890, when far fewer southern and eastern Europeans had resided in the United States. Furthermore, the quota was reduced from 3 percent to 2 percent of the number of foreign-born persons of each nationality resident in the United States in 1890. By 1929, the 2-percent quota was replaced by a total annual immigration cap of 150,000.
Other changes were meant to increase the monetary cost to potential immigrants, another means to restrict the poor. The head tax was increased to nine dollars. while requirements for both visas and photographs were implemented. The cost of the visa was nine dollars. This meant that families with several children might have to pay fifty dollars or more, on top of the cost of travel by ship, which might have been ten to twenty dollars per passenger. The significance of the visa was not only at the port of entry. In this manner, consulates at the country of origin also had a mechanism to regulate who was permitted to immigrate to the United States. Since members of the consulate determined which applicants could obtain visas, they exercised significant discretion as to who would be acceptable. In theory, only "desirables” would be issued such visas.
The most immediate impact of the new law was the restriction of eastern Europeans, particularly Jews, from entering the United States. Between 1880 and 1924, approximately two million European Jews entered the country. In the year after passage of the new immigration law, fewer than 10,000 European Jews were able to enter on an annual basis. Similar effects were observed among other eastern Europeans. Between 1921 and 1929, the average number of Poles entering the United States was reduced from an annual average of 95,000 to fewer than 10,000. The number of German immigrants, however, because of reduced restrictions— and a larger quota—increased during this period to a high of 45,000 annually, a number exceeded by British subjects to 50,000 annually. Between 1924 and the years immediately following World War II, total immigration was below three million people.
The long-term effects on European Jewry proved particularly devastating. With the limited quotas, European Jews in general, and French, Polish, and German Jews in particular, were largely unable to obtain visas during the years leading up to World War II, during which some six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis. While Jewish refugees such as Albert Einstein were often epitomized as examples of the openness of American society to European refugees, the reality was that only several thousand Jews, mostly the highly educated, were able to enter the United States.
The national quotas were slightly modified in 1929. However, the system as established by the act of 1924 remained largely in place until 1952. Family members of U.S. citizens were not included in quota numbers, while women were not afforded equal status until the changes of 1952.
Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperPerennial, 2002. History of immigration beginning with the earliest settlements. The significance of various immigration acts and restrictions is explored.
_______. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. Synopsis of the evolution of immigration policies since the 1880’s. Highlighted are specific laws associated with major immigration legislation.
Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2002. Examines the history of nativism and its significance to the sociology and economics of the developing United States.
LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Collection of documents that covers the history of immigration laws beginning with the colonial period. Relevant court cases are discussed.
Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. Explores the significance of the Asian community in America, its history and response to prejudice.
Wenger, Beth. The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices in America. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Immigration, challenges, and growth of the Jewish community in America. Includes the effects of laws regulating immigration on the Jewish population.
See also: Asian immigrants; Congress, U.S.; European immigrants; Gentlemen’s Agreement; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1921; Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952; Immigration law; Jewish immigrants; Quota systems.