The Event: Severe worldwide economic downturn that intensified anti-immigrant nativism within the United States
Significance: Immigration was a thorny issue during the Depression. Legislation was already in place barring certain ethnic groups from entering the United States, and immigration remained restricted during the era owing to economic factors. Many refugees fleeing Nazi persecution were denied entrance to the United States because of ethnic quotas.
Beginning in the 1880’s, nativists, who favored the interests of native-born Americans over those of immigrants, succeeded in securing legislation that restricted immigration. The first legislation directed against a specific ethnic group, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, prohibited the entry of Chinese laborers into the United States, and it was not until 1943 that the act was repealed. With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1891 and the opening of Ellis Island the following year, the federal government assumed full control over immigration, and the United States continued its restrictive immigration and naturalization policy. The Immigration Act of 1917 banned immigration from most Asian countries and introduced a literacy test for all immigrants over the age of sixteen. The Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 significantly limited immigration fromsouthern and eastern Europe by assigning a quota for each nationality based on past U.S. Census data. In 1929, the year of the stock market crash that precipitated the Depression, the national origins system established by the Immigration Act of 1924 went into effect. Canadians and Latin Americans were exempt from the quota system.
Because the Immigration Act of 1924 specifically excluded Asian immigration, the United States turned to Mexico as its primary source of cheap labor during the late 1920’s. With its proximity to the United States, Mexico supplied thousands of both legal and undocumented workers to labor on farms and ranches and in construction and mining in the Midwest and Southwest. These immigrants joined Mexican Americans, some of whom were descendants of Mexicans who had entered the United States following the MexicanWar of 1846-1848. At the time of the Depression, several hundred thousand people of Mexican ancestry were living in the United States.
Rampant job losses caused by the Depression generated anti-Mexican sentiment, which had grown following World War I and had since redoubled with the massive number of Mexicans who immigrated during the mid-1920’s. As the Depression deepened, government authorities determined that the expense would be less to return Mexicans to Mexico than to keep them on the welfare program.
With the cooperation of the Mexican government, the United States repatriated about one-half million Mexicans between 1929 and 1935. Some of the people sent back to Mexico were actually U.S. citizens with long-established residences and others who were tricked or forced to go. Indicative of their historical pattern of immigration and deportation, Mexicans were welcomed back to the United States a decade later, when they were invited to fill the gaps in the American workforce as the United States mobilized for World War II.
Dust Bowl conditions in the Plains states of the Midwest sent many poor American farmers on the road to find agricultural work in the Far West. The resulting influx of migrant American workers severely limited the number of jobs available for foreign workers. (Library of Congress)
After Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933, he made no significant changes in the immigration policy he inherited from his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. In the midst of anti-immigration popular sentiment, Roosevelt supported the immigration quotas established by the Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 but, lacking Hoover’s nativist zeal, succeeded in drastically lowering the number of deportations. By providing relief through the New Deal, Roosevelt decreased the annual number of deportees from nearly 20,000 in 1933 to fewer than 9,000 in 1934 and maintained that number until the 1940’s.
As the Depression wore on, immigration into the United States declined significantly. The average annual number of immigrants for 1931-1940 was 6,900—a mere trickle compared to the 1.2 million total for the year 1914 alone. Despite the decrease in immigration, however, public sentiment against immigrants, particularly Filipinos, continued to increase. The massive number of Filipino immigrants who arrived during the 1920’s, the targets of violent attacks by U.S. citizens, continued to vex immigration restrictionists. Proclaimed by federal courts as American nationals following the Spanish-American War in 1898, when the Philippines became a U.S. colony, Filipinos entered the United States without restriction. The Tydings- McDuffie Act of 1934 provided for Philippine independence in ten years (but actually delayed until 1946) and also conferred alien status on Filipinos residing in the United States. The legislation created an annual quota of fifty immigrants per year.
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States (1975), p. 126.
During World War II, thousands of Jewish refugees fled Nazi persecution, and a number of them were refused asylum in the United States because of its restrictionist immigration policy. At the time, the United States made no distinction between immigrants and refugees; thus, both groups were subject to immigration quotas. During the early years of his administration, Roosevelt, though aware of Adolf Hitler’s inhumane regime, made no effort to liberalize immigration laws, though some of his close advisers urged him to do so. Moreover, the annual German immigration quota was not being filled; according to Roosevelt’s critics, the thousands of unfilled quota spaces could have been allocated to German Jewish refugees. The United States did not pursue a rescue policy for Jewish victims until 1944.
Mary G. Hurd
See also: Anti-Filipino violence; Anti-Semitism; Asian immigrants; Bracero program; Emigration; Filipino Repatriation Act of 1935; German immigrants; Holocaust; Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1924; Mexican deportations of 1931; Push-pull factors.