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Passage of the 1924 Immigration Act

by California Digital News

On May 26, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Johnson-Reed Act, the first federal law in American history designed to establish permanent, comprehensive restrictions on immigration.  It came at the end of a long, contentious process that debated the nature of American citizenship and identity along with the perceived merits and hazards of mass immigration.  The law is rightly regarded as one of the triumphs of American nativism and a pivotal moment in the history of U.S. immigration policy.

Aside from a brief allusion in Article 1, Section 9, to “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit” (i.e., enslaved Africans), the U.S. Constitution—including all amendments to date—is silent on the question of immigration.  The only constitutional guidance even on the crucial question of defining American citizenship was to empower Congress in Article 1, Section 8 “to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization.” Two years after the Constitution was ratified, Congress set about fulfilling this mandate by limiting eligibility for naturalization to “free white persons” of “good character” who had been in the United States as little as two years, adding that their children under the age of 21 would likewise be counted as naturalized citizens. (The 14th and 15th Amendments gave greater clarity to these matters.)

Anxieties about the perils of unfettered immigration and dangerous “aliens” were apparent from the beginning.  Worries over French radicalism led to the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, empowering the President to deport those deemed a threat to the “safety and security” of the nation.  These laws revealed deeper anxieties about national loyalty and the importance of preserving cultural uniformity, concerns that form a consistent throughline in the evolution of American debates over immigration to this day.

Early in the 19th century, Americans began to sound the alarm over new arrivals—especially Irish Catholics.  These anxieties generated what historians call “nativism,” an impulse that would become a stable feature of American life and an impetus for immigration policy.  Erika Lee defines nativism as “the naming of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant settlers and their descendants as ‘natives’ to the United States and the granting of special privileges and protections to them.”  As the U.S. grew in territory, population, and diversity, so would nativist ambitions to circumscribe the nation’s citizenship qualifications and terms of entry.

The most important early turning point in this evolution came in 1882 with the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first federal law restricting free immigration to the United States (it remained in effect until 1943).  The law’s passage established the need for a federal administrative apparatus for managing the flow of people into the country most notably at key points of entry in San Francisco and New York City.  Little attention was given at this time to the nation’s northern or southern borders.

The 1880s also marked the beginning of the so-called “Great Wave” of immigration from Europe, a massive upsurge in foreign-born people pouring into the United States.  Between 1880 and 1924 roughly 25 million predominantly southern and eastern Europeans arrived in the U.S.; large populations of Italians, Greeks, Hungarians, Poles, and other Slavs, among them 3 to 4 million Jews.  These “huddled masses” would dramatically change the complexion and character of America’s cities.  They were outsiders by language, custom, and religion, prompting a rising chorus of critics who questioned whether they could ever assimilate to the America way of life.  Some wondered, moreover, if these new arrivals might be bringing strange diseases and radical ideas that could destabilize the country in permanent ways.

The foundations of the 1924 Immigration Act were laid during these decades.  In 1894, a group of Harvard educated Boston “Brahmins” formed the Immigration Restriction League, aiming to preserve the Anglo-Saxon “stock” of the American people.  They lent intellectual credence to something called the “Nordic theory” of racial supremacy, which assumed that Anglo-Protestantism was the source of American greatness.  One of the League’s founders, Prescott F. Hall (1868-1921), created an enduring distinction on this basis between “old immigrants” (British, German, and Scandinavian presumed to be intelligent, dynamic, and free) and “new immigrants” (Latin, Asian, Jewish, and Slav presumed to be backwards, stagnant, lazy, and servile).  The League also immediately began pushing legislation that would curtail the flow of “new immigrants.”

League efforts in Congress were championed by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-MA), who worked tirelessly pushing their most prized policy goal: the literacy test.  By this time, both Democrats and Republicans were eager to limit the flow of immigration, and bills advocating the literacy-based restrictions passed multiple times during the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, but were consistently vetoed by presidents who argued that such tests ran contrary to American ideals.  Meanwhile, Congress authorized the United States Immigration Commission led by Senator William P. Dillingham (R-VT), its first major effort to study the issue.  The resulting massive 41-volume report reinforced Nordic theory assumptions and, among many other recommendations, endorsed the establishment of national immigration quotas.

World War I both interrupted the flow of immigration and witnessed a mass exodus of foreign-born men re-crossing the Atlantic to fight for their homelands.  Wartime also supplied “emergency conditions” that increased the national appetite for long desired restrictions.  On the front end, Congress passed and Wilson signed the Immigration Act of 1917, which finally satisfied the dream of a literacy test along with other restrictions.  At the war’s end, with a rising tide of social unrest and xenophobia, Congress passed an even more restrictive law, the landmark Emergency Quota Act of 1921, temporarily capping immigration at 350,000 and for the first time implementing a quota system on the basis of national origins.  The quotas were based on the 1910 census and limited the number of immigrants from any country to 3% of the number of residents from that country in the United States, giving much greater weight to people from northern and western Europe.

Because the 1921 law was intended as a temporary fix, the debate over immigration restriction continued.  The national mood heading into the 1920s was decidedly conservative, leading Senators Albert Johnson (R-IL), a staunch eugenics advocate, and David Reed (R-PA) to pen what would become the most restrictive immigration law in American history.  The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 overwhelmingly passed in both houses of Congress.  It built on the 1921 legislation, this time capping total immigration at 165,000 and reducing the nationality quota from 3% to 2%, but importantly established the basis for these calculations on the population distribution within the 1890 census.  It also barred all immigration from Asia.  These moves vastly diminished the flow of people from outside of northern and western Europe, thus guaranteeing white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance in the U.S. through the heart of the twentieth century.

Immigration to the United States shrank to historic lows over the coming decades thanks to the new law, with a strong assist from the economic collapse of the Great Depression.  While Congress adjusted and amend features of the 1924 provisions in the coming decades, Johnson-Reed largely defined immigration policy until 1965 when Lyndon Johnson dismantled and reshaped its priorities as part of his vision for a Great Society.  It is impossible to understand today’s debates about immigration without a deeper understanding of the one-hundred year old Johnson-Reed Act and its long shadow. 

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