Home Immigration History Immigration Act of 1924

Immigration Act of 1924

Immigration Act of 1924

The Immigration Act of 1924: A Turning Point in American Immigration Policy

The United States is a nation of immigrants. From the first settlers who crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life to the millions who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, immigration has been a fundamental part of the American story. At the same time, however, the question of who should be allowed to enter the country and under what circumstances has always been a controversial one. This tension between openness and restriction culminated in one of the most significant pieces of immigration legislation in American history: the Immigration Act of 1924.

A History of Immigration Policy in America

Before delving into the specifics of the Immigration Act of 1924, it is helpful to first provide some context by examining the history of immigration policy in the United States. The earliest laws regarding immigration in America were focused primarily on regulating the entry of individual groups. For example, in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. Similarly, the Immigration Act of 1917 barred individuals from certain regions, such as Southern and Eastern Europe, from immigrating to the United States.

Despite these restrictions, immigration to the United States continued to increase throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the early 1900s, the United States had become the world’s leading destination for immigrants, with an influx of people from Europe, Asia, and Latin America seeking work and new opportunities. This period of mass migration came to a head in 1921, when Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act.

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921

The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was the first major piece of federal legislation to address the issue of immigration in the United States. The law was passed in response to concerns about the negative impact that large numbers of immigrants were having on American society. The act established a quota system that limited the number of immigrants from each country that could enter the United States each year. The quotas were based on the number of people from each country who were already living in America, with a maximum of 3% of the total number of immigrants from any given country allowed to enter each year.

On the surface, the Emergency Quota Act may have seemed like a reasonable compromise. It allowed for some level of immigration while also placing limits on the overall numbers. However, the act had a significant impact on who was able to enter the United States. The quotas heavily favored individuals from Northern and Western Europe, while virtually excluding those from Southern and Eastern Europe. In fact, the quotas for countries such as Italy, Poland, and Greece were so low that they effectively ended immigration from those countries altogether.

The Immigration Act of 1924

The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was a more drastic step in limiting immigration to the United States. The basic structure of the act was similar to the Emergency Quota Act, with quotas established based on the number of people from each country already living in America. However, the Immigration Act of 1924 significantly reduced the overall number of immigrants allowed into the country each year, setting the quota at 2% of the total number of people from each country in the United States as of the 1890 census.

This may seem like a technical detail, but it had a profound impact on the makeup of America’s immigrant population. Prior to the act, most immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe. These individuals were, for the most part, Catholic or Jewish and were seen as undesirable by many Americans who were Protestant. The 1890 census was chosen as the new baseline for the quota system precisely because it represented an earlier period in American history when immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was much lower.

In practice, this meant that immigration from these regions was severely curtailed. The quotas for Italy, for example, went from nearly 42,000 per year under the Emergency Quota Act to around 5,000 per year under the Johnson-Reed Act. Similarly, the quotas for Poland, Greece, and other countries with large immigrant populations were reduced to almost nothing.

Immigration and Eugenics

The Immigration Act of 1924 was not solely a response to concerns about the negative impact of immigration on American society. It was also shaped by the rise of eugenics, a movement that sought to improve the genetic quality of the human race by controlling who was allowed to reproduce. This movement was particularly concerned with limiting the numbers of individuals who were seen as unfit or undesirable, including those with physical or mental disabilities, as well as people of color and immigrants from certain regions.

The eugenics movement had a significant influence on American immigration policy in the early 20th century. Many of the arguments used to support restrictive immigration policies, such as concerns about the biologically inferior nature of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, were rooted in eugenic ideology.

Following the Quota Act of 1921 that established a system of national origin statistics, the legislature followed up with the immigration law of 1924, also referred to as the Johnson-Reed Act. This was the first permanent immigration law that instituted and created much of the national origin system, as well as shaped immigration policy, until the legislature opened up the process in the 1960’s; it also defined many important terms for United States immigration, among them were the inherent different between an immigrant and non-immigrant.

The first important nuance in the Immigration Act of 1924 was the establishment of a future immigration policy. It called for a two-tiered system that would limit immigration drastically in the short-term. Whereas the original quota system specified that they would utilize during the 1910 census, the 1924 immigration law stretched further back to 1890 continuing to utilize national origin; it also changed the previous three percent allowance to two percent, which effectively limited immigration to just over one-hundred and fifty thousand individuals.

This first portion was to be in effect until 1927 when the second part of the legislation would kick-in and change the quotas from based on the 1890 census to the amount of foreign-born citizens in the country in 1920. The second portion would not only be based on a national origin system, but would also be pushed back and eventually come into effect in 1929.

Also important, was the newly-established legal definition of an immigrant versus a non-immigrant. It stated that anyone not entering the country as an immigrant would be effectually a non-immigrant. The non-immigrant classification would be further broken-down into classes of acceptable entry. It also called for the consular control system that stated that no non-immigrant would be granted access to the nation without a proper visa.

Many scholars point to underlying philosophies of the time that likely caused such a piece of legislation. The belief of Eugenics appears in several scholarly viewpoints on the Immigration Act of 1924. Assuming that Caucasians, essentially of North and West European descent, were preferred immigrants; the national origin quotas attempted to maintain the racial make-up of the country. Eugenics placed a maxim on this ethnic-based policy and established clear-cut racist tendencies on the institution of American immigration.

This racially-tinged policy would remain at the forefront of legislation until the middle of the 1960’s. This national origin system could have feasibly worked if it was based more on neutral numbers such as the amount of applicants, but as treated, it presented a complex history of racism and inherent prejudice.