The Immigration Act of 1924: Legalized Bigotry and Xenophobia

Note: The purpose of the following set of articles regarding the 1920s is to recreate the setting in which the greatest number of movie theaters were built here in the USA, most particularly here in Michigan.

Often people associate the 1920 with jazz, flappers, the Charleston, a dance craze which swept the nation in that era, and prohibition. It was much more. True following the war, it proved a period of economic boom, it had a dark underbelly. It was a time of social, political and racial intolerance.

The following articles will touch on those matters. Perhaps it is me, but I see some very compelling parallels with this period almost one hundred years ago.

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The Immigration Act of 1924, or Johnson–Reed Act, including the National Origins Act, and Asian Exclusion Act was a United States federal law aimed at restricting the Southern and Eastern Europeans who were immigrating in large numbers starting in the 1890s, as well as prohibiting the immigration of Middle Easterners, East Asians and Asian Indians.

The Immigration Act defined the term “immigrant and designated all other alien entries into the United States as “non-immigrant”, that is, temporary visitors. It established classes of admission for such non-immigrants.

Proponents of the Act sought to establish a distinct American identity by favoring native-born Americans over Southern and Eastern Europeans in order to “maintain the racial preponderance of the basic strain on our people and thereby to stabilize the ethnic composition of the population”.

Literacy Test

Most proponents of the law were rather concerned with upholding an ethnic status quo and avoiding competition with foreign workers. Samuel Gompers, a Jewish immigrant and founder of the AFL, supported the Act because he opposed the cheap labor that immigration represented, despite the fact that the Act would sharply reduce Jewish immigration.

Though the law’s quota system targeted immigrants based on their nation of origin rather than ethnicity or religion, Jewish immigration was a central concern. Hearings about the legislation cited the radical Jewish population of New York’s Lower East Side as the prototype of immigrants who could never be assimilated. The law sharply curtailed immigration from those countries that were the homelands of the vast majority of the Jews in America, almost 75% of whom came from Russia alone.

Because Eastern European immigration only became substantial in the final decades of the 19th century, the law’s use of the population of the U.S. in 1890 as the basis for calculating quotas effectively made mass migration from Eastern Europe, the home of the vast majority of the world’s Jews, impossible.

The Act controlled “undesirable” immigration by establishing quotas. Some 86% of the 155,000 permitted to enter under the Act were from Northern European countries, with Germany, Britain, and Ireland having the highest quotas. So restrictive were the new quotas for immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, that in 1924 more Italians, Czechs, Yugoslavs, Greeks, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Poles, Portuguese, Romanians, Spaniards, Chinese, and Japanese left the U.S. than arrived as immigrants.

The quotas remained in place with minor alterations until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

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