On May 24, 1924, U.S. President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924 after the legislation sailed through both houses of Congress. The Immigration Act of 1924 was not the first legislative effort to limit immigration—the nation passed it first immigration law in 1875—but the 1924 law was more extreme than anything that preceded it.
The 1924 law banned all immigration from Asia. It also limited the total annual number of immigrants from outside the Western Hemisphere to 165,000–a number less than half the 357,803 people who entered the US in 1923. 165,000 was an 80% reduction from the pre-World War I average and far below the peak year of European immigration of 1907 when 1,285,349 persons entered the country. The impact of the law was immediate: in 1923, an average of 20 ships a day docked at Ellis Island where 70% of immigrants entered the U.S.; in 1924 that number dropped to 2.
But the 1924 legislation was not about numbers. Arguments in favor of previous immigration legislation focused on employment and economic numbers; but the arguments for the 1924 legislation were biological.
In the first decades of the 20th century the pseudoscience of eugenics, imported from England, swept through the United States becoming a staple of the nation’s most eminent academic and scientific institutions—and of the nation’s political agenda of both progressives and reactionary activists. The basic premise of eugenics is that some races of inherently superior to others. Eugenics promised Americans that selective breeding and controlled socialization would rapidly result in the development of a superior American race—and warned that mingling with “inferior races” would not only slow down that development but would cause Americans to join the ranks of what eugenicists referred to as the mongrel races.
The word race in the early 20th century was used different from contemporary usage. If you look at the census records from that period, you will see entries like English, German, Italian and Polish for race. And the “racial” make-up of immigrants coming to the United States prior to the 1924 law had become predominantly Italian, Greek, Polish, Eastern European and Jewish—all deemed inferior races by American eugenicist. American researchers “proved” their inferiority and the danger they posed to American racial development and society with faulty and culturally-biased IQ tests that asked them questions about obscure American baseball players and abstruse facts of American history that the descendants of Mayflower passengers would not know.
Legislators knew, however, that the cap on total immigration and the ban on Asian immigrants were not sufficient to ensure that so-called superior races entered the country. Therefore, the 1924 law also set country quotas for immigrants from Europe.
|Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902|
(Library of Congress)
Quotas has been implemented before. The Emergency Quota Act, also known as the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 (enacted to stem the influx of Jews fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe) restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910 (although professionals were to be admitted without regard to their country of origin). This meant that Northern European countries had a higher quota and were more likely to be admitted to the U.S. than people from Eastern Europe.
The 1924 law changed the quota formula to 2% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1890. Immigration from every European country declined. German, English and Irish immigration declined by about 19%. The greatest impact, however, was on the “inferior races” from Southern and Eastern Europe who had not immigrated to the U.S. in any significant numbers before 1890. Immigration from Italy, for instance, dropped by about 90%. Before 1924, 70% of immigrants to the U.S. were people from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Immigration Act's quotas lowered that to 11%.
Eugenics gave respectability to America’s uneasy relationship with the words of Emma Lazarus carved on the base of the Statue of Liberty—and the Immigration Act of 1924 was designed, and as Henry Curran, the Commission of Immigration for the Port of New York stated in 1925, to ensure that future newcomers would be the kind we would be glad to welcome. In 1925 Curran wrote:
Today there is not one immigrant in a thousand who does not dress, walk, and generally look so much like an American that you will believe they are all really Americans (The New Immigrant).
In 1929, on the eve of the refugee crisis created by the Nazi rise to power in Germany, U.S. immigration quotas were adjusted—downward. The quota formula was changed to one-sixth of 1% of the 1920 census figures with the overall immigration limit reduced to 150,000. The law contained no provisions for refugees, and the U.S. refused to modify the law to aid the flight of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.
The only significant attempt to pass a law to aid refugees came in 1939. Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Republican Congresswoman Edith Rogers of Massachusetts introduced legislation that would allow 20,000 German refugee children under the age of 14 into the United States over two years outside of the immigration quotas. The legislation never made it out of committee for a vote.