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The Immigration Act of 1924

Why is it significant?

Immigration and Nationality Act

United States immigration laws have dramatically changed over the decades, not always for the better. 

The United States has attempted to control immigration since the 1800s. Throughout that time, there have been numerous changes to the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country each year and even which nationalities of immigrants were allowed to cross borders. 

This is a glimpse at immigration law leading up to the year 1924. 


What Was the First Immigration Act?

The first two new immigration restriction-related acts in the United States passed by Congress in the early 1800s: The Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882


The Page Act of 1875

The intention of the Page Act was to make forced laborers ineligible for being imported from Asia in a form of human slavery. This act also limited the total number of foreign nationals that could immigrate to the US.


The Chinese Exclusion Act

The Chinese Exclusion Act was far less altruistic in its intentions. The early American government feared Chinese laborers would replace American laborers and expressed an open distaste for Chinese culture. This act was passed as a form of institutional racism in an attempt to prevent Asian immigrants from entering the country. it would not be the first or the last time the law expressed a prejudiced opinion towards people of Asian descent.


The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1882

The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1882 was broad. It would ultimately become the foundation for all immigration acts to come. Although not specific in its language, the immigration act imposed a tax on immigrant individuals who wanted to live and work in the United States. 

Immigrants who arrived by boat were charged 50 cents to enter the country. This tax was used to fund the early immigration program. 

The law also forbade anyone who couldn’t “take care of themselves” from coming to the country. This is the first time the law mentions self-sufficiency as a requirement, and it remains an important aspect of immigration to this day. 

This was the first act to forbid known criminals from entering the United States, labeling criminals or “insane” people as security risks to the population of the United States. The law made an exception for people convicted of political crimes, claiming that it was within the founding values of America to provide a safe place for people persecuted by tyrannical governments.


Why Did Immigration Laws Become Stricter?

World War I created a wealth of uncertainty for the American government as well as the American people. 

In 1917, the government decided to adopt more restrictive immigration laws in an effort to promote national security. For the first time, immigrants over the age of 16 years old were required to pass a literacy test before they were able to enter the country. Head taxes on immigrants increased as financial resources were scarce in the United States. Every penny counts during wartime. 

The Immigration Act of 1917 identified a region of the world as “the Asiatic Barred Zone.” The goal of The Barred Zone was to prevent Asian immigrants from entering the United States of America. Chinese Nationals were completely forbidden from entering the country as a result of previous immigration acts, so China was not specifically included in the Barred Zone.

Japan was not a part of the Asiatic Barred Zone, but other agreements already in place limited the number of Japanese immigrants who could enter the United States. These agreements were incorporated into the Gentlemen’s Agreement, which was predicated on trust and understanding rather than the letter of the law.

At the time, the Philippines were considered a territory of the United States. This meant visitors from the Philippines were not considered immigrants and were allowed to come and go as they pleased.


What Led To The Immigration Act of 1924?

In the years leading up to the Immigration Act of 1924, smaller immigration laws were drafted by William P. Dillingham, a Republican senator from Vermont. These proposed laws were designed to establish a maximum annual capacity for immigration into the United States and set a percentage capacity for immigrants from each country. 

Lawmakers used American census data to determine the countries of origin of immigrants in the United States. The total percentage of immigrants allowed from each country is a maximum of 3% of that country’s total immigrant presence within the United States. 

This law was designed to throttle the presence of each national group in the United States, assuring that those of Eastern European, Mexican, Italian, or other descent wouldn’t surpass the amount of native-born Americans of British colonist lineage. 

The draft for the law was designed to allow a maximum of 350,000 immigrant visas to be issued each year. At the time, the total population of the United States was only slightly more than 114,100,000. This meant that the population could only grow 0.3% the following year as a direct result of immigration if the law was passed.

At this time, Woodrow Wilson was president of the United States. Woodrow held liberal views on immigration that may have been perceived as progressive at the time. Wilson did not support the national origins quota act and did not allow them to be passed into law. Wilson’s successor, Warren G. Harding, had different ideas.

Upon assuming the role of president, one of Harding’s first acts was to approve the proposed immigration quota system. This act was continually renewed until the Immigration Act of 1924 was drafted to make the proposed ideas concrete and expand upon the definitions and terms used in drafting these laws.


What Was the Immigration Act of 1924?

When lawmakers sat down to draft the Immigration Act of 1924, the quota system was highly embraced. Lawmakers had no interest in eradicating the quota system and percentage-based calculations. Instead, they doubled down. 

Quotas were significantly reduced for the number of visas that could be issued each year, and the percentage quota dropped from 3% per nationality to 2% per nationality. Instead of using recent census data, they used census data from the year 1890, when the immigrant population of the United States was smaller.

At the time that data was collected, a much higher number of visas were made available to people who lived in Britain or other British territories. The system was designed to encourage as many British people to enter the country as possible while significantly limiting immigrants from other areas of Eastern Europe and Western Europe.

Laws regarding immigrants from Asian countries did not relax. The government decided to double down on its stance that Asian immigrants be barred from entering the country. Bans on Asian immigrants expanded to include Japan, which was not previously specifically mentioned in laws regarding the Asiatic Barred Zone.

This increased tensions between the governments of the United States and Japan, as Japan felt unduly singled out.

It was clear to leaders from other parts of the world that the Immigration Act of 1924 was designed specifically to show prejudice against immigrants of other racial, ethnic, and national backgrounds.

As the world was moving towards World War II, debates about the ethics of immigration, eugenics, and equality were specifically targeted toward those who meant harm to people of Jewish ethnicity. These human rights abuses and wartime atrocities took center stage, and people were quick to forget about U.S. immigration policy. 


How Long Was the Immigration Act of 1924 In Effect?

The United States made a noble effort to assist in World War II, working against the Nazis and assisting the persecuted Jewish population of Europe. At this time, countless European immigrants entered the U.S. to escape the Holocaust. Many of these immigrants were southern Europeans who emigrated from southern Europe to New York.

The United States was in the world’s good graces, and it used its platform to offer humanitarian aid and relocation assistance for those who lost their homes, families, and jobs as a result of the war. This good faith effort drew attention away from the controversial permanent immigration laws the United States had on the books.

It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that the House of Representatives decided to revisit immigration policy. They decided to modify racially motivated annual quotas and percentages that excluded people of various ethnic backgrounds from becoming a part of the nation of America through naturalization.


A Final Thought on the 1924 Immigration Act

Many Americans feel as though today’s immigration laws are overly strict and exclude people who need help the most. Although they may seem imbalanced, they’re far more lenient than the immigration laws of the past. Immigration laws will vary from administration to administration, but they’ve never been as restrictive as they were when immigration laws were first established.

Early presidents had a strong sense of nationalism, exclusionism, exceptionalism, and preservation. They made concerted efforts to keep people from other national origins out of the United States, going so far as to target specific countries and ban their citizens from immigrating.

There is always room for growth, improvement, and compassion. Each successive immigration law Incorporated more of these principles. Let the Immigration Act of 1924 show how far we have come as a country in terms of embracing the values of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity.



The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 | Washington State Historical Society

Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907-1908 | Immigration History

Japanese-American Relations at the Turn of the Century, 1900–1922 | United States Office of the Historian


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