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A Century Later, Restrictive 1924 U.S. Immigration Law Has Reverberations in Immigration Debate

A Century Later, Restrictive 1924 U.S. Immigration Law Has Reverberations in Immigration Debate

Immigrants arriving on a ferry near Ellis Island.

Immigrants arriving on a ferry near Ellis Island. (Photo: National Archives)

The Immigration Act of 1924 shaped the U.S. population over the course of the 20th century, greatly restricting immigration and ensuring that arriving immigrants were mostly from Northern and Western Europe. It closed the door on almost all new Asian immigration and shut out most European Jews and other refugees fleeing fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. One of the most restrictive immigration laws in U.S. history, it played a key role in ending the previous era of largely unrestricted immigration. Its numerical limits on annual arrivals and use of national-origins quotas, aided by Great Depression-era restrictions, limited religious, ethnic, and racial diversity, and sharply reduced the size of the country’s foreign-born population for four decades.

One century after the law’s enactment on May 26, 1924, the United States, in the midst of a presidential campaign, is once again in the throes of an intense debate over the value of immigration, acceptable levels, and which immigrants to receive. The rhetoric employed in today’s debates is sometimes eerily similar to that of 1920s. At that time, most Asians were already barred from the country. The public and political focus was on large numbers of newer Southern and Eastern European immigrants—especially those of Catholic or Jewish faith—and whether they could assimilate into the country and were, in the phrasing of the time, of equally favorable “racial stock” as earlier Northern and Western European immigrants.

Today, the types of immigration considered controversial have changed, but there are similar questions about which immigrants should be welcomed and which are perceived as threatening national values and character. As 100 years ago, immigrants comprise a high share of the overall population (13.9 percent in 2022, compared to 13.2 percent in 1920, and the record high of 14.8 percent in 1890). Current understandings that some immigration is inherently illegal can also be traced to the 1924 law, which cemented the notion that all immigrants without legal status could be deported and that U.S. authorities should generally process visa applications before individuals depart for the United States.

This article provides a brief history of the origins and legacy of the 1924 law—also known as the Johnson-Reed Act for its architects Rep. Albert Johnson (R-WA) and Sen. David Reed (R-PA)—which continues to have a significant imprint. The 1924 law set the framework for policies that remain cornerstones of U.S. immigration law today: numerical limits on annual immigration, the ability to deport unauthorized immigrants no matter how long they have been in the United States, and the need for people to seek visas and meet other requirements before they reach U.S. soil. The article also examines the main provisions of the law, their lasting impacts, and their influences on immigration debates today.

The Origins of the 1924 Law

U.S. immigration in the early 1800s mainly involved Western and Northern Europeans, particularly those from the British Isles, Germany, and France. By the 1880s, immigration began to rise and the major countries of origins shifted, with growing numbers from Italy, Poland, and Russia, among others. The first two decades of the 1900s brought the highest levels of immigration the country had ever seen, with 14.5 million people arriving from fiscal year (FY) 1900 to FY 1919 (see Figure 1).  

Figure 1. Annual Grants of U.S. Lawful Permanent Residence, FY 1880-1940

Source: U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Office of Homeland Security Statistics, “Table 1. Persons Obtaining Lawful Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2022,” updated May 3, 2024, available online.

In 1900, 16 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population was from Eastern or Southern Europe; by 1920, their share had more than doubled to 41 percent (see Figure 2). Today, distinctions between White Americans of British, French, German, Irish, Italian, or Polish descent are often surface-level, but in the 1920s they were deeply felt. Europeans from different countries and religious backgrounds were considered to constitute different races that fell on different rungs on a hierarchy of superiority, as described by what was then perceived as the cutting-edge “science” of eugenics. The influential eugenicist Charles Davenport considered Italians prone to “crimes of personal violence,” while Jews were characterized by “intense individualism and ideals of gain at the cost of any interest.” Since eugenicists believed individual races possessed different characteristics and abilities, Davenport argued the government should be careful not to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits.”

Figure 2. Number of Immigrants in the United States, by Region of Birth, 1850-1930 and 1960

Notes: Other or Not Reported includes immigrants whose places of birth were not reported as well as those born in Africa, Oceania, or Canada and other parts of North America aside from Mexico. Comparable data for 1940 and 1950 were not available.
Source: U.S. Census Bureau. “Table 4. Region and Country or Area of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population, with Geographic Detail Shown in Decennial Census Publications of 1930 or Earlier: 1850 to 1930 and 1960 to 1990,” March 9, 1999, available online.

Driven by such sentiments, Congress created the bipartisan Dillingham Commission to study the consequences of new immigration. The commission’s influential 1911 report described different racial types, arguing that Northern and Western Europeans were superior to those from Southern and Eastern Europe. This report suggested policies such as literacy tests or race-based limits on annual immigration could prioritize “higher-quality” immigrants to benefit the country.

Concerns about new arrivals of different racial and religious backgrounds were boosted by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which re-emerged in this period as a group opposed to immigration generally, and particularly that of Jews and Catholics, whom the KKK saw as a threat to the country’s stability and morality. On the other end of the political spectrum, the influential American Federation of Labor (AFL) also called for new restrictions on immigration, in order to protect U.S. workers.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, laws only limited immigrants with certain individual attributes, rather than all people above a certain annual numerical threshold. An 1875 law banned those suspected of being prostitutes. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act barred most new Chinese immigrants. The 1891 Immigration Act barred polygamists, people with contagious diseases, people convicted of crimes “of moral turpitude,” and those likely to become a “public charge” by depending on government assistance. A 1903 law barred anarchists and others, including beggars. Still, the vast majority of Europeans who reached the United States were granted entry; the U.S. Immigration Service excluded only 1 percent of the 25 million Europeans who arrived between 1880 and World War I.

Designed to Reshape Immigrant Origins

As opposition to Eastern and Southern European immigration grew, Congress tried multiple times to impose a literacy test on new immigrants, aiming to exclude the less educated and tilt the population to the more desirable mix of nationalities. Lawmakers succeeded by overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the 1917 Immigration Act. In addition to requiring that all immigrants over age 16 prove they could read and write (in any language), the 1917 act also raised the “head tax” on immigrants to $8 and prevented immigration from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” that stretched from Afghanistan to Southeast Asia, excepting the Philippines (which was a U.S. colony) and Japan (which had agreed to limit emigration to the United States under the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement”).

When immigration rebounded after World War I, it became clear that the literacy test and head tax were not having the intended effect. Restrictionists feared massive immigration of Europeans displaced by World War I, and the U.S. economy experienced a short depression that ended business groups’ opposition to immigration limits. The 1921 Emergency Quota Act, initially set to last for just over one year, placed the first annual numerical cap on U.S. immigration, limiting total arrivals from outside the Western Hemisphere to about 358,000 per year, with each country allotted annual caps equal to 3 percent of the size of that country’s immigrant population in the United States as of the 1910 Census. Immigration from the Western Hemisphere was uncapped and arrivals from most of Asia remained barred.

The Emergency Quota Act was meant to buy time for Congress to develop a more permanent approach, although it was extended twice. Lawmakers’ debates culminated in passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which President Calvin Coolidge signed into law on May 24, 1924.

The 1924 Act: A Permanent New Approach to Immigration

Compared to the temporary 1921 law, the 1924 act had sweeping and permanent impacts on U.S. immigration.

At first, it set a preliminary annual cap of about 165,000 immigrants overall and annual per-country caps at 2 percent of the U.S. population born in each country as of 1890. After this preliminary period, the cap was lowered to 150,000 immigrants, with per-country caps based on the U.S. population with origins in each country (including the descendants of immigrants) as of 1920. Supporters argued the more recent 1920 Census provided a fairer basis for the nation-origin quotas, but also that it was unfair to exclude U.S.-born descendants of immigrants. In reality, the two formulas yielded similar results. Developing a methodology to count the origins of U.S.-born people was complicated and contentious—not least because immigrants from different countries had children together, and also because national boundaries abroad were shifting—delaying the new formula’s implementation until 1929. In a continuation from the 1921 act, immigration from the Western Hemisphere remained unrestricted, though Mexican immigration was limited in other ways, as described below.

The explicit goal of the quotas was to rewind the country’s racial and ethnic mix to a time dominated by Western and Northern European immigration. Reed, one of the lead sponsors, wrote in The New York Times that, with the bill’s passage, “The composition of our population will not change in the future decades in the same way in which it changed between 1885 and the outbreak of the World War.” The United States would then become “a more homogeneous nation” and a “vastly better place to live in,” he added.

Quotas in Action

Under the 1921 quotas, Eastern and Southern European countries were allocated 41 percent of all annual slots. The initial 1924 scheme reduced Eastern and Southern Europeans’ share to 11 percent, which increased to 14 percent under the new quotas in 1929. In practice, this meant the number of immigrants allowed from Great Britain and Ireland (including Northern Ireland and, after 1922, the Irish Free State) rose from 77,342 in 1921 to 83,574 in 1929, while the number allowed from Germany fell from 67,607 to 25,597. Numbers plummeted for immigration from Italy (from 42,057 to 5,802), Poland (from 31,146 to 6,524), and Russia (from 24,405 to 2,784). No country in the world was allocated fewer than 100 slots per year.

Within the quotas, preference was given to the family members (minor children, parents, and spouses) of U.S. citizens, who could comprise up to half of a country’s quota each year, and to those skilled in agricultural work and their dependents.

Additionally, the way that the 1929 quotas were calculated introduced further restrictions. The 1924 law instructed authorities to exclude from the 1920 population count all immigrants from the Western Hemisphere, all people ineligible for citizenship and their descendants (which excluded Asian immigrants and their descendants), descendants of “slave immigrants,” and Native Americans. In carrying out this charge, the Quota Board excluded even U.S.-born Asians as well as postbellum Black immigrants and their descendants. The effect was to boost all European quotas and reduce those for other world regions. Thus, while 9 percent of the U.S. population was understood to be of African descent in 1920, less than 1 percent of the 1929 quotas went to African countries.

Restrictions for Asians, Rising Deportation Powers, and Other Provisions

Although the national-origin quotas have received the most attention, the 1924 legislation also contained other important provisions. For instance, it barred immigration of anyone ineligible for naturalization in the United States, which re-codified the bar on Asian immigration, since only people categorized as White or Black were eligible to naturalize at the time. (Partly in order to incorporate residents of U.S. regions that were formerly part of Mexico, Mexicans and other Latin Americans were officially classified as White for the purposes of naturalization.) Given that the Asiatic Barred Zone remained in place, the main effect of this provision was to prevent immigration from Japan, ending the Gentleman’s Agreement. Minimal allocations were given to Japan and other Asian countries, but only non-Asians from the region were able to take advantage of them.

Only a limited number of migrants were exempt from the law’s overall quotas and bars, including wives and unmarried minor children of U.S. citizens, professors and ministers of any religion, their wives and minor children, and students. Government officials and their families and employees were also exempt, as were temporary visitors. Thus, even for countries that faced a prohibition on immigration or very law caps, narrow pathways to the United States remained.

The 1924 act cemented a requirement that immigrants apply for and obtain a visa at a consular post abroad before entering the United States. The United States had created an ad hoc visa system during World War I, but under the 1921 Emergency Quota Act permission to enter under numerical limits was adjudicated at Ellis Island and other U.S. ports, creating a situation in which shipping companies raced to deliver migrants before annual quotas were reached, and in which migrants exceeding the caps were turned back around to Europe at the companies’ expense. After 1924, immigrants needed to obtain medical screenings, complete their application, and secure a visa stamp in their passport abroad. Thus, immigrants could board ships to the United States confident that they could lawfully enter, and the United States was able to control immigration levels at the source.

The Deportation and Border Patrol Era

The law also made anyone who entered without a visa or inspection, or who stayed past an allotted period, subject to deportation, effectively declaring that a category of immigrants was living in the country illegally. Until 1891 there was no federal law governing deportation (there had been state provisions in earlier eras), and as of 1917 most immigrants could only be deported during their first five years in the United States. The 1924 act removed that statute of limitations, allowing for deportation at any time of any immigrant who entered or stayed in violation of the law. Before 1924, most deportations were of people found to be a public charge, often pulled from hospitals and jails, but by the late 1920s most deportations were of immigrants lacking a proper visa. The number of deportations and voluntary departures grew from fewer than 2,800 in 1920 to nearly 38,800 in 1929.

Finally, while separate from the Immigration Act of 1924, two days after its enactment Congress approved the Labor Appropriations Act of 1924, which established the Border Patrol as a new federal force charged with securing land borders between ports of entry. U.S. land borders had previously been enforced by federal inspectors who sought to prevent illegal entry of Chinese migrants and other types of banned immigration as well as alcohol smuggling during Prohibition. Some Europeans unable to come under the new quotas crossed illegally in the 1920s, as did Mexicans skirting the head tax, literacy test, or other restrictions. Unauthorized entries by Europeans fell in the 1930s, amid the Great Depression, though some found workarounds by overstaying temporary visas or migrating to Canada long enough to secure status as a Western Hemisphere migrant.

Effects of the Law

The 1924 act achieved its goals of drastically curtailing immigration and shifting origins back to Northern and Western Europe. Total immigration fell from nearly 707,000 in 1924 to 294,000 in 1925 and 280,000 in 1929. These shifts reflected changes in visa supply, not demand: The political scientist Aristide Zolberg estimated there were 78 applicants for every quota slot available for Southern and Eastern Europe in the wake of the bill’s passage, compared to three applicants for every slot for Western and Northern Europeans.

That said, the law’s longer-term impacts are hard to disentangle from those of executive actions to severely restrict immigration during the Great Depression, as well as the Depression itself. In 1930, President Herbert Hoover instructed consular officers to strictly enforce restrictions on applicants likely to become a public charge. Rejections soared, and immigration fell by more than half between 1930 and 1931 and remained well below 100,000 per year through the Great Depression and World War II. As a result, the foreign-born share of the U.S. population dropped precipitously, from a record high of 14.8 percent in 1890 to 11.6 percent in 1930 and a record-low 4.7 percent in 1970. The total foreign-born population meanwhile fell sharply from 14.2 million in 1930 to 9.6 million in 1970 (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Size and Share of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States, 1850-2022

Sources: Migration Policy Institute (MPI) Migration Data Hub, “U.S. Immigrant Population and Share over Time, 1850-Present,” accessed May 13, 2024, available online.

While immigration from the Western Hemisphere was legally unlimited, enforcement of the public-charge provision, literacy tests, and a prohibition on contract labor limited the number of Mexicans able to enter. Some came anyway, either crossing between border posts or as temporary workers, but numbers decreased during the Great Depression, when authorities also deported more than 1 million Mexicans and U.S. natives of Mexican descent during “repatriation drives.”

The quotas and low cap on overall immigration left most people outside the Western Hemisphere without a legal pathway to the United States. In the absence of humanitarian pathways that exist today—which were created after World War II—these restrictions largely kept the United States’ doors closed to Jews and others fleeing the Holocaust and other atrocities. Estimates suggest the United States allowed in no more than 250,000 Jewish refugees between 1933 and 1944, a tiny number compared to the roughly 6 million who were killed. U.S. efforts to aid European Jews were relatively minor and came through executive-branch discretion, such as a 1935 instruction that European consulates not consider the likelihood of becoming a public charge sufficient for denying a visa, extending visitor visas of German Jews unable to return, combining the German and Austrian quotas to ensure both were filled, and permitting some Jews to enter the United States on visitor visas.

The 1924 act was replaced by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which kept in place a low annual cap on immigration and national-origins quotas that strongly privileged Northern and Western Europeans. The 1952 act, passed over President Harry Truman’s veto, eliminated the Asiatic Barred Zone but allocated just 100 visas per year to Asian countries. It was not until the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act that the 1924 act was overturned. The new law, popularly known as the Hart-Cellar Act, was authored by Sen. Philip Hart (D-MI) and Rep. Emanuel Celler (D-NY), who had repeatedly and doggedly sought to end the 1924 act. Thus, it was only in 1965 that the racist vestiges of the 1924 law and the national-origin quotas were finally terminated.

The Long Legacy of the 1920s

Still, the 1924 law lives on in other ways. Numerical limits on annual immigration, divisions by country (even if now generally evenly applied), the prioritization of family members, and the requirement to obtain medical inspections and visas abroad are all cornerstones of U.S. immigration law today.

Implementation of the 1924 act also highlighted the power of the executive branch to limit or reshape immigration within the confines of the statute, such as by greatly restricting visa approvals or expanding leniency when necessary. Amid recent congressional inaction on immigration, these types of measures have come back into favor.

Moreover, the division of immigration into either legal or illegal categories fundamentally shaped the understanding of immigration over the past century. And in contrast to the pre-1921 era, the 1924 act created the architecture of today’s reality in which most people in the world cannot legally enter the United States.

Questions inherent in recent immigration debates are eerily similar to those asked in the 1920s: Which immigrant groups will succeed in and contribute to the United States, comport with national values and character, and are deserving to enter? Which threaten to change the country and should be excluded? Yet the terms have changed. Eugenics theories were mostly rejected after their embrace by Adolph Hitler (who had written approvingly of the 1920s U.S. immigration laws) and the events of the Holocaust. Today’s debates instead center on whether immigrants violated border laws or present a threat to national security. At times, implicit in these concerns are fears that immigrants from certain countries or of certain religions have undesirable social traits, incompatible values, or poverty that would drain public resources. And the language of eugenics still sometimes rears its head, such as when former President Donald Trump claimed last year that immigrants are “poisoning the blood” of the United States.

The country will surely debate which immigrants or groups are desirable and why for at least another hundred years. In the shorter term, the United States may consider whether and how it can control who enters and who is excluded. For better or worse, many of the key parameters of both of those debates were shaped 100 years ago in a law that continues to reverberate.

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