Emergency Quota Act

The Emergency Quota Act created a quota system for immigration into the United States that was based on the number of people of each nationality already residing in the country. The system thus favored immigrants from the nations of northern and western Europe and was based largely on racist notions of the inferiority of other nations and races.

Summary of Event

Throughout most of the nineteenth century, immigration to the United States was open to anyone. By the 1880’s, however, this unlimited freedom was beginning to disappear. The first law restricting immigration came in 1882, when Chinese were excluded from entering American territory. Hostility to Chinese workers in California sparked Congress to pass the law amid warnings that Chinese worked for lower wages than whites and came from such an inferior civilization that they would never make good Americans. The law became permanent in 1902. Five years later, under the so-called Gentlemen’s Agreement Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement] with the Japanese government, citizens of that country were added to the excluded list. The only other people barred from entering the United States were prostitutes, insane persons, paupers, polygamists, and anyone suffering from a “loathsome or contagious disease.” Under these categories, between 1890 and 1914, less than thirteen thousand immigrants were turned away annually, out of the more than one million who arrived each year. Emergency Quota Act (1921)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)
Johnson Quota Act (1921)
[kw]Emergency Quota Act (May 19, 1921)
[kw]Quota Act, Emergency (May 19, 1921)
[kw]Act, Emergency Quota (May 19, 1921)
Emergency Quota Act (1921)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)
Johnson Quota Act (1921)
[g]United States;May 19, 1921: Emergency Quota Act[05430]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 19, 1921: Emergency Quota Act[05430]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 19, 1921: Emergency Quota Act[05430]
Johnson, Albert
Lodge, Henry Cabot
Dillingham, William Paul
Colt, LeBaron Bradford
Harding, Warren G.
[p]Harding, Warren G.;Emergency Quota Act
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Emergency Quota Act
Sabath, Adolph J.
Grant, Madison

The small number of immigrants being excluded troubled anti-immigrant groups, such as the American Protective Association, American Protective Association founded in 1887, and the Immigration Restriction League, Immigration Restriction League created in Boston in 1894. Both organizations warned of the “immigrant invasion” that threatened the American way of life. These opponents of open immigration argued that since 1880, most new arrivals had come from different areas of Europe than had pre-1880 immigrants, who came largely from Germany, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. The “new” immigrants—mainly Slavs, Poles, Italians, and Jews—came from poorer and more culturally “backward” areas of Europe. Many of these immigrants advocated radicalism, anarchism, socialism, or communism and were unfamiliar with ideas of democracy and progress. Furthermore, they preferred to live in ghettoes in cities, where they strengthened the power of political machines and corrupt bosses. Those who considered themselves guardians of traditional American values found support for their position among trade unionists in the American Federation of Labor American Federation of Labor (AFL), whose president, Samuel Gompers, Gompers, Samuel argued that the new immigrants provided employers with an endless supply of cheap labor, leading to lower wages for everyone.

Advocates of restriction found their chief congressional spokesperson in Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a member of the Immigration Restriction League, who sponsored a bill calling for a literacy test. Anti-immigration legislation[Antiimmigration legislation] Such a law, which called on immigrants to be able to read and write in their native language, was seen as an effective barrier to most “new” immigrants. Congress passed the bill in 1897, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it, arguing that it was unnecessary and discriminatory. Cleveland believed that American borders should remain open to anyone who wanted to enter and that there were enough jobs and opportunities to allow anyone to fulfill a dream of economic success. Advocates of this vision of the American Dream, however, were lessening in number over time.

The assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 led to the exclusion of anarchists and those who advocated the violent overthrow of the government of the United States. A more important step toward a quota system, however, came in 1907, when the House and Senate established the U.S. Immigration Commission under the leadership of Senator William Paul Dillingham. The commission issued a forty-two-volume report in 1910, advocating a reduction in immigration because of the “racial inferiority” of new immigrant groups. Studies of immigrant populations, the commission concluded, showed that people from southern and eastern Europe had a higher potential for criminal activity, were more likely to end up poor and sick, and were less intelligent than other Americans. It called for passage of a literacy test to preserve American values. Congress passed legislation in 1912 calling for such a test, but President William Howard Taft vetoed it, saying that illiteracy resulted from lack of educational opportunity and had little to do with native intelligence. Open entrance to the United States was part of American history, and many of the nation’s wealthiest and hardest-working citizens had arrived without knowing how to read and write. If the United States barred such people, Taft argued, the nation would become weaker and less wealthy.

In 1915, Woodrow Wilson became the third president to veto a literacy bill, denouncing its violation of the American ideal of an open door. Two years later, in the wake of American entrance into World War I and growing hostility against foreigners, Congress overrode Wilson’s second veto and the literacy test became law. Immigration Act (1917) Along with establishing a reading test for anyone over age sixteen, the law also created a “barred zone” that excluded immigrants from most of Asia, including China, India, and Japan, regardless of whether they could read. As it turned out, the test that asked adults to read a few words in any recognized language did little to reduce immigration. Between 1918 and 1920, less than 1 percent of those who took it failed. Congressman Albert Johnson, chair of the House Committee on Immigration, had been a longtime advocate of closing the borders of the United States. In 1919, he called for the suspension of all immigration. Johnson’s proposal was defeated in the House of Representatives.

In 1920, however, immigration increased dramatically, as did fears that millions of refugees from war-torn Europe were waiting to flood into the United States. Much of the argument for restriction was based on ideas associated with scientific racism. The Republican candidate for the presidency, Warren G. Harding, advocated restriction in several speeches, warning of the dangers inherent in allowing open admission. He called for legislation that would permit entrance to the United States only to people whose background and racial characteristics showed that they could adopt American values and principles.

The next year, Vice President Calvin Coolidge authored a magazine article claiming that laws of biology proved that “Nordics,” the preferred type, deteriorated intellectually and physically when allowed to intermarry with other races. These views reflected the growing influence of eugenics, the science of improving the human race by discouraging the birth of the “unfit.” Madison Grant, a lawyer and secretary of the New York Zoological Society, and later an adviser to Albert Johnson’s Immigration Committee, wrote the most influential book advocating this racist way of thinking, The Passing of the Great Race in America (1916). Passing of the Great Race in America, The (Grant, M.) In the book, Grant described human society as a huge snake: Nordic races made up the head, and the inferior races formed the tail. It would be this type of scientific argument, more than any other, that would provide the major rationale for creation of the 1921 quota system. The tail could not be allowed to rule the head.

Early in 1921, the House debated and passed Johnson’s bill calling for a two-year suspension of all immigration. The Senate Committee on Immigration, chaired by Senator LeBaron Bradford Colt, held hearings on a similar proposal but refused to support a total ban after hearing arguments from business groups fearful that complete exclusion would stop all access to European laborers. Representatives from the National Association of Manufacturers National Association of Manufacturers testified on the need to have access to inexpensive labor, even though some business leaders were beginning to fear that too many in the immigration pool were influenced by communism and socialism, especially after the Communist victory in Russia in 1918. The possibility of thousands of radical workers with a greater tendency to strike coming into the country seemed too high a price to pay in return for lower wages. Unions, especially the AFL, continued to lobby for strict regulation of immigration. To keep wages high, Samuel Gompers told Congress, foreign workers had to be kept out. By 1921, the only widespread support for free and open immigration came from immigrant groups themselves. Although a few members of Congress supported their position, it was a distinctly minority view.

Senator Dillingham, whose report in 1910 had renewed efforts to restrict immigration, offered a quota plan that he hoped would satisfy business and labor. He called for a policy in which each nation would receive a quota of immigrants equal to 5 percent of that country’s total population in the United States according to the 1910 census. Dillingham’s suggestion passed the Senate with little opposition and gained favor in the House. Before its final approval, however, Johnson and his supporters of total suspension reduced the quota to 3 percent and set 350,000 as the maximum number of legal immigrants in any one year. Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill shortly before leaving office, but it was passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate during a special session called by President Harding on May 19, 1921. The House approved the Emergency Quota Act the same day without a recorded vote. The only opposition came from representatives with large numbers of immigrants in their districts. Adolph J. Sabath, a Democratic congressman from Chicago, led the dissenters, arguing that the act was based on a “pseudoscientific proposition” that falsely glorified the Nordic nations. His comments had little effect on the result. One of the most important changes in American immigration history went into effect in June of 1921.


The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 severely reduced immigration into the United States. In 1922, its first full year of operation, only 309,556 people legally entered the country, compared with 805,228 the previous year. Quotas for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Australia, and New Zealand were generally filled quickly, although economic depressions in England, Ireland, and Germany kept many potential immigrants at home. Less than half the legal number of immigrants from those countries came to the United States the first year; southern and eastern Europe filled almost 99 percent of their limit. No limits existed for Canada, Mexico, and other nations of the Western Hemisphere. To keep an adequate supply of cheap agricultural labor available to farmers in Texas and California, Congress refused to place a quota on immigration from these areas of the world. Japan and China were the only countries with a quota of zero, as Congress continued its policy of exclusion for most areas of Asia.

The 1921 act provided for “special preferences” for relatives of U.S. citizens, including wives, children under eighteen, parents, brothers, and sisters. The commissioner of immigration was to make it a priority to maintain family unity; however, this was to be the only exception to the strict quota policy.

Congress extended the “emergency” law in May, 1922, for two more years. This move, however, did not satisfy Congressman Johnson and others supporting complete restriction. Johnson’s Immigration Committee continued to hold hearings and gather evidence supporting an end to all immigration. Johnson became increasingly interested in eugenics and remained in close contact with Madison Grant. In 1923, Johnson was elected president of the Eugenics Research Association of America, Eugenics Research Association of America a group devoted to gathering statistics on the hereditary traits of Americans. He seemed especially interested in studies showing a large concentration of “new” immigrants in mental hospitals, prisons, and poorhouses. Such information led him to call for a change in the law. A reduction in the quota for “new” immigrants was necessary, he claimed, to save the United States from even larger numbers of paupers, mental patients, and criminals. The Immigration Committee voted to change the census base from 1910 to 1890, when there were far fewer southern and eastern Europeans in the country, and to reduce the quota from 3 percent to 2 percent. Congress would adopt those ideas in the Immigration Act of 1924. Emergency Quota Act (1921)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)
Johnson Quota Act (1921)

Further Reading

  • Bennett, Marion T. American Immigration Policies. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1963. Although written from a prorestriction point of view, this book contains useful information on all immigration laws up to 1962 and their effects on the numbers of people entering the United States. There is a brief but useful summary of arguments for and against the 1921 act. Includes an index and bibliography.
  • Divine, Robert. American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957. An interesting, detailed account of the congressional movement toward restriction. Although mainly concerned with the 1924 law and its aftermath, there is a summary of attitudes in Congress and the rest of the United States that led to the 1921 act. Written from an antirestriction point of view. Contains an extensive and useful bibliography.
  • Garis, Roy. Immigration Restriction. New York: Macmillan, 1928. Written by an economist at Vanderbilt University in support of restriction. An old work but still useful in reflecting the attitudes of members of the Immigration Restriction League. Many charts and graphs. Contains an extensive bibliography prepared by the Library of Congress for the House Immigration Committee.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1975. The classic account of anti-immigrant hostility in the United States from the Civil War to the final victory for restriction in the 1920’s. Presents a full account of the arguments for and against quotas, and contains an extensive discussion of the 1921 bill and the congressional debate on the subject. Includes a bibliography and an index.
  • Lipset, Seymour M., and Earl Raab. The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Although mainly focused on bigotry, the book contains a short discussion of restrictionist attitudes in many areas of the nation. The bibliography is helpful in finding sources for anti-immigrant ideas and values.
  • Miller, Nathan. New World Coming: The 1920’s and the Making of Modern America. New York: Scribner, 2003. Comprehensive survey of the changes in and concerns about American culture in the 1920’s. Includes a discussion of immigration policy, immigrants, and American demographics during the decade. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Solomon, Barbara. Ancestors and Immigrants. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1956. A study of the Immigration Restriction League of Boston. Asserts that restrictionists perceived their world as crumbling under the influx of vast numbers of immigrants who knew nothing of democracy and liberty and were inferior intellectually and physically. Most of the study looks at attitudes before 1921 that led directly to the passage of the law.

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