Immigration Act of 1924

The Immigration Act of 1924, which reflected widespread restrictionist sentiment in the United States after World War I, severely limited the numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe permitted to enter the country each year.

Summary of Event

The Immigration Act of 1924 provided for a system of quotas for immigration into the United States, drastically limiting the numbers of people from southern and eastern Europe who could enter the country, especially in comparison with more “favored” national groups from northern and western Europe. As a result of strong pressure from American employers dependent on Latin American laborers, the measure included few restrictions on immigrants from nations in the Western Hemisphere. Otherwise, it severely curtailed the immigration of groups deemed by restrictionists to be not “American” enough. [kw]Immigration Act of 1924 (May 26, 1924)
[kw]Act of 1924, Immigration (May 26, 1924)
[kw]Immigration Act of 1924 (May 26, 1924)
Immigration Act (1924)
Johnson-Reid Act (1924)[Johnson Reid Act]
National Origins Act (1924)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)
[g]United States;May 26, 1924: Immigration Act of 1924[06060]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 26, 1924: Immigration Act of 1924[06060]
[c]Business and labor;May 26, 1924: Immigration Act of 1924[06060]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;May 26, 1924: Immigration Act of 1924[06060]
Johnson, Albert
Reed, David A.
Dillingham, William Paul
Hughes, Charles Evans
Palmer, A. Mitchell
Gompers, Samuel

The U.S. Congress had passed immigration legislation, after contentious debate, on several occasions prior to 1924. A quota system instituted in 1921 provided that people of each European nationality could enter the United States based on the percentage of their group’s population in the United States in 1910. The Immigration Act of 1921 allowed only about 350,000 immigrants from Europe per year, most of them from the “preferred” national groups in northern and western Europe. It had several loopholes, however. By 1924, few voices were raised against the further restriction of immigration, and some individuals called for a complete shutdown.

U.S. Health Service officers inspect Japanese immigrants as they arrive on the West Coast of the United States several months before Congress passed the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924.


The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act for its congressional sponsors, Congressman Albert Johnson of Washington and Senator David A. Reed of Pennsylvania, set national quotas based on estimates of the national origins of residents in the United States at the 1890 census. That the Senate Immigration Committee, headed by Senator William Paul Dillingham, chose 1890 as the date from which to calculate national origins was significant. That year was prior to the most extensive immigration from southern and eastern Europe, particularly Italy and the Balkan countries.

Immigration to the United States from all areas rose tremendously in the late nineteenth century, but after 1896 most European immigrants came from areas different from those of previous immigrants. A large proportion of immigrants in the mid-1800’s had been from western Europe, particularly the British Isles and Germany. Pressures such as the Irish potato famine of the 1840’s and the Franco-German conflicts in the third quarter of the century created these immigrant flows. The “new” immigrants, as they were called to distinguish them from immigrant groups already established in the United States by the 1890’s, stood out in part simply because they came from other parts of Europe and the world, not only southern and eastern Europe but also, in significant numbers, Japan and the Far East.

The new immigrants could be differentiated from native-born residents of the United States and earlier immigrant groups on grounds other than their national origins. They were often physically distinguishable, with darker skin or non-“white” color (such as olive-skinned Italians or the Asian peoples), or smaller stature. They were different religiously from earlier groups, with many southern Europeans being Catholic and Asian immigrants being non-Christians, in contrast to the Protestantism (excepting the Irish) of earlier immigrant groups. The new immigrants settled in unprecedented patterns as well. Generally, they were not as drawn to farms in the Midwest as to urban and industrial communities and mining areas in the Northeast.

Restriction of immigration through legislation had broad support in 1924. A few efforts to moderate the provisions of the Johnson-Reed Act, such as the attempt by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes to make the act comport with earlier diplomatic agreements allowing residency for certain Japanese aliens, were rebuffed by Congress. The reasons advanced for limiting or stopping new immigrant groups from coming to the United States included humanitarian concerns about urban overcrowding, arguments about preserving the purity of a supposed“Nordic” race, scientific and pseudoscientific concerns about racial characteristics, pleas to limit the labor supply, and arguments about the alleged links between the new immigrants and radical political movements. A few groups, including organizations representing business such as the National Organization of Manufacturers, consistently argued against limitations on immigration, hoping that immigration would provide continued flows of inexpensive (and often nonunion) factory and unskilled labor. Their desires were drowned out in the calls for restriction.

Labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers, who in the 1910’s had been uncomfortable with the tone of restrictionist proposals, became convinced of the need to ensure the “Americanism” of the labor force after World War I. Labor unions;opposition to immigration The hiring of immigrant laborers as strikebreakers in several incidents increased organized labor’s fear that the new immigrants were too tractable in the hands of employers and would undercut existing pay rates. The inflation and massive unemployment of the early 1920’s made the labor movement even more desperate to eliminate “foreign” (that is, new immigrant) competition for jobs.

The supporters of immigration restrictions in the years prior to passage of the 1924 act found justifications for their ideas among authors who wrote about the physical classification of human beings. Such writers on race ranged from trained biologists, geologists, and geneticists such as Francis Galton of England to amateur scientists and historians such as the widely read Madison Grant of New York City. Many of the restrictionists believed that they were practicing the science of “eugenics,” Eugenics or “good breeding,” when they recommended that “inferior” national groups such as southern Europeans should not be allowed to “water down” the primarily whiter, Protestant, and “Nordic” groups that had arrived in the United States earlier. Such arguments found acceptance among some supporters of social Darwinism, Social Darwinism who believed that the “Nordic” northern Europeans were engaged in a battle for species survival. Among highly educated people in the United States, an acceptance of tenets of eugenicism and social Darwinism was widespread. Many offered it as an explanation for the success of their own well-established families. To even more extreme groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which was at its height in influence in the postwar years, eugenics provided a “scientific” explanation for the most vicious forms of xenophobia and racism.

Nativism had been given powerful impetus by several high-profile governmental officials in the wake of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched a series of actions against radical groups and rounded up foreign agitators for deportation from the United States in 1920. Although these “Palmer raids” Palmer raids netted only a small number of people who finally were forced to leave the country and Palmer’s “Red Scare” Red Scare (1919-1920) helped discredit its instigator, a number of political leaders, including the young J. Edgar Hoover, who had been appointed head of the new General Intelligence Division in the Department of Justice, remained convinced that radicalism, disloyalty to the United States, and new immigrants were intimately linked. The assumption that Italians, for example, were prone to anarchism and violence pervaded the internationally famous trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the mid-1920’s.


The strong provisions of the Immigration Act of 1924 cut immigration to levels much lower than prior to the beginning of the new immigration, especially as supplemented by stepped-up enforcement in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, when fears about unemployment were even more pressing. Because some countries (such as Great Britain, a “preferred” nation to the restrictionists) never filled their yearly quotas, actual annual immigration under the act was much lower than the total of 150,000 persons allowed. In contrast, 1,285,000 immigrants entered the United States in 1907, the year in which immigration was highest. Nonetheless, despite the restrictive features of the 1921 and 1924 congressional immigration actions, more than 4 million people immigrated to the United States during the 1920’s, compared with about 5.7 million in the previous decade. The years of the Great Depression saw a precipitous decline in immigration, with only about 528,000 immigrants. Although migration from Mexico had not been formally regulated by the 1924 act, enough small farmers began complaining about immigrants serving as cheap labor for large-scale cotton producers to pressure diplomats into restricting Mexican immigration through much stricter enforcement of visa regulations.

The fervor of restrictionist arguments moderated somewhat by the 1930’s, especially as eugenics fell into disfavor because of its increasing association with fascism in Europe and as scandals smeared the reputation of the Ku Klux Klan. Ironically, however, despite Americans’ mounting dismay at arguments about racial purity being advanced by Adolf Hitler, immigration restrictions (motivated in some instances by anti-Semitism) served as a powerful method for limiting immigration by Europeans seeking refuge from Nazi persecution. President Franklin D. Roosevelt refused to press for changes in immigration regulations and in the law of political asylum that would have granted admission to the United States to thousands of individuals, including children.

Immigration restriction as a national policy was severely tested by refugees from several areas of the world in the late 1940’s, including people fleeing from new communist governments. The Cold War saw renewed fears within the United States that foreigners, especially from certain areas, might be spies or anti-American. Despite some administrative sympathy for refugees, notably in the administration of Harry S. Truman, legislation such as the Internal Security Act of 1950 and the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 (both passed over presidential veto) contained strict regulation of potential subversives, strengthened the authority of government agencies to enforce immigration legislation, and kept the quota system in place.

The quota system remained as a guiding principle in U.S. immigration policy until 1965, when new grounds for establishing a person’s suitability for entry into the country as a resident were established. Incremental changes in immigration law in the 1950’s and early 1960’s had provided for the reuniting of some immigrant families, but sweeping reforms of the quota system were blocked for a time by key members of Congress who still advocated restriction. Wholesale reform of immigration law was urged by organized labor, which long since had absorbed “new” immigrants as members, and by religious and intellectual groups that viewed the quota system as needlessly discriminatory. The authors of the Immigration Act of 1965 allowed for a “brain drain” of skilled and professional immigrants from the rest of the world into the United States, in part as a compromise with congressional restrictionists, to assure them that immigrants would be productive additions to American society.

With the passage of the 1965 act, national origin was no longer the primary determinant of an individual’s ability to enter the United States. Quotas by regions of the world were retained, and a 20,000-person cap per country was applied to immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere and later applied to those from Western Hemisphere nations. The usefulness of an individual’s occupation, which first was provided as a consideration in the McCarran-Walter Act, and the necessity for political asylum could count in favor of a potential immigrant. Despite the worry that U.S. immigration policy is overly restrictive, actual levels of immigration increased steadily after World War II. The war years of the 1940’s saw immigration rise to more than a million, to 2.5 million in the 1950’s, 3.3 million in the 1960’s, and nearly 4.5 million in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, immigration increased even more dramatically, to 71.3 million in the 1980’s and more than 9 million in the 1990’s, as Congress raised legal limits. Immigration Act (1924)
Johnson-Reid Act (1924)[Johnson Reid Act]
National Origins Act (1924)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)

Further Reading

  • American Council of Learned Societies. “Report of the Committee on Linguistic and National Stocks in the Population of the United States.” In Annual Report of the American Historical Association by the American Historical Society. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1932. Presents the findings of the committee assigned to determine the national origins of the population of the United States. Useful for information on the methods used by social scientists to circumvent problems resulting from gaps in early census data.
  • Bolino, August C. The Ellis Island Source Book. Washington, D.C.: Kensington Historical Press, 1985. Volume intended as a resource for families researching immigrant history includes a history of Ellis Island and U.S. immigration restriction.
  • Calavita, Kitty. U.S. Immigration Law and the Control of Labor, 1820-1924. London: Academic Press, 1984. Theoretical discussion of U.S. immigration policy is heavily informed by neo-Marxist analysis of the role of the state in promoting capitalism. Argues that pressure for the 1924 act was widespread and not attributable to any single group or set of interests.
  • Curran, Thomas J. Xenophobia and Immigration, 1820-1930. Boston: Twayne, 1975. Basic overview of the reasons for immigration restriction throughout U.S. history, focusing on nativism and groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill & Wang, 2004. Examines trends in and influences on U.S. immigration policy from late in the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first century. Chapter 2 addresses the period of the 1920’s. Includes tables and charts, bibliography, and index.
  • Divine, Robert A. American Immigration Policy, 1924-1952. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1957. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1972. One of the most comprehensive treatments available of the history of immigration restriction from the 1924 act through the mid-1950’s. Provides a detailed summary of the attitudes of both restrictionists and their opponents and describes the reasons behind the move to a national-origins system. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Garis, Roy. Immigration Restriction. New York: Macmillan, 1927. Work by a Vanderbilt University economist who supported restriction and the national-origins system demonstrates the prorestrictionist perspective of the time. Senate and House committees used some of the charts and graphs in this book to support a change from the 1921 method of using the census. Includes an index and a bibliography prepared by the Library of Congress for Congress.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988. Classic account of anti-immigrant hostility in the United States from the Civil War to the imposition of the national-origins system. Gives a complete account of the congressional struggle for immigration restriction and presents a detailed analysis of the 1924 legislative victory. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Hutchinson, E. P. Legislative History of American Immigration Policy, 1798-1965. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. Encyclopedic discussion of all major pieces of immigration legislation considered and passed by Congress. Chronicles changes in the forms of various bills as they passed through committees and floor discussions.
  • Kessner, Thomas. The Golden Door: Italian and Jewish Immigrant Mobility in New York City, 1880-1915. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Uses a variety of local records, including census materials, to argue that “new” Italian and Jewish immigrants in New York City were upwardly mobile, despite the fears of nativists.
  • LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Collection of primary documents on immigration history. Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Taylor, Philip. The Distant Magnet: European Emigration to the U.S.A. New York: Harper & Row, 1971. Vivid and readable account of the motivations for and experience of immigration to the United States, drawn from diverse source materials. Captures the pathos and richness of a variety of cultures and the venom of restrictionist arguments. Includes photographs.
  • Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Examines the history of immigration policy in the United States since the nation’s founding, focusing on the factors that have influenced attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Includes tables, figures, and index.

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U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol

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