Quota systems Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

National quotas set by U.S. immigration laws during the 1920’s directly controlled the flow of immigrants from individual countries and effectively banned all Asian immigration for many years. The quotas also prevented many Jews seeking refuge from Nazi genocide during the 1930’s from finding safe havens in the United States. In 1965, national quotas were replaced by much more flexible hemispheric quotas.

The first numerical limits on immigrants from specific countries in U.S. immigration law appeared in the 1921 [a]Immigration Act of 1921Emergency Immigration Act. During the late 1910’s and early 1920’s, a serious anti-immigrant fever swept the United States, and many Americans came to believe that too many undesirable immigrants were coming to America. This concern helped lead to enactment of the 1921 law, which set quotas for numbers of immigrants from individual foreign countries. Under the law, only 3 percent of the number of people from a country who had been counted in the 1910 U.S. Census could immigrate each year after 1921.Quota systemsImmigration law;quota systemsQuota systemsImmigration law;quota systems[cat]IMMIGRATION REFORM;Quota systems[cat]ANTI-IMMIGRANT MOVEMENTS AND POLICIES;Quota systems

The [a]Immigration Act of 1924;quotasImmigration Act of 1924 was even more restrictive. It added a total ban on Asian immigration. This ban targeted primarily Japanese immigrants, as Chinese immigration had been banned since 1882. The new act also lowered the quota percentage from 3 to 2 percent and pushed the baseline year from 1910 back to 1890. This change had a dramatic impact on immigration from countries in eastern and southern Europe, from which much smaller numbers of immigrants had come before 1890. After 1924, all immigration dropped precipitously, even though some favored nations did not even fill their annual quotas. During the Depression years of the early 1930’s, the United States even experienced negative immigration, with more people leaving the country than entering it.

The quotas had their most significant impact upon eastern Europeans, particularly Jewish immigrants;and Holocaust[Holocaust]Jews, during the 1930’s. This was the period when Germany;Nazi regimeAdolf Hitler’s Nazi government came to power in Germany and began adopting anti-Jewish legislation and fostering anti-Jewish violence that made many people want to leave the country. However, U.S. immigration quotas closed the door to significant Jewish immigration, leaving thousands of Jews to perish in the coming Holocaust;survivorsHolocaust. Attempts made in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would admit an additional 20,000 Jews into the United States failed. The only significant U.S. action that was taken was Roosevelt, Franklin D.[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;and Jewish refugees[Jewish refugees]President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order to have the visas of 15,000 political refugees already in the United States extended indefinitely.

Loosening of the Restrictions

After the United States entered World War II during the early 1940’s, there was some loosening of quota restrictions. In 1943, for example, China, a U.S. ally in the war, was allowed to send 105 immigrants. During the same year, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was repealed. The Philippines and British India were also granted small quotas in this period.

During the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the government continued to loosen the quota system. It also created mechanisms that allowed people to immigrate outside the quota system. For example, the [a]Displaced Persons Act of 1948;and quota system[quota system]Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowed refugees from political persecution to immigrate without regard to quotas. The [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952;and quotas[quotas]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act) made the naturalization system color-blind, thereby allowing more countries to fulfill their quotas. Meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) managed to sneak foreign Scientistsscientists into the United States under a 1945 program dubbed Operation PaperclipOperation Paperclip.

The quota system underwent its most serious alteration with passage of the [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965;and quotas[quotas]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, in which the entire national origins system was scrapped. Hemispheric quotas then replaced national quotes. A system of preferences was also established, and persons with family ties to American citizens and permanet residents were let in without regard to quotas. These changes greatly increased the numbers of immigrants entering the United States, particularly from countries that had previously had the most severe restrictions. The hemispheric quota system continued into the twenty-first century, but a number of post-1965 laws allowed refugees from Communismcommunist countries to enter as political refugees without being counted under the quotas.Quota systemsImmigration law;quota systems

Further Reading
  • Barde, Robert Eric. Immigration at the Golden Gate: Passenger Ships, Exclusion, and Angel Island. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2008. While much of immigration history focuses on the East Coast, Barde focuses on the West Coast, including Angel Island in California, which was the entry point for most who immigrated from Asia and who were also the most often targeted by quotas and bans.
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Perennial, 2002. A leading historian, Daniels examines the various peoples who have immigrated to American over the years, combining broad discussions with vignettes about many famous immigrants. He also details the native-born reaction to those immigrants and includes a discussion of the twentieth century immigration quota systems.
  • Graham, Otis. Unguarded Gates: A History of America’s Immigration Crisis. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. General history of immigration, focusing mostly on the twentieth century. Argues that immigration needs to be limited, particularly for national security reasons, and suggests that unchecked immigration will lead to a population explosion.
  • King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. King points out that quotas and categories were used to exclude many immigrants during the 1880 to 1960 period. He also argues that these exclusions had lasting effects on America.
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Examines how people have defined their Americanness, and how this relates to sovereignty and immigration.


Asian immigrants

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.

Displaced Persons Act of 1948

Henderson v. Mayor of the City of New York

History of immigration after 1891

Immigration Act of 1921

Immigration Act of 1924

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Jewish immigrants

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