The National Origins Act (Immigration Act of 1924) Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The last in a series of immigration restrictions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the 1924 National Origins Act, also called the Johnson-Reed Act, was a law that severely limited the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans and virtually ended the immigration of nonwhite peoples, especially Asians. Written at a time when the nation was replete with nationalist sentiment in the aftermath of World War I, the National Origins Act reflected the disdain many white Americans felt for those coming to the United States from countries other than those in Western Europe. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe had been particularly high after 1890, and there was a feeling among many that these immigrants, mostly Roman Catholic and Jewish, never quite fit into white, Protestant America. While public opinion changed gradually over the decades, the quota-based system the act established remained largely in place until it was abolished in 1965.

Summary Overview

The last in a series of immigration restrictions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the 1924 National Origins Act, also called the Johnson-Reed Act, was a law that severely limited the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans and virtually ended the immigration of nonwhite peoples, especially Asians. Written at a time when the nation was replete with nationalist sentiment in the aftermath of World War I, the National Origins Act reflected the disdain many white Americans felt for those coming to the United States from countries other than those in Western Europe. Immigration from southern and eastern Europe had been particularly high after 1890, and there was a feeling among many that these immigrants, mostly Roman Catholic and Jewish, never quite fit into white, Protestant America. While public opinion changed gradually over the decades, the quota-based system the act established remained largely in place until it was abolished in 1965.

Defining Moment

During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, when the influx of immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe flocked to the burgeoning cities of the industrial United States, nativist sentiments began to rise among Protestants of Western European heritage born in the United States. Before the arrival of European Catholics and Jews, immigrants from Asia had spurred a similar nativist reaction. Coming to the United States primarily to build the Western railroads during the mid-1800s, Chinese workers became unwelcome once work was completed and the railroad jobs dried up.

Beyond race, a wariness of political radicalism and religious difference, as well as the fear that a glut of inexpensive immigrant labor would deprive American citizens of jobs, all played into the rise of American nativism at the beginning of the twentieth century. Immigration restriction was one of a number of ways that this nativist impulse manifested. Laws mandating that public school classes be taught only in English and legislation restricting the sale of alcoholic beverages–which were an integral part of many of the newly arrived immigrants’ cultures–were another way the legislature was used to entrench nativist ideals.

But restrictive immigration laws were the most direct way of dealing with the problem and had long-lasting ramifications. Beginning in the 1880s, the US Congress acted to bar those deemed likely to become public charges and prevented all further immigration from China. Additionally, any Chinese immigrants already in the United States were denied US citizenship. By 1908, Japanese immigration was effectively ended for all but the educated classes. In 1917, Congress passed legislation instituting a literacy requirement, stating that immigrants over sixteen years of age had to be able to read a number of words in ordinary use in English or some other language.

The basic outline for immigration policy for the first half of the twentieth century was established with the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which set an annual limit of about 350,000 immigrants and quotas for each nation that reflected the ethnic makeup of the United States at the time of the 1910 census. Thus, the quotas were heavily slanted to Western and northern European nations, where demand for immigration was low, rather than the southern and eastern European nations, where there were many who wanted to immigrate.

The quota system was tightened further and more specifically defined by the National Origins Act of 1924. Limiting total immigration to 150,000, the act set the quotas to reflect the demographics of the American population in the 1920 census. Additionally, it replaced the various acts and policies that had limited immigration from Asia with a blanket restriction of all Asian immigration. Latin American immigrants were excluded from the act not because they were especially welcome, but because their work as agricultural laborers had proven essential during World War I.

Author Biography

Largely the work of Congressman Albert Johnson (R-Washington State) and Senator David A. Reed (R-Pennsylvania), the National Origins Act reflected the feeling among many white Americans that immigration by southern and eastern Europeans, Asians, and other nonwhite peoples was overwhelming the United States and constituted a threat to the purity of the white American population. A career newspaper editor who had settled in Washington State, Johnson had a long history of racist thought and was the driving force behind the act. As head of a group called the Eugenics Research Association and editor of the Home Defender–an anti-immigrant newspaper–Johnson had supported measures to purify the blood of Americans through both stopping immigration and interracial marriage and the forced sterilization of the mentally disabled. Johnson delivered numerous speeches defaming eastern and southern Europeans as lawless, barbaric radicals before crafting the National Origins Act.

Document Analysis

The National Origins Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924, did more than just limit immigration to the United States. It set up a system that attempted to shape the immigrant communities that would be allowed to come. The idea was not new–the Immigration Act of 1921 had set up the first quota system–but the National Origins Act enshrined the quota system as the method of determining valid immigration to the United States. Essentially, it was an attempt at social engineering–admitting immigrants from acceptable nations and not admitting those deemed unacceptable in an attempt to keep the American population as homogenous as possible.

Overall, the aim of the act was to limit immigration on the whole. Whereas in the year before the act, some 350,000 persons immigrated, that number was cut almost in half in the year following its passage into law. Even for source countries considered desirable, such as Great Britain, immigration declined. But for those countries with exceptionally low quotas–especially those in southern and eastern Europe, immigration declined more than 90 percent.

The act created two classifications of immigrants: quota and nonquota. Taking its cue from the Monroe Doctrine, nonquota immigrants were those from the Western Hemisphere: “the Dominion of Canada, Newfoundland, the Republic of Mexico, the Republic of Cuba, the Republic of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Canal Zone, or an independent country of Central or South America.” Quota immigrants were from any other nation in the world. Immigrants who were seminary or university students also received special exemption from the quotas. The impact of this was to exclude the main source of the growing industrial workforce–southern and eastern Europe–as once the very small quotas for these nations were reached, no further immigration visas would be issued.

Finally, the National Origins Act specified that no persons ineligible for citizenship would be admitted to the United States. This would seem a fairly straightforward way of keeping out undesirable immigrants, such as criminals and other dangerous persons, as well as political radicals. However, given the fact that Japanese and Chinese immigrants had already been declared ineligible for citizenship, this clause made them ineligible for immigration as well, effectively cutting off all immigration from Asia until the act was superseded by the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and the quota system was abolished by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Essential Themes

The National Origins Act of 1924 had two central themes that characterized immigration policy for most of the twentieth century. First, it privileged North and South American as well as northern and Western European immigrants over southern and eastern Europeans. Second, it completely eliminated immigration from Asian nations, such as Japan and China. The American mainstream considered southern and eastern Europeans and Asians too culturally, linguistically, and religiously different to successfully assimilate into American society.

In the years following the passage of the act, immigration figures remained stable and were guided by the principles of the act. However, with the onset of the Great Depression and World War II thereafter, immigration dropped sharply. By the depths of the Depression in 1933, fewer than twenty-five thousand immigrants were allowed into the United States. Public opinion, ever hostile toward immigrant workers, turned even more hostile during the 1930s, when jobs were scarce for all segments of the American population. Even Mexican immigrants, granted nonquota status by the act, were encouraged to return to Mexico, and many were deported against their will.

There is a certain irony to the fact that the act was superseded in 1952, at a time when the United States encouraged cultural homogeneity more strongly than ever. The Cold War had the effect of demonizing many Eastern European nations as well as mainland China, but people who left those nations for the United States were considered heroic refugees of the Communist regimes from which they had fled. At the same time, the postwar economic boom beginning to take hold in Japan caused the Japanese to be seen by many as “good” immigrants–immigrants who came highly educated and were perceived as contributing to the prosperity of the nation. During the Cold War, Mexican and other Latin American immigrants replaced southern and Eastern Europeans as the targets of nativist sentiments in the United States.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882. New York: Hill, 2004. Print.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2002. Print.
  • Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
  • Ngai, Mae M. “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924.” Journal of American History 86.1 (1999): 67–92. Print.
  • __________. “Nationalism, Immigration Control, and the Ethnoracial Remapping of America in the 1920s.” OAH Magazine of History 21.3 (2007): 11–15. Print.
  • Wepman, Dennis. Immigration: From the Founding of Virginia to the Closing of Ellis Island. New York: Facts On File, 2002. Print.
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