ON MAY 26, 1924, President Coolidge gave his approval to what is officially known as the Immigration Act of 1924. This new law marks a radical change in the immigration policy of the United States. Representative Albert Johnson, chairman of the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the House of Representatives, has called it, without exaggeration, a second Declaration of Independence. (1) It establishes a definite numerical limitation. (2) The bulk of immigration is to be of the same racial stocks as those that originally settled the United States and still constitute the major part of its population. (3) There is to be a preliminary selection overseas.

This new policy of limitation and of selection, epoch-making as it is, is all the more surprising when it is recalled that the first general immigration act was passed as recently as 1882 and provided only for the exclusion of convicts (except in the case of political offenses), of lunatics, of idiots, and of persons likely to become a public charge. The Act of 1882 was amended and strengthened in various ways by later legislation, but even the last general immigration act, that of 1917, which enumerated some thirty classes of aliens as subject to exclusion for physical, mental, moral or economic reasons, involved no general limitation of numbers, no racial selection, and no overseas inspection. The Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882 and later), the "Gentlemen's Agreement" with Japan (1907), and the so-called "Barred Zone" (1917) represented the only steps which had been taken towards any serious policy of exclusion or of numerical limitation, and all of these were concerned only with people of Asiatic origin. Even the illiteracy test, which was a storm-center of discussion for many years and finally became a part of the Act of 1917, useful as it has proved in several ways, has not operated appreciably to diminish numbers. The Quota Act of 1921, which limited new immigration to three percent of the number of foreign-born living in the United States at the time of the census of 1910, for the first time definitely restricted immigration as a whole, but was passed as temporary war emergency legislation and later extended (until June 30, 1924), still as a temporary measure.

When a nation as large and as powerful as the United States adopts a new policy on a matter of such importance, both to itself and to the rest of the world, it is pertinent to inquire into the causes. Let us therefore analyze, so far as may be possible, the general trend of public opinion on this subject, first in the period before federal control of immigration, and then in the three or four decades preceding the passage of the Act of 1924.

For a round hundred years it was a national ideal that the United States should be the asylum for the poor and the oppressed of every land. This very early came to be known as the "traditional" American attitude towards immigration. Curiously enough, there has always been a fundamental error in the popular conception of this tradition. This noble ideal of a refuge, open to all, had its roots in economic conditions far more than in any altruistic spirit of world philanthropy. For many decades the country was very sparsely settled. There was abundant free land. Labor was scarce. The number of immigrants was still very small, and nearly all of them were sturdy pioneers, essentially homogeneous and readily assimilated. There was, therefore, little need to worry about any immigration "problems," and it was comforting to the consciences of our ancestors to keep the doors wide open.

Gradually, in later years, as the stream of incoming aliens assumed what in those days were large proportions, and the first difficulties of assimilation began to appear, a second thought came into the national consciousness--that of the "Melting Pot." The fundamental idea in the theory of the Melting Pot was that environment, not heredity, determines what human beings shall become. It was thought that the great American Melting Pot could fuse into a new homogeneous race, better and finer than the world had ever known, unlimited numbers of aliens of all nations, habits and languages who might choose to come here from any quarter of the globe. It was believed that sending alien children to school, teaching them English, giving them flag drills, letting them recite the Gettysburg Address and read the Declaration of Independence, would make thorough-going Americans of them, similar in all respects to the native-born of the traditional type.

While the dominant feeling for most of the period up to the end of the nineteenth century was indifferent to, or at any rate not in favor of, restrictive legislation, there were not lacking those who from the very foundation of the republic were opposed to free immigration. Washington questioned the advisability of immigration except of certain skilled mechanics. Jefferson expressed the wish that there were an ocean of fire between this country and Europe, so that it might be impossible for any more immigrants to come here. The Hartford Convention, in 1812, proclaimed that "the stock population of these states is amply sufficient to render this nation in due time sufficiently great and powerful."

When the influx of German and Irish assumed considerable proportions the feeling against wholly unrestricted immigration grew rapidly, and many of the same arguments were then used as have become familiar in more recent years. It was urged that these people were of different race and religion, that they were undesirable competitors in the labor market, and that they presented difficulties of assimilation. The "Know-Nothing" agitation of the middle of the last century, which was largely anti-Catholic, for a time attained considerable political prominence but was not a restriction movement.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century a distinct change in public opinion began to manifest itself. Of slow growth at first, the new views soon spread more and more rapidly until they have finally been embodied in the new immigration law. Many persons have made the mistake of thinking that the war was the immediate and main cause of this change in the national immigration policy. To the present writer the situation appears in quite a different light. America's experiences during the war, and the prospect of what would happen as the war's aftermath, were unquestionably very potent factors in bringing about the new legislation, but a survey of the literature of immigration during the past thirty or forty years shows that throughout this period firm foundations were being laid upon which the public opinion of the country in favor of effective restriction was being built up. The reason for the gradual reversal of the earlier American policy of free immigration to one of steadily increasing restriction was the very marked change in the general character of immigration which began in the decade 1880-1890. It is significant that in the period 1871-1880 the "old" immigration from northern and western Europe amounted to slightly over 2,000,000 persons while the "new" immigration, from southern and eastern Europe and near Asia, numbered only 180,000. In the years 1897-1914, the period immediately preceding the war, the "old" contributed about 3,000,000 while the "new" contributed over 10,000,000. The number of arriving aliens was increasing with enormous rapidity. Their racial origins and their characteristics were changing. It was at this point that a real and very serious immigration "problem" arose. The newer immigrants generally had different and lower standards of living. They often retained their loyalty to their native countries. They read their own foreign language newspapers. Barriers of every kind separated them from the native population and from earlier immigrants from northern and western Europe.

The seriousness of the situation was not immediately apparent to the great body of the American people. Most of the writers who dealt with it failed to grasp the importance of the change. But there were exceptions--men who labored to make plain the far-reaching racial, economic, political, and social consequences which would inevitably follow if a policy of unrestricted immigration were continued. In 1892 appeared the late Professor Richmond Mayo-Smith's "Emigration and Immigration," a pioneer volume in the new field. The late Prescott F. Hall clearly set forth the effects of the new immigration in his "Immigration" (1906), and urged the need of immediate and more adequate legislation. In 1894 a group of men in Boston organized the Immigration Restriction League, the first body of its kind in the country. This league has for thirty years been steadily at work, carrying on a general educational campaign for more effective restriction and selection. Americans began to realize that the ideal of furnishing an asylum for all the world's oppressed was coming into conflict with changed economic and social conditions. The cold facts were that the supply of public land was practically exhausted; that acute labor problems, aggravated by the influx of ignorant and unskilled aliens, had arisen; that the large cities were becoming congested with foreigners; that there were too many immigrants for proper assimilation; that large numbers of mentally and physically unfit, and of the economically undesirable, had come to the United States. Those who still honestly clung to the idea of maintaining in the United States a haven of refuge for the oppressed, one by one realized that America can only be such a haven if conditions here are better than they are in the lands from which our immigrants come, and that the only way to maintain our economic, political, educational, and social standards is by means of restriction.

The fallacies of the Melting Pot theory had also become obvious. Years before the war it had become increasingly apparent that the Melting Pot was no longer successfully performing its function; that the American population was losing its homogeneous character; that various nationalities of recent immigrants were forming more and more compact racial "blocs," each bloc tenaciously maintaining its own racial character, customs, and traditions. The United States was fast becoming, as Theodore Roosevelt expressed it, a "polyglot boarding house." Furthermore, Americans who gave attention to the results of biological investigation became cognizant of the fact that the laws which rule in the world of the lower animals are also dominant in the case of man. They realized that a heavy draught-horse cannot be made into a trotter by keeping him in a racing stable. Nor can a race true to the old American type be produced by any process of Americanization, so called. What goes into the Melting Pot determines what shall come out of it. If the material fed in is a varied assortment of nationalities, to a considerable extent physically and mentally below par, there can be no hope of producing a superior or even of maintaining a homogeneous race. It is often said, and with truth, that each of the different alien peoples coming to America has something to contribute to American civilization. But what America needs is desirable additions to, and not inferior substitutes for, what it already possesses. There is nothing in biological discovery or principles which would lead to the hope that only the virtues of the various races which were going to make up the future American would survive and the vices be eliminated. The public consciousness awakened to the realization that, to quote Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, "education and environment do not fundamentally alter racial values. . . . The true spirit of American democracy, that all men are born with equal rights and duties, has been confused with the political sophistry that all men are born with equal character and ability to govern themselves and others, and with the educational sophistry that education and environment will offset the handicap of ancestry."

In another important respect public opinion underwent a striking change in the decade or two before the war, namely in regard to the relation of immigration to the need for labor. So accustomed had Americans become to seeing vast numbers of foreign laborers flocking into the factories, and mills, and coal mines that it had come to be an axiom that the need for labor could only be supplied by a constant and unlimited inflow of immigration. From the time of the first agitation for restriction down to the present, large employers of "cheap labor" have always insisted that the development of industry and the prosperity of the country absolutely depend upon a free inflow of alien labor. Of late years, however, it has been seen that cheap foreign labor may often be so cheap that it is dear at any price; that it is usually, in the long run, both socially and politically very expensive; that a tremendously rapid development of the country is by no means altogether desirable. The conviction spread rapidly that, as Dr. H. H. Laughlin has clearly expressed it, "immigration is a long-time investment in family stocks rather than a short-time investment in productive labor." The question arose whether any American industry which cannot prosper without a continuous supply of cheap alien labor is really worth preserving in a country which boasts of the high standards of living of its wage earners and the high character of its citizenship. The feeling grew that a much more general use of labor-saving machinery, together with the natural increase of the present population, supplemented by a properly restricted and carefully selected immigration, would in time largely solve this labor problem. Americans are unalterably opposed to anything even approximating slave or coolie labor, of whatever race or color, in their country. It became evident that a continuance of the policy of unlimited immigration would inevitably produce here a permanent class of low-grade labor of the coolie type.

In line with this changing trend of public opinion on the question of cheap labor there has been noticeable recently a significant change of attitude on the part of certain far-seeing manufacturers, who realized that a permanent limitation of immigration was to be the settled future policy of the country and who began to adjust themselves to the new situation by decreasing their labor turnover and by increasing the use of labor-saving machinery. The attitude of this group has probably been correctly stated by Mr. Edward A. Filene of Boston, himself a large manufacturer and employer, as follows: "Employers do not need an increased labor supply, since increased use of labor-saving machinery and elimination of waste in production and distribution will for many years reduce costs more rapidly than wages increase, and so prevent undue domination by labor."

Thus American public opinion had for twenty-five or thirty years before the war been gradually crystallizing in favor of more restriction. Abundant evidence of this tendency is to be found in the literature on immigration, as well as in the enactment of the successive laws of 1882, 1885, 1891, 1903, 1907, and 1917. The report of the United States Immigration Commission, completed in 1910, which recommended restriction "as demanded by economic, moral, and social considerations," was a very convincing official pronouncement on the question, and did much to convert the nation as a whole to the necessity of prompt action. This commission, it should be noted, suggested a percentage limitation of immigration.

Then came the Great War. Patriotic Americans who had been in doubt on the question of restriction became aggressive restrictionists. Those who had been advocating further effective legislation saw the tide turning their way with irresistible force. During the years of the war various alien racial groups in the country showed clearly enough that their sympathies were not American but European. European antagonisms, bred and nourished through the centuries abroad, came to the surface in the United States. Those who had been relying on the Melting Pot to accomplish assimilation realized that they had cherished false hopes. The statistics of the Draft threw a great deal of light upon the whole problem of the foreign-born in the United States. Americans suddenly awoke to a realization of the danger of having in their country an element of foreign birth, or with one or both parents foreign-born, which constituted one-third of the total population and of which a disquietingly large proportion were unfit for active service because of an inability to speak English or because of inferior intelligence. Further, competent authorities in the United States and unprejudiced observers abroad united in the conviction that the war would be immediately followed by an immigration the volume of which would far exceed anything that had ever been known. Not only this. The new immigration would be composed almost wholly of eastern and southeastern Europeans: people of mixed races, with traditions, customs, political experience and standards of living radically different from those which had been the distinguishing characteristics of the American population. It was the verdict of observers abroad, both official and otherwise, that a Jewish mass-migration, more or less well organized, was imminent. It did not appear that such an immigration, composed chiefly of small shop-keepers, pedlers, and sweat-shop workers, would fill any real economic need in the United States. The lessons of the war, and the prospect of a vast immigration following it, suddenly fanned into a brighter flame the smouldering fire of sentiment in favor of restriction. The result was that in the Emergency Act of 1921 the United States for the first time placed a definite numerical limit on immigration.

With the three percent law expiring on June 30, 1924, Congress was faced with the necessity of providing adequate legislation to take the place of the Emergency Act. Under the able leadership of Representative Johnson, of Washington, and with the cooperation of the large majority of an unusually competent committee, an extraordinarily thorough study was made of every aspect of this complex subject. Numerous hearings were held, the published reports of which now constitute an indispensable part of the literature on immigration. In the Senate, Hon. David A. Reed, of Pennsylvania, had charge of the bill and showed great skill in dealing with the parliamentary situations there, as well as in suggesting an important amendment to the bill as it originally passed the House. The enormous majorities by which the bill passed Congress clearly reflected public opinion on this subject.

The main provisions of the Act of 1924 may, for the sake of simplicity and clearness, be grouped under three heads, (1) those dealing with limitation of numbers; (2) those providing for selection; (3) those based on humanitarian motives.

(1) Limitation. For three years, or until June 30, 1927, the annual quota is fixed at two percent of the number of foreign-born of each nationality in this country in 1890. This will admit, within the quota, somewhat over 160,000.[i] Under the emergency law of 1921, with its quota of three percent on the basis of the 1910 census, the countries of southern and eastern Europe, including Asiatic Turkey and Palestine, were given about forty-five percent of the total immigration, although they compose less than twelve percent of the total population of the United States. There was thus distinct discrimination in their favor, and no less distinct discrimination against the stocks which principally settled the American colonies and established the American form of government, and whose descendants make up over one-half of our white population today. The quotas, in other words, were based on the number of foreign-born in the United States, and took no account of the Americans born in America. The percentage provision in the new law, based on the census of 1890, gives these same countries of southern and eastern Europe and near-Asia quotas roughly in the same proportion to the total immigration as the persons born in those countries and now in the United States bear to the present population of the United States. Southern and eastern Europe will now have slightly over fifteen percent of the total quota immigration--a liberal allowance in view of the fact that they constitute slightly less than twelve percent of the total population. "The use of the 1890 census is not discriminatory. It is used in an effort to preserve as nearly as possible the racial status quo in the United States. It is hoped to guarantee, as best we can at this late date, racial homogeneity in the United States."[ii]

There was no question of the racial superiority of northwestern Europeans or of the racial inferiority of southeastern Europeans. It was simply a question as to which of these two groups of aliens is, as a whole, best fitted by tradition, political background, customs, education, and habits of thought to adjust itself to American institutions and to American social and economic conditions--to become, in short, an adaptable, homogeneous and helpful element in American national life.

Sec. 11 (b), of the Immigration Act of 1924 reads as follows: "The annual quota of any nationality for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 1927, and for each fiscal year thereafter, shall be a number which bears the same ratio to 150,000 as the number of inhabitants in continental United States in 1920 having that national origin bears to the number of inhabitants in continental United States in 1920, but the minimum quota of any nationality shall be 100." This is Senator Reed's racial origins provision. It cuts straight through the controversy as to whether the quotas should be based on the census of 1890 or that of 1910. It bases the quotas not upon the numbers of those composing the various alien colonies or foreign "blocs" now in the country, ignoring the native-born, but divides them among the nationalities in accordance with the national origins of the whole population. The fairness of such an apportionment cannot be disputed. It declares, in effect, that what we now are racially we propose to remain. Against such a stand there can be no ground for opposition. Each year's immigration, as Commissioner Curran put it, is to be "an exact miniature of what we are as to stock." This is bedrock immigration policy. It is one of the fairest and most constructive provisions which has ever been embodied in any immigration law.

The so-called Japanese exclusion clause of the Act of 1924 was the subject of more discussion than any other part of the measure. Apart from its diplomatic aspects, it has far more importance as the establishment of a principle than as a means of limiting immigration. With certain fairly numerous and reasonable exceptions, it excludes aliens ineligible to citizenship, thus covering all Orientals. Since 1907 the limitation of Japanese immigration had been accomplished, not by law enacted by Congress, but by an understanding with Japan known as the "Gentlemen's Agreement," which was neither treaty nor law. The insistent demand for the exclusion of Orientals, and the determination of Congress to regulate immigration itself by law, combined to bring about the inclusion of the "ineligible to citizenship" provision in the new legislation. This law settles it once for all that immigration is a domestic matter which Congress proposes absolutely to control and that it is not a subject for treaty.

(2) Selection. Another important feature of the new law is the attempt, for the first time, to exercise some control over immigration at the source. Intending immigrants must apply to United States consular officers abroad for "immigration visas." These papers are to contain answers to questions essentially the same as those asked the immigrant on his arrival at our ports, together with full information as to the alien's family status, his occupation, personal appearance, ability to speak, read and write, addresses of relations, destination, personal and family institutional history, etc. In addition, the alien must furnish, if available, copies of his "dossier" and prison and military record, and copies of all other available public records concerning him kept by the government to which he owes allegiance. "The application is to be signed by the alien in the presence of the consular officer, and verified by oath administered by that officer. No immigration visa is to be issued if it appears to the consular officer, from statements in the application or in the papers submitted therewith, that the immigrant is inadmissible to the United States under the immigration laws," nor "if the consular officer knows or has reason to believe that the immigrant is inadmissible to the United States under the immigration laws." Visas for quota immigrants are to be issued only up to the numbers allowed by the quotas, and are to be good for a period not exceeding four months. This plan of visas does not constitute medical or general inspection overseas. That inspection is to be carried out, as it always should be, in the United States, by American inspectors, American doctors, and where American hospitals are provided. But the new plan will at least accomplish a preliminary selection overseas. While there will undoubtedly be many cases of perjury and of fraud in this connection, there can be no question that a great many undesirable aliens, subject to exclusion by law, will be refused their papers by our consuls when application is made.

The new plan is the first real attempt on the part of the United States to exercise some control over the kind of immigrants who shall come here. Hitherto this matter has been left practically altogether in the hands of foreign countries, some of which have certainly had no hesitation about making it easy for their own least desirable citizens to come to America.

(3) Humanitarian Provisions. The new law contains many provisions based on broad humanitarian motives. The immigration visa plan should reduce hardships to a minimum, prevent the division of families, and put an end to deportations on account of arrivals in excess of the quotas. Congestion at Ellis Island, with its attendant hardships, will be done away with, and it will therefore be possible to make the medical and general examinations more thorough and more effective. Further, "an immigrant who is the unmarried child under eighteen years of age, or the wife, of a citizen of the United States who resides therein at the time of filing a petition" is admissible as a "non-quota" immigrant provided there is no medical or other ground for exclusion; and in the issuance of immigration visas preference, up to fifty percent of the annual quota of any nationality, is to be given to an alien "who is the unmarried child under twenty-one years of age, the father, the mother, the husband, or the wife, of a citizen of the United States who is twenty-one years of age or over." These two provisions should surely be sufficiently liberal in preventing the separation of families. Indeed, experience may show that these exceptions in favor of near blood relatives are too liberal, and are open to abuse, in which case they can be modified by law. Among the humanitarian sections mention may further be made of the permission to reenter the United States after temporary absence, and the admission, as non-quota immigrants, of ministers, professors (including their wives and unmarried children under eighteen), and bona fide students.

Further, more effective provision is made for preventing the embarkation of aliens who fall into the excluded classes by increasing the fines on the transportation companies in cases where such aliens are brought to the United States. If intending immigrants of this sort are kept from sailing, hardship and suffering are very greatly reduced. Heavy fines on the transportation companies are the only means by which the United States can prevent these companies from taking the passage money from aliens who may later be deported. In each case the Secretary of Labor is to satisfy himself, before imposing the fine, that the existence of the disease or disability might have been detected by competent examination, medical or otherwise, or by "reasonable precaution" at the time of foreign embarkation. In addition, the steamship company is to refund to the alien the price of his ticket from his initial point of departure to the port of arrival. All these provisions are distinctly humane, and in the interests of the alien as well as of the United States.

In all, it can truthfully be said in regard to the Act of 1924 that no immigration measure has had such careful drafting and such diligent, humane and disinterested consideration. It is an emphatic national decision that, to quote President Coolidge, "America must be kept American." It is based on bedrock principles. It marks a turning point in American civilization.


Provided by Act of Congress,[i] approved March 26, 1924, and proclaimed by President Coolidge June 30, 1924

(For each of the countries indicated by an asterisk is established a nominal quota according to the minimum fixed by law. These nominal quotas, as in the case of all quotas hereby established, are available only for persons born within the respective countries who are eligible to citizenship in the United States and admissible under the immigration laws of the United States.)


Country Quota
*Afghanistan 100
Albania 100
Andorra 100
Arabian peninsula 100
Armenia 124
Australia 121
Austria 785
Belgium 512
*Bhutan 100
Bulgaria 100
Cameroon (French) 100
Cameroon (British) 100
*China 100
Czechoslovakia 3,073
Danzig, Free City of 228
Denmark 2,789
Egypt 100
Esthonia 124
Ethiopia (Abyssinia) 100
Finland 471
France 3,954
Germany 51,227
Great Britain and Northern  
  Ireland 34,007
Greece 100
Hungary 473
Iceland 100
*India 100
Iraq (Mesopotamia) 100
Irish Free State 28,567
Italy (incl. Dodekanesia, etc.) 3,845
*Japan 100
Latvia 142
Liberia 100
Liechtenstein 100
Lithuania 344
Luxemburg 100
Monaco 100
Morocco 100
*Muscat (Oman) 100
Nauru 100
*Nepal 100
Netherlands 1,648
New Zealand 100
Norway 6,453
*New Guinea, etc 100
Palestine 100
Persia 100
Poland 5,982
Portugal 503
Ruanda, Urundi 100
Rumania 603
Russia, European and Asiatic 2,248
Samoa, Western 100
San Marino 100
*Siam 100
South Africa, Union of 100
South West Africa 100
Spain 131
Sweden 9,561
Switzerland 2,081
Syria and The Lebanon 100
Tanganyika 100
Togoland (British) 100
Togoland (French) 100
Turkey 100
*Yap, etc 100
Yugoslavia 671

[i]It is to be noted, however, that immigrants who were born in the Dominion of Canada, Newfoundland, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the Canal Zone, or an independent country of Central or South America, and their wives and unmarried children under eighteen if accompanying or following to join them, are allowed to come in without limitation as to numbers provided they are admissible under the provisions of the general immigration act of 1917, which still remains in force as to the classes of aliens who are subject to exclusion for certain physical, mental, economic or moral reasons. Experience in the operation of the new law may show that this very liberal exception in favor of the countries of the Western Hemisphere will require limitation.

[ii]68th Congress, 1st Session, H. R. Report No. 350.

[i]"The annual quota of any nationality shall be two per centum of the number of foreign-born individuals of such nationality resident in continental United States as determined by the United States census of 1890, but the minimum quota of any nationality shall be 100" --Sec. 11(a). "For the purposes of this Act nationality shall be determined by country of birth "--Sec. 12(a).

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