The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

100 Years Ago, U.S. Imposed National Origin Quotas

Jun 3, 2024

Today, the politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties attempt to outdo one another with election propaganda directed against immigrants crossing the borders into the U.S., blaming immigrants for the low wages their capitalist bosses create. This propaganda is not new; it reflects reactionary attitudes that led to the imposition of the first official quotas on immigration in the U.S. 100 years ago.

On May 24, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed national origin quotas into law as the basis of U.S. immigration policy. This sweeping legislation limited the annual number of future immigrants to two percent of their share of the national population in the 1890 Census. This closed the door on almost all Asian immigration, eliminating immigration from Japan. It capped the total number of immigrants allowed annually at 165,000, half the 1920 total. And it required all immigrants to receive a visa from a U.S. consular officer stationed in their country before they left.

A century ago, Rep. Albert Johnson, along with David Reed, authored this bill known as the Johnson-Reed Act. They promoted the idea that America was drowning in a flood of newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe. Johnson declared that these immigrants were “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous.” “The races of man who have been coming in recent years are wholly dissimilar to the native-born Americans,” Senator Reed wrote in the New York Times a month before the bill was passed.

The nativist movement of the 1920s was broadly based, backed by a coalition of groups ranging from the American Federation of Labor, which feared new immigrants would drive down the wages of its members, to the Ku Klux Klan, then at its multimillion-member height.

The immigration debate of the 1920s also came during the eugenics movement, the popular pseudoscience that believed that allowing the wrong “race” into the U.S. could “adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit trait,” according to Charles Davenport, one of the leading eugenics promoters.

The Johnson-Reed Act didn’t happen overnight. It was four decades in the making. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act played an important role. From 1865–1869, 12,000 Chinese immigrants constructed the western section of the transcontinental railroad. Once it was completed, the railroad bosses had no further use for these workers. Rising racism and anxiety about cheap wages also helped push the 10-year ban on immigration of Chinese laborers.

The Johnson-Reed Act had immediate effects on immigrants arriving from Southern and Eastern Europe. In 1921, more than 200,000 Italians arrived at Ellis Island. Many were recruited by U.S. coal mines and steel mills. In 1925, following the passage of the bill, barely 6,000 Italians were permitted entry into the United States.

The Act gave 85% of the quota to Northern and Western Europe, and those who had an education or a trade.

In 1965, the Immigration Act of 1924 was repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act, called the Hart-Celler Act. This Act abolished quotas.