Do You Think Immigration Problems are Something New? Guess Again!

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A Brief History

On May 19, 1921, the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 became effective, a law also called The Emergency Quota Act, a law specifically designed to limit the immigration of certain people to the United States.  The goal of this legislation and previous legislation was to attempt to keep the ethnic and national origin percentages existing in the American demography the same, without allowing new influxes of immigrants to change the complexion of the American population.

Digging Deeper

Using the 1910 Census, the law required that no more than 3% of the same nationality already existing in the United States would be allowed to immigrate to this country in any year.  This would keep the “melting pot” the same consistency, or so the theory went.  Specific targets of this law were people from Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, as well as the Middle East, Africa and the Indian sub-continent.  Since the US had a high percentage of people with origins in Northern Europe, Northern Europeans would have the highest immigration quotas.  Also targeted for exclusion were people of Jewish origin, as the post-World War I atmosphere of Europe rebuilding after the war was leading to many Jewish would be immigrants.  The Emergency Quota Act would be the first time the US tried to limit certain European nationalities from immigrating to the US.  (Turning away Jews would have catastrophic consequences during the World War II Holocaust in Europe when an estimated 6 million Jews were murdered.)

An example of a 1910 U.S. census form with August H. Runge

Previous immigration treaties remained in effect, such as the Immigration Act of 1917, known derisively as The Asiatic Barred Zone Act, a law meant to keep out Asian immigrants to the US, including a sham literacy test.  This law was a follow on to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first blatant attempt to limit immigrants from a particular country.  Of course, the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 left a window of exception open for various professional (and rich) people to immigrate to the US without counting against the set quotas.

The somewhat racist and ethnocentric Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 was not the end of keeping out “undesirables,” as the US also passed the Immigration Act of 1924, another law given a more descriptive colloquial name of the Asian Exclusion Act, or the less threatening sounding National Origins Act.  This time, the US virtually shut down immigration from the Eastern half of the world.  No wonder why Japan and other Asian countries distrusted the United States!  A limit of only 165,000 East Asian immigrants would be allowed, and those carefully selected.

President Coolidge signs the immigration act on the White House South Lawn along with appropriation bills for the Veterans Bureau. John J. Pershing is on the President’s right.

If all this sounds eerily familiar, it is because the United States is going through another national identity crisis concerning immigration and the make up of the population of the US.  White Americans of European heritage are watching as their numbers steadily diminish while other ethnic minorities are becoming a growing percentage of the US population.  This “browning” of American is obviously threatening to the status quo of the US having a White European character, and it is projected that by around 2043 White people will no longer be the majority of Americans. That projection comes from the US Census Bureau, so it is not just conjecture.  As this predicted date is only 24 years from now, many Americans alive today will be alive to see this enormous demographic turn of events.

While White European countries are experiencing a decline in fertility, non-White nations, especially in Africa, Asia and Latin America are experiencing dramatic increases in population, changing the demographic make up of the world’s population, with obvious consequences for potential immigration to the US.

Immigrants to the United States take the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony at the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, September 2010.

In 2016, Presidential Candidate Donald Trump made terrific political hay out of playing up the immigration trend of non-White people to the United States, including illegal immigrants from Latin America and Muslim immigrants.  Enough White Americans agreed with his dire warnings that Trump was elected President, largely on this issue of immigration eclipsing all others.  As President, Mr. Trump has continued to rail against immigration by place unlike “Norway,” which he famously used as an example as welcome immigrants!  African, Caribbean, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries he dubbed “sh**holes!!  The President is not an anomaly, as many Americans agree with him.  Immigration has been a hot topic the past few years and continues to fester without any comprehensive immigration reform coming from Congress.  The Administration’s latest ideas recently floated for public reaction include “merit based” criteria for immigration, favoring immigrants with professional and technical skills as well as being fluent in English.  (Back to the literacy test!)

People are largely ethnocentric and xenophobic critters, afraid of and hostile to others unlike themselves.  In previous times Protestants did not want large numbers of Irish, Italian and Polish Catholics to immigrate to the US, Christians did not want Jewish immigrants, and in recent years Muslim immigrants have been the target of non-Muslims.  White Americans never were all that welcoming of people of color.  European countries have been struggling with similar debates about immigration, especially as refugees from Middle Eastern and African countries torn by strife are concerned.  Americans and Europeans debate allowing the character of their nation to change because of immigration, and just how accommodating human morality requires us to be.  In the US we often look to our “Founding Fathers” and ask, “What would they say?”  Well, the answers are not so cut and dried!  Those founders were slave holders and probably racists themselves (though plenty of websites and other sources dispute this allegation), so invoking their names to justify open immigration is not necessarily a fundamental “truth.”  On the other hand, the written documents that our nation is founded on, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States (along with its Amendments) seems to indicate we should have open arms to all people.  Yet another factor, our historical track record of allowing immigrants free access to our shores is not exactly a blueprint for toleration.

Declaration of Independence, a painting by John Trumbull depicting the Committee of Five presenting their draft to the Congress on June 28, 1776

What to do about immigration?  The topic has many aspects and nuances deep beneath the surface of the debate.  The illegal immigration factor is whole new ball game as well, a real hot potato issue for current politicians, especially as to what to do with illegal immigrants that have been in the US for many years while living clean, productive lives as Americans without proper documentation.

Question for students (and subscribers): Does any country have a right to limit immigration to their nation?  Does the US or other countries have a right to limit immigration based on race, religion, national origin, etc.?  Is it fair to only allow immigrants that speak English and/or have special skills?  Are the United States and European countries obligated to take in refugees from war torn regions of the Middle East and Africa?  Should the US have English as the “National Language?”  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

English language distribution in the United States.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy. Harvard University Press, 2018.

Editorial Staff. Immigration Law Pocket Field Guide, 2019 Edition. LEXISNEXIS, 2018.

Hoyt, Joanna. A Wary Welcome: The History of US Attitudes toward Immigration. Amazon Digital, 2017.

Lew-Williams, Beth. The Chinese Must Go: Violence, Exclusion, and the Making of the Alien in America. Harvard University Press, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a map by Dyfsunctional (talk) (Uploads) of the “Asiatic Barred Zone” as defined in the Immigration Act of 1917, has been released into the public domain worldwide.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.