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A Century Later, Restrictive 1924 U.S. Immigration Law Has Reverberations in Immigration Debate

May 15, 2024 (2 min read)

Muzaffar Chishti and Julia Gelatt, MPI, May 15, 2024

"The Immigration Act of 1924 shaped the U.S. population over the course of the 20th century, greatly restricting immigration and ensuring that arriving immigrants were mostly from Northern and Western Europe. It closed the door on almost all new Asian immigration and shut out most European Jews and other refugees fleeing fascism and the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. One of the most restrictive immigration laws in U.S. history, it played a key role in ending the previous era of largely unrestricted immigration. Its numerical limits on annual arrivals and use of national-origins quotas, aided by Great Depression-era restrictions, limited religious, ethnic, and racial diversity, and sharply reduced the size of the country’s foreign-born population for four decades.  One century after the law’s enactment on May 26, 1924, the United States, in the midst of a presidential campaign, is once again in the throes of an intense debate over the value of immigration, acceptable levels, and which immigrants to receive. The rhetoric employed in today’s debates is sometimes eerily similar to that of 1920s. At that time, most Asians were already barred from the country. The public and political focus was on large numbers of newer Southern and Eastern European immigrants—especially those of Catholic or Jewish faith—and whether they could assimilate into the country and were, in the phrasing of the time, of equally favorable “racial stock” as earlier Northern and Western European immigrants.  Today, the types of immigration considered controversial have changed, but there are similar questions about which immigrants should be welcomed and which are perceived as threatening national values and character. As 100 years ago, immigrants comprise a high share of the overall population (13.9 percent in 2022, compared to 13.2 percent in 1920, and the record high of 14.8 percent in 1890). Current understandings that some immigration is inherently illegal can also be traced to the 1924 law, which cemented the notion that all immigrants without legal status could be deported and that U.S. authorities should generally process visa applications before individuals depart for the United States.  This article provides a brief history of the origins and legacy of the 1924 law—also known as the Johnson-Reed Act for its architects Rep. Albert Johnson (R-WA) and Sen. David Reed (R-PA)—which continues to have a significant imprint. The 1924 law set the framework for policies that remain cornerstones of U.S. immigration law today: numerical limits on annual immigration, the ability to deport unauthorized immigrants no matter how long they have been in the United States, and the need for people to seek visas and meet other requirements before they reach U.S. soil. The article also examines the main provisions of the law, their lasting impacts, and their influences on immigration debates today. ... "