The 100-Year-Old Racist Law that Broke America’s Immigration System

In this series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik, contributors examine the legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the simultaneous launching of the Border Patrol, which, together, inaugurated the most restrictive era of US immigration history until our own.
The Chinese and Asiatic exclusion laws of the 19th and early 20th century paved the way for the Immigration Act of 1924.

The Immigration Act of 1924 is arguably the most restrictive and racist immigration law ever to have been passed by the United States Congress. It was not unprecedented in its restrictive nature: since 1882, Congress had imposed qualitative exclusions on persons deemed likely to become public charges, or otherwise morally or physically deficient. Nor was it unprecedented in its racism: notably, the Chinese and Asiatic exclusion laws of the 19th and early 20th century paved its way. Nevertheless, the 1924 Act marked a historical turning point in immigration policy. And this was because it imposed, for the first time, a numerical ceiling on the number of immigrants admitted into the country; and, in so doing, the law applied a racial hierarchy of desirability to all countries in the world.

The principle of numerical restriction has remained a normative feature of American immigration policy for a century. The principle of racial desirability was formally repealed in 1965. But even so, it was reproduced in more subtle ways and continues to haunt immigration policy and political discourse to this day.


It’s hard for many Americans to imagine that before World War I, immigration into the US was basically unrestricted. That is, except for Chinese and other Asians. By 1919, passports were still a new feature of international travel, born of the war. As yet, however, there were no visas, no quotas, no green cards. Inspection was cursory. In fact, a bare 2 percent of those arriving at Ellis Island during its peak decades were turned away.

But just a few years later, the Immigration Act of 1924 introduced a bold and new restrictive system.1 The numerical limit was set at 150,000 immigrants a year, even though this was just 15% of pre–World War I levels.

The law was structured as a tripartite border policy, with different conditions imposed on migrants coming from across the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Western Hemisphere. The national origin quotas and Asiatic exclusion were the most odious discriminations of the law.

For those coming from across the Atlantic, national origin quotas aimed to restrict immigration from eastern, southern, and central Europe. This was because restrictionists opposed the growing population of Jews, Italians, and Slavs—who had, for decades, contributed their brawn and sweat to America’s industrialization and urbanization—as the “degraded races of Europe.”

For those coming from across the Pacific, the law also excluded from immigration all persons “ineligible to citizenship.” This was a legal euphemism for a concept of “whiteness,” which the US Supreme Court had just constructed the previous year, so as to deny naturalized citizenship to all Asians in 1923.2

But for those migrating from countries within the Western Hemisphere, the new law imposed no numerical quotas, owing to diplomatic and agricultural interests. It went largely unremarked upon at the time, but was no less significant in long run.

The Immigration Act of 1924 did not, of course, drop from the sky. It was the legislative triumph of several decades of nativist agitation and lobbying. The political history of the lead-up to the bill are instructive, then, both for historical context and for thinking about their afterlives in American politics.

In his classic intellectual history of American nativism, Strangers in the Land (1955), John Higham posited that nativist feeling increased during times of economic downturn and crises of national confidence. As such, he argued that the 1924 Act was a victory of racial nativism, especially scientific racism and eugenics: the decades-long project to establish the biological superiority of “whites,” especially “Anglo-Saxons” and “Nordics.” The act, according to Higham, was a triumph of the “Tribal Twenties.”

Higham’s view—that the 1924 Act was a triumph of eugenics, and, more generally, the unemployment theory of nativism—have long been influential in both academic and popular writing.3 But that is not the whole story.

Certainly, scientific race theories of the late 19th century, including eugenics, were influential in the paving the way for the 1924 Act. Still, they were not the law’s sole cause.4 In the 1920s, it is true, a more modern bill was needed for regulating and restricting immigration, one based on countries and administered by states. The sublimation of eugenics into an immigration system of countries and national origins achieved two goals at once: the assimilation of European ethnics as white Americans; and the continued exclusion of Asians based on race.

As for the unemployment theory, a closer examination is called for. In fact, historically, nativist surges occur not during cyclical downturns, but, instead, in times of economic expansion and large-scale structural changes. These are times of both opportunity and precarity. New sectors of capital emerge, creating new jobs and stimulating immigration, while capital and jobs in older sectors decline. The pattern is manifest in the three great moments of structural economic change in modern US history:

 

  • The agitation for Chinese exclusion on the Pacific coast arose after the Civil War. The unification of a national market and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 brought both new migrants and cheap manufactured goods to California, undermining a previously protected market of high wages and high prices.
  • Industrialization during the late 19th century brought about a consolidation of corporate capital, the de-skilling of craft work, and a demand for unskilled labor. This was the political-economic background that fed nativist agitation in the early 20 century and led to passage of the 1924 Immigration Act.
  • In the late 20th century, the domestic economy became characterized by the rise of finance and service industries, while offshore production and automation diminished the number of manufacturing and industrial jobs.

 

In all three cases, workers in declining industries were susceptible to theories that blamed immigrants for “taking” their jobs. Over 150 years, then, the nativist playbook has been remarkably consistent: appeal to a grievance, offer a theory of difference, and weaponize for partisan gain.


At first, authors of the 1924 Act wanted to use the 1890 census of foreign-born persons as the baseline to determine quotas. This, however, was too blatantly racist. Therefore policymakers devised a formula, which used quotas based on the proportion of the national origin of the entire US white population (not just foreign born) in the 1920 census. That inflated the numbers and proportions of northern and western Europeans. Magically, a racist law appeared to be fair, modern, up to date, and not overtly racial.

Of course, there is difficulty in determining the “national origin” of native-born white Americans, which included generations of mixed ancestry and anglicized names. Still, the concept became normalized as a classification of American identity, hiding its racial meaning of whiteness.

The 1924 Act perfected Asiatic exclusion. Up to this time, Asian exclusions were incremental and ad hoc: Chinese exclusion in 1882, a diplomatic agreement with Japan in 1907, the creation of a barred Asiatic zone in 1917 (Afghanistan to the Pacific). The 1924 Act achieved Asiatic exclusion without explicit reference to race or country (such as Japan), simply by using the terminology of excluding from admission all “aliens ineligible to citizenship.” That was a euphemism used by the Supreme Court in 1923 to exclude all Asians from naturalized citizenship. Only by reading the fine print would one notice that China had a nominal quota of one hundred that, even so, could be not be used by Chinese people. This is why, during the 1930s, European Jews who made their way to Shanghai to escape Nazi fascism were able to use the China quota to seek admission to the US.

To enforce the new regime of comprehensive restriction, Congress created the Border Patrol in 1924. Then, the State Department, acceding to nativist demands, began to deny visas to Mexicans of the laboring class in 1929. Under the 1924 Act, immigration from Mexico was not numerically restricted. However, administrative measures like visa controls and border inspection led to an anomaly of a southern border that was formally open and easy to cross—but only without documents.

Moreover, the Immigration Act of 1924 consolidated a general entrenchment of white supremacy in national politics. That course had been set by the reversal of Reconstruction in 1877 and the advent of Jim Crow segregation, debt peonage, convict leasing, and violence against Black people in the South. It is no accident that Chinese exclusion passed Congress in 1882 with a solid alliance of the South and the West, the two sectional bastions of white supremacy.

In the North, there were remnants of antislavery politics that supported Chinese immigration, although the same northern race fatigue that led to the abandonment of Black civil rights also acceded to Chinese exclusion. By the early 20th century, the trade unions had transferred their anxieties over labor market competition from Chinese to European immigrant labor; consequently, elites launched a new culture war against the “swarthy” races. The long struggle for restriction from the 1890s to 1924 was thus integral to the consolidation of a national political economy, dominated by corporate capital and a polity of whites (and until 1919, white men).


Arguably, Asian Americans have never recovered from their racialization in US law. Similarly, Mexican immigration, which under the 1924 Act was formally legal but practically not legal, supported a racialization that constructed illegality and disposability at the core identity of Mexican origin people.

These trends are evident in the trajectory of immigration law after World War II, including the 1965 immigration act and to the present. The state continues to impose numerical limits to the total number of new admissions, as well as “equal” treatment of all countries: a system that thus allots the same number of new green cards (26,500 a year) for the vastly different populations of Mexico, China, Belgium, and New Zealand.

This, in turn, disadvantages immigration from the global South, and racializes them as undesirable. Or, as former President Donald Trump famously opined, the “best” immigrants come from Norway, and not “shithole” countries. icon

This article is part of a series commissioned by Catherine S. Ramírez and A. Naomi Paik on the border crisis 100 years after the Immigration Act of 1924.

  1. General discussions of the 1924 and 1965 immigration laws draw from Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton University Press, 2004).
  2. Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922) and United States v. Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923).
  3. John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (Rutgers University Press, 1988, 1955).
  4. Katherine Benton-Cohen’s recent book on the Dillingham Commission shows that as early as 1910 eugenics was not hegemonic in restrictionist thinking. Benton-Cohen, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy (Harvard University Press, 2018).
Featured image: 1882 newspaper headline following the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.