Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Immigration Law of 1924

America has always been a nation of immigrants, fueled by a constant stream of those with the energy and imagination to leave the familiar in search of something more.  And it has always had people who wanted to keep out the immigrants who came a generation or two after they themselves arrived.

Between 1880 and 1923, America saw the greatest voluntary migration in human history. Twenty-one million people moved to the United States in search of a better life.  By 1911, the United States Immigration Commission reported that three-fifths of American wage-earners were born somewhere else..

Not everyone was happy about the new arrivals.  Many groups  argued that Congress should shut down the flood of immigration, just as some people now argue for tighter control of immigration.  Labor unions feared that the flood of immigrants would take American jobs and depress wages.  (Sound familiar?) Many longtime Americans felt that newcomers from eastern and southern Europe were inherently inferior to earlier immigrants from northwestern Europe.  Others disliked the fact that many of the new arrivals were Catholic or Jewish.  (Members of the Ku Klux Klan were the most violent proponents of this position, but they weren’t alone.)

Responding to these pressures, Congress passed a new immigration law in 1924. In addition to limiting the total number of immigrants allowed into the country each year, the new law established immigration quotas for each country based on the proportion of each nationality in the United States in the 1890 census, effectively reducing immigration from central and southern Europe. Asian immigrants were excluded altogether, with these exception of those from Japan and the Philippines.* The quotas remained in place, largely unchanged, until 1965.

You’d think we’d learn.

*Japan kept tight control over the number of emigrants allowed to leave.  The Philippines were a US possession.




  1. melissa on September 15, 2012 at 7:13 pm

    The 1924 immigration law DID restrict the Japanese. In fact, it TOTALLY BANNED Japanese immigration by first abolishing the Gentlemen’s Agreement and then restricting immigration to those eligible for U.S. citizenship–which the incoming Japanese were not.

    • pamela on September 15, 2012 at 8:12 pm


      Thanks for the correction.


  2. Diana Holdsworth on October 24, 2018 at 4:18 pm

    WOW. Thank you for this information. I had no idea of the size of the “voluntary migration.”

  3. Gina Conkle on October 24, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    Hi Pam,
    From 1880 – 1923 the US welcomed an average of 488,000 immigrants per year. According to US Citizen and Immigration Service, 716,000 immigrants were naturalized in the 2017 fiscal year. That sounds like we’re more vibrant and welcoming than ever.

    Are there fringe elements? Yes. There always will be—on both sides of the political spectrum.

    I submit the US has for decades taken a “patchwork” approach to immigration, more reactionary than well-planned. We reformed welfare in the late 1990s. Why not bring immigration policy into the 21st century?

    We need compassion and reason in our laws. They’re more effective when tempered by both.

    And yes! I’m ready to vote Nov. 6th.

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