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 America in search of a better life. They fled from poverty, despotism, and prejudice. 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 was 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. Shame on us.
*Japan kept tight control over the number of emigrants allowed to leave. The Philippines were a US possession.