Congress Passes 1921 Immigration Restriction Bill
Immigration reform is an intractable problem facing Congress and the Obama Administration today, just as it has confronted Congresses and Administrations ever since the Page Act was passed in 1875—the first legislation in U.S. history designed to restrict immigration. On May 19, 1921, Congress took a far-reaching, brand new approach to immigration reform when it passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921—which President Harding promptly signed. The core of this new legislation was a quota system to limit the number of European immigrants allowed per country—a system that governed U.S. immigration policy until 1965.
While Native Americans were here first, of course, the United States essentially began as a nation of immigrants, and during its first 100 years the country maintained an open-door policy. The Page Act of 1875 began to change all that. Named for its sponsor, Rep. Horace F. Page, the law banned the entry of “undesirable” immigrants. The limited scope of this bill affected three classes of people: 1) unskilled laborers coming from Asia; 2) Asian prostitutes; and 3) convicts from any country.
The bias against Asians was made more explicit by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all laborers from China, whether skilled or unskilled, and made it almost impossible for anyone from China to immigrate to the U.S. The irony of this act is that it was passed just four years before the Statue of Liberty was dedicated on October 28, 1886—to which in 1903 was added a bronze plaque bearing the poem “The New Colossus,” by Emma Lazarus, which declared to the world:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
With the influx of returning soldiers after the end of World War I, jobs in the U.S. became scarce—and demands for immigration restriction grew louder. In 1920 over 800,000 immigrants came to the U.S., most from Eastern and Southern Europe, many of them laborers competing for those scarce American jobs. The very first bill that President Harding signed after taking office was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921.
The bill limited European immigrants to 3% of the current U.S. population of that particular nationality, based on the 1910 census. It was meant to be temporary legislation until more permanent immigration reform could be enacted. The bill drastically reduced immigration, especially from such countries as Italy—in 1921-22, around 350,000 European immigrants were allowed into the U.S. The bill did not affect immigrants from the professional class, nor did it cover Latin American immigrants. The country’s main focus at that time was poor, unskilled Southern/Eastern European immigrants, and the bill effectively reduced their numbers.
The following six newspaper articles are about passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1921, and its effects. The first article is a news report about some of the difficulties enforcing the act, while the other five are editorials—the first three praising the act, the fourth one ambivalent, and the fifth one critical of the act.
This article was published by the Idaho Daily Statesman (Boise, Idaho) on the front page of its May 21, 1921, issue:
Immigration Officials Ready to Enforce New Act
Washington (AP)—Immigration bureau officials began Friday putting in final shape plans for enforcing the immigration restriction act which was signed Thursday by President Harding and which becomes effective on June 3.
Commissioner General Husband said the chief problem to solve was the development of a system of exchange of information between government representatives at home and abroad regarding the number of immigrants entering the country.
The entry of immigrants through Canada will present another problem, he said, as the Canadian ports are used through an international agreement as ports of entry and it will be necessary to transmit information as to immigrants coming through Canada to the American consular offices abroad.
Since the United States has no immigration agreement with Mexico, Husband said he looked for a situation to arise which might require additional safeguards on that border to prevent the smuggling of aliens into the United States. Large numbers of aliens have been landing recently at Vera Cruz, the commissioner general said, and many of them have been found in this country without legal authority.
Mr. Husband expects keen competition to develop among shipping lines for the transportation of the immigration quotas, and he predicted that the whole number of immigrants allowed by the new law to come into this country will be here in less than five months.
This editorial was published by the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) on May 20, 1921:
After Many Days
President Harding yesterday signed the emergency immigration bill, temporarily restricting immigration and giving Congress breathing space to confect a permanent measure to replace the old law that is by general agreement faulty, inadequate and dangerous. The bill just signed is greatly overdue. The necessity for its enactment was popularly recognized months ago. The Sixty-sixth house initiated it early in the December session, but the Senate shelved the bill passed by the House and delayed the submission of a substitute measure until near the session’s close. Its bill, very much strengthened by amendments forced upon the floor of the Senate, was promptly accepted by the House, but was quietly put to death by President Wilson, who placed sentimental ahead of practical consideration, clove to the idealized theory of the “melting pot” and disregarded the hard practical conditions and facts which confronted the nation.
So it was left for the Sixty-seventh Congress to erect the necessary safeguards. Its reasonably prompt action will be set down to its credit and President Harding’s prompt approval likewise deserves commendation. The new law is not perfect, but at least it should block off the rush from Europe to this country temporarily, giving the European nations opportunity to establish conditions that will keep their desirables at home, while affording the Congress and people of the United States time for study of our immigration and related problems in the light of our recent and present experience. It must be borne in mind that the bill just made law by the president’s signature is an emergency measure merely and not in any sense a solution of the immigration problem. The popular pressure for permanent legislation embodying sound and sufficient safeguards against undesirable immigration should be rather increased than diminished.
This editorial was published by the Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina) on May 20, 1921:
An Emergency Immigration Law
The bill restricting immigration to this country may not have been shaped as the people had desired, but it gives this Nation some degree of protection and at the same time works the minimum of hardships on those who are qualified to come in. The restrictions are laid along the lines of justice and right, and the new law will operate to the keeping out of a flood of undesirables and limiting the inflow of the acceptable classes, pending the day when more efficient legislation may be framed. Like the tariff, it is somewhat in the nature of an emergency bill.
This editorial was published by the Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan) on May 22, 1921:
Both the Senate and House have approved the conference report on the Emergency Immigration Restriction bill. This means that within a few weeks Uncle Sam’s doors will be closed almost tight against the tide of immigration. For a year the number of incoming aliens will be limited to 3 per cent of the nationals of each country who were here in 1910.
No longer has “Uncle Sam room enough to give you all a farm.” Your uncle, in fact, has at last awakened to the need of conserving citizenship. The restriction act was necessary.
While the law is framed to meet an emergency, it is sincerely to be hoped that never again will immigration be open to all on former terms. The “melting pot” needs a long rest.
This editorial was published by the Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on May 21, 1921:
Does the Melting Pot Melt?
Dr. Eliot, the former president of Harvard, insists that America is not a melting pot and that alien races cannot be assimilated. There is no doubt a measure of truth in his contention. We have assumed too readily that our newcomers change the mind with the sky, and that citizenship works a complete transformation in ideas. Inherited beliefs and habits cling long.
At the same time, if the process of melting may sometimes seem slow, it goes on just the same. The immigrants may never become Americans in the full sense, but their children almost invariably do. Unquestionably there are races it is almost hopeless to try to Americanize. But these are a minority.
This editorial was published by the Jewish Daily News (New York, New York) on May 22, 1921:
The restriction of immigration into the United States has become an accomplished fact, President Harding having signed the bill limiting the number of new arrivals to three percent per annum of the nationalities resident in this country as determined by the census of 1910. The law will remain effective until July 1, 1922, and is thus in a measure an experiment.
After years of agitation the immigration restrictionists have triumphed. It is not merely a temporary victory, for the forces opposed to liberal immigration will drive the advantage home and secure the passage of a permanent law to go into force next year. What hurts most is not the general restriction but that refugees from religious persecution are included within the limits of the three percent quota. It is a complete reversal of the traditional policy of American affording a haven to those who want to escape intolerable religious conditions in the old world. But the law now has to be enforced and all that can be done for the time being is to hope that better counsel will prevail and that there will be no permanent exclusion of these unhappy refugees.
The Jewish situation is exceedingly aggravated as a result of the new law. The unfortunate Ukrainian Jews are now caught between the devil and the deep sea and the great pity of it all is that Jewry is altogether unprepared to meet conditions. More than a quarter of a century ago the eventuality which has now come to pass was spoken of and Jewish leaders were warned against the time when the present countries of immigration would close their doors. But no heed was paid to those who called attention to the future. Jews of note and the great Jewish organizations, abroad and here, which essayed to speak for Jewry, cried out that no credence should be placed in these warnings. They insisted that conditions in Eastern Europe would improve and that Jews in those countries would be completely emancipated. Well, we know what has happened and now Jews suffer the consequences of their short-sightedness and lack of political acumen on the part of their philanthropic leaders.
What next now? It is difficult to say. The continued unsettled state of Europe is a factor to be considered by Jewry. New outlets for Jewish immigration have to be sought. Where, besides Palestine? And how?
Of course, there is always the Jewish spirit of optimism and of hope. But how much better it would have been if our leaders had listened years ago to those who were called “poor deluded fools” and “sensational scribblers.” There might have been prevented the terrible hardship of millions of Jews and the danger of their extermination.