The 1924 Law That Slammed the Door on Immigrants and the Politicians Who Pushed it Back Open

Decades of xenophobic policy were overturned, setting the United States on the path to the diversity seen today

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration Bill of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 on Liberty Island in New York Harbor. CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

“AMERICA OF THE MELTING POT COMES TO END,” the New York Times headline blared in late April 1924. The opinion piece that followed, penned by Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania, claimed recent immigrants from southern and Eastern European countries had failed to satisfactorily assimilate and championed his recently passed legislation to severely restrict immigration to the United States. He proudly proclaimed, “The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent.”

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which Congress had overwhelmingly passed just weeks before and which President Coolidge would sign into law the following month, marked the start of a dark chapter in the nation’s immigration history. It drastically cut the total number of immigrants allowed in each year and effectively cut off all immigration from Asia. It made permanent strict quotas—defined as “two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census”—in order to favor immigrants from northern and Western Europe and preserve the homogeneity of the nation. The new system also required immigrants to apply for and receive visas before arriving and established the U.S. Border Patrol.

The restrictions imposed by the law sparked a prolonged fight to reverse them, driven by politicians who decried the law’s xenophobia and by presidents who worried about the foreign policy consequences of such exclusions. In her new book, One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965, journalist Jia Lynn Yang, a deputy national editor at The New York Times, details the drive to implement and sustain the 1924 legislation and the intense campaign to reverse it, a battle that culminated in the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. That law eliminated the quotas, increased the number of visas issued each year, prioritized immigration for skilled workers and instituted a policy of family unification.

Yang spoke with Smithsonian about the advocates who led the way, the forces they battled and the legacy of their fight.

One Mighty and Irresistible Tide: The Epic Struggle Over American Immigration, 1924-1965

The idea of the United States as a nation of immigrants is at the core of the American narrative. But in 1924, Congress instituted a system of ethnic quotas so stringent that it choked off large-scale immigration for decades, sharply curtailing arrivals from southern and eastern Europe and outright banning those from nearly all of Asia.

The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act marked a schism in the country’s immigration history. How did the nation get to that point?

Before the act, there were these smaller attempts to restrict immigration. The most important was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which was quite a bold law that singled out, for the first time, an ethnic group for restriction.

Starting in the 1880s you have this historic wave of immigrants coming from southern and Eastern Europe. Jews, Italians. Lawmakers are continually trying to kind of stem that wave, and really it’s not until 1924 that they truly succeed. Because everything else they've tried [such as literacy tests] either gets vetoed by a president or doesn't really work.

1924 is really a watershed moment. Once you add a whole visa process, once you add these strict quotas, you’re just in a whole different regime of immigration. The system really just changes forever, and it’s a moment when the country I think symbolically says, ‘We’re not going to do things like this anymore. You can’t just show up.’

How did the theory of eugenics play a role in the new immigration system?

It became very important, because people with a lot of social influence really embraced it. These are leading economists, leading scientists, people who are really kind of dictating intellectual American life at the time. And [eugenics was] completely mainstream and considered very cutting edge, and just very current. If people could figure out a way to make a better society through this science, people didn't question why that was necessary or why their methods would work. And these experts began to testify before Congress as they're looking at immigration.

One of the primary examples would be [prominent eugenicist] Harry Laughlin. He hasn't spent his whole life being trained as a scientist, but he gets very excited about eugenics, joins people who are really hardcore scientists, and gets involved in the political side. Lawmakers treat him as kind of an in-house expert, essentially. He’s writing up reports at their behest, and pointing out, if you do the laws this way, you will actually improve the American bloodstream, and that's why you should do this. [Eugenicists] are people who were already very nativist and wanted to restrict immigration. But once they get the sort of scientific backing, it really strengthens their arguments, and that's how they're able to push this dramatic bill through in the ’20s.

The 1924 act was met with resistance during its passage and efforts to overturn it started immediately. What were the law’s opponents up against?

I think this notion—it's still very powerful now—that America should have some kind of ethnic makeup is actually a very hard thing to argue against. Their defense is one that I think you still see today, which is, “We're not being racist. We just want to keep a level of ethnic homogeneity in our society…we can't introduce new elements too quickly, and this is how we protect the stability of our country.”

I would also add that if you look at the polling on immigration over time—Gallup, for instance, has looked at this question for many, many years now—you hardly ever see Americans clamoring for more immigrants.

In fact, the people who want to change [immigration policy] are often presidents who are dealing with the foreign policy [consequences of the 1924 law.] That’s one thing that really surprised me in my research, is how immigration was driven by foreign policy concerns. So there are presidents who don't want to insult other leaders by saying, “We don't want people from your country.”

But your mainstream American is really not thinking about loosening immigration laws as a giant priority. Even now, you can see that both Democrats and Republicans are pretty leery of making that kind of super pro-loosening immigration laws argument. I don't think it's ever that politically popular to do that.

What finally led to the overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in the 1960s?

It’s kind of an amazing confluence of events. Right before President Kennedy died, he introduced a bill to abolish these ethnic origins quotas. The bill doesn't really go anywhere, just as every other effort hadn't gone anywhere in 40 years. As usual, there's just not a lot of interest in changing the immigration quotas.

But when he is killed, President Johnson looks at the unfinished business of Kennedy and [thinks], ‘Let's honor the memory of our late president. Let's really do right by his memory. Let's make this stuff work. We've got to pass it.’

LBJ is leading the country in mourning, yes, but he also spots an extraordinary political opportunity to pass legislation, I think, that would otherwise never pass. The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, these are all kind of in that moment. But the immigration bill, too, has that kind of moral momentum from Kennedy’s death. You've got people talking about racial equality. We're going to be getting rid of Jim Crow laws, so we should also look at our immigration laws in the same way. They have a similar kind of racial and discriminatory problem to them.

At the same time you’ve got the Cold War argument—that these laws are embarrassing to us. They're not helping us win an ideological war against the Soviet Union. The other thing too is labor unions were anti-immigrant before. This is a moment where they actually flip sides. Once labor unions switch to the other side, that removes one of the big political opponents to changing the quotas.

Kennedy supported immigration reform and Johnson signed the 1965 act into law, but this wasn’t a consuming passion for either president. Who fought the legislation into being?

Emanuel “Manny” Celler was chair of the House Judiciary Committee for many, many years. Right when he becomes a Congressman, in 1923, he sees the quotas passed and is horrified, because he himself is from a German Jewish family and he represents a district in Brooklyn that is basically all immigrants from Europe. He basically spends the next 40 years trying to get rid of [the quotas]. He sees during World War II how [the quotas] make it impossible to admit Jewish refugees. After the war, he's still fighting and fighting and fighting, constantly losing. He’s sort of the rare person who in is there to see the victory, but not everybody does.

I’m thinking of Herbert Lehman. He is from the famous Lehman Brothers’ family, and comes from a huge amount of money from New York. He was the first Jewish governor of New York, and he was kind of a righthand man to FDR. He spends much of his senate career in the '50s fighting [for immigration reform] and loses again and again, just like Celler and others, because of the Red Scare and a lot of anti-communist sentiment, which translates into anti-immigrant sentiment on the Hill.

Celebrating “America as a nation of immigrants” is a surprisingly recent idea. How did that idea develop and play into the 1965 legislation?

The story of Kennedy’s Nation of Immigrants [a book published posthumously in 1964.] is sort of instructive with this. He is leaning on, and borrowing from, the work of immigration historian Oscar Handlin, who wrote this book called The Uprooted, which won a Pulitzer Prize in the early 1950s and was, at one point, assigned to a lot of schoolchildren to read. It was basically the seminal text that, for the first time that anyone could point to, celebrated all these immigrants who had come to this country and sort of pointed out the successive waves of people.

We often think of nationalism and immigration as opposing ideas and forces. The really interesting political turn in the '50s is to bring immigrants into this idea of American nationalism. It’s not that immigrants make America less special. It's that immigrants are what make America special.

Whereas in the '20s the argument was, “Keep America ‘American’ by keeping out immigrants.” Now it was, “If you're not going to welcome immigrants, you're not going to celebrate all these different waves of immigration, the Jews, the Italians, the Germans, you're just being un-American. You don't love this part of the American story.”

That is still a very powerful idea on the Left, in the Democratic Party. But I was really surprised in the research just how recent that is. That was a work of history. A historian had to put his finger on it. Then it had to then be translated into the political sphere to take on its own momentum, to become its own argument for immigrants.

What did advocates for the 1965 act expect when the law was signed? What has it looked like in reality?

The system they come up with is still really interesting to think about because it's very much the one we have today. They get rid of the quotas, and they prioritize family reunification. The people who get top priority for visas are people who already have family in the U.S. This is what the Trump administration wants to end. Just to give you a sense of just how little [the lawmakers] predicted what would happen: [reunification] was actually a compromise to nativists who wanted to keep America white.

Yet because of family reunification, once you do get enough people here who are outside Europe, their numbers actually grew and grew and grew and grew. A bunch of presidents kept adding these special carve-outs for different refugee populations, like the Cubans and Vietnamese.

Over time, the entire stream of immigrants just becomes much, much less European, much less white. To the point that now, I think we take for granted that a lot of our immigrants are from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Latin America.

That is not something that I think almost anyone who was involved in the debate would have expected. In fact, they kept downplaying how much the law would change the actual demographics of the U.S. What's interesting to me is that no one quite knew what standing for the principle [of racial equality] would lead to in terms of what this country looked like.

How is what passed in 1965 tied to today’s immigration crisis?

At the end of this whole journey in 1965, [advocates] have to make a bunch of compromises and they added a numerical cap for the very first time on immigration from the Western hemisphere. So until that point—incredible to imagine right now because we are so fixated on securing the border—there was no numerical cap to how many people could come from Latin America and Canada. It was just totally open. That was, again, a foreign policy decision. It was an idea that you had to be friendly to your neighbors.

[The cap introduces] the idea of “illegal” immigrants from Mexico on this mass scale that didn't exist before. That just changed the nature of how we thought about Mexican immigrants forever, and which we are still living in the shadow of.

The law is lauded as a civil rights achievement by some, in that it basically bans racial discrimination in immigration laws and gets rid of these old ethnic quotas. But it really transforms our whole notion of our neighbors and our relationship to them as sources of immigration.

What were you most surprised to discover while researching and writing your book?

I got into this whole project for very personal reasons. I wanted to understand why my family had been allowed to come to this country [from Taiwan and China]. In retrospect, I feel kind of naïve for not having thought about it before. I so bought into this idea of America as a nation of immigrants that I hadn't even really seriously considered a possibility that my parents would have been rejected.

What was surprising to me was just to learn how easily that could have happened—and not just for me and my family but every family I know in America, basically, that's not from Europe. I now wonder, who among us would just not be here if not for the 1965 Immigration Nationality Act? And I think [it was surprising] understanding how hard that fight was to get it, how many times it didn't work, how many times it failed, how when it finally worked it was only because of this perfect convergence of all these different circumstances, literally from a president's assassination to somebody negotiating at the end, ‘We'll reunify families because that'll keep America more white,’ and then getting it wrong.

Japanese demonstrators protesting in the streets of Tokyo
Japanese demonstrators in Tokyo protested the 1924 Act, which effectively cut off immigration from Asia. NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images

What is it like to release your book as the COVID-19 outbreak has led to a spike in Anti-Asian sentiment and a resurgence of xenophobia?

When I started this book it was early 2016, before President Trump was elected. I never imagined how timely it would be. It really started as an exploration of, in a way, family history through American political history.

Knowing that history, knowing how recent [Asian Americans'] arrival is as a large racial group in this country, helps me to process what's happening now. Because I think part of what the xenophobia is revealing is just how tenuous, in a way, the Asian American political category can be. It's a group that often lacks a lot of political power and political voice.

I think of ourselves as very much in the tradition of other immigrants who've sort of come before, each of whom has also kind of had to establish their place in America.

For people like me, who are children of immigrants, who were able to come here because of the 1965 law, it's a chance to say, ‘Okay, this is our political history as a people. This is how we got here.’

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