Immigration Law Reform into the 20th Century

Abogado Aly History of Immigration ReformOpposition towards immigration began in the late 19th century as the immigrants coming into the United States (Irish Catholics, Germans, Chinese, Spanish) were ethnically different than the immigrants who had already established themselves (English Protestants). Eventually the opposition became strong enough to create   political pressures that called for immigration restrictions during the early 20th century.

Before 1875 immigration policy was never really discussed by the federal government  because there was nothing about immigration in the constitution. It was in 1875 when the US supreme court ruled that the federal government had complete control over immigration because it was the federal government’s  constitutional duty  to regulate international commerce.[1]  In 1882, the United States implemented its first two laws  to restrict immigration, The Chinese Exclusion Act, which suspended Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States, and forced Chinese non-laborers to obtain authorization from their government. Second, Congress enacted and the President signed the Immigration Act which banned “convicts, prostitutes, lunatics, idiots, and those likely to become a public charge”[2] from entering the United States.  Up until the 1920s, a few more immigration laws were passed restricting the number of Japanese, Chinese, and women; even a Bureau of Immigration was established in 1891. The third wave of immigration was a period of the heaviest immigration to the United States, so the political pressures were mounting for a change in policy.

In the 1920s the Quota Law of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924 were implemented. These laws were significant in reducing the overall amount of immigration and skewed immigration towards the already settled immigrants of Britain, Ireland and other parts of northwestern Europe.[3] The Quota Law of 1921 legislated a maximum number of immigrants allowed per year. This maximum was limited at “three percent of the number of foreign-born persons of that nationality who lived in the United States in 1910”[4]. For example, if there were 100,000 immigrants from Ireland already in the United States, then only 3000 Irish people were allowed to immigrate to the United States that year. The Immigration Act of 1924 went a step further and reduced the number of foreign born to two percent for a three-year period while reducing its base year from 1910 to 1890.[5] This reduced the previous quota by half, and skewed the number of immigrants towards Irish, English, and German immigrants basically eliminating immigration from southern and eastern Europe. In 1929, immigration laws tightened again, reducing the quota even further and used the entire American population as its basis for ethnic origins causing there to be smaller percentages of immigrants from specific countries who were allowed into the United States.  By the end of the 1920s, immigration flow fell drastically from about 1 million per year to between 200,000 to 300,000 per year.[6] These quotas were implemented for the Eastern Hemisphere, whereas there was no real need for a quota on the Western Hemisphere because there was such a small amount of immigration from the West at this time.