The National Origins Immigration bills of 1921 and 1924 imposed severe limits on immigration to the United States, reversing the nation’s tradition of welcoming the downtrodden from around the world.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Americans came under the sway of anthropologists and eugenicists who contended that Anglo-Saxons were biologically superior to other peoples. This race-dominated view of human society played a key role in shaping Americans’ attitudes toward immigration in the years following World War I. It gained prominence at the same time that Americans’ anxiety about Communism was growing as a result of the establishment of the Soviet Union. The combination of racism, fear of Communism, and general resentment of foreigners provided the background of public support for immigration restriction.
The law passed in 1921, known as the Johnson Immigration Act, stipulated that the number of immigrants from any one country during a given year could not exceed 3% of the number of immigrants from that country who had been living in the U.S. at the time of the 1910 national census. In other words, if there were 10,000 individuals of Irish origin living in the United States in 1910, the number of immigrants permitted from Ireland in any year would be a maximum of 300. In 1924, the immigration regulations were tightened even further: the percentage was reduced from 3% to 2%, and instead of the 1910 census, the quota numbers would be based on an earlier census, the one taken in 1890.
The reason for tightening the restrictions was obvious: it would reduce the number of Jews and Italian Americans, since the bulk of Jewish and Italian immigrants in the U.S. had not arrived until after 1890.
Indeed, the original version of the Johnson Act had been submitted to Congress with a report by the chief of the United States Consular Service, Wilbur Carr, which characterized would-be Jewish immigrants from Poland as “filthy, un-American, and often dangerous in their habits…lacking any conception of patriotism or national spirit.”
As the Nazi persecution of Jews intensified during the middle and late 1930s, the U.S. quota system functioned precisely as its creators had intended: it kept out all but a handful of Jews. The annual quota for Germany and Austria, for example, was 27,370, and for Poland, just 6,542.
Even those meager quota allotments were almost always under-filled, as U.S. officials crafted a maze of bureaucracy and rigorous requirements ensured most Jewish refugees would remain far from America’s shores. Prof. David S. Wyman characterized these restrictions as “paper walls” in his 1968 book of the same name.
Barely five percent of that German quota was filled in 1933, Hitler’s first year in power. The following year, less than 14 percent of those spaces were filled. The German quota was filled in only one year out of Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, and in most of those years, it was less than 25 percent filled.
In June 1941, the Roosevelt administration adopted a stringent new policy of rejecting all visa applicants who had close relatives in German-occupied territory. The new edict affected significant numbers of European Jews.
During the period of the Nazi genocide, from late 1941 and until early 1945, only 10% of the already minuscule quotas from Axis-controlled European countries were actually used. Almost 190,000 quota places were left unused. It was not until 1965 that the immigration quotas were finally abolished, “lifting the shadow of racism from American immigration policy,” according to Prof. John Higham.