The late 1800s and early 1900s was a period of expanding and diversifying immigration to the United States. Prior to that time, the majority of immigrants to the U.S. came from Northwestern Europe, but between 1890 and 1920, most immigrants originated in Southern and Eastern Europe. Predictably, this shift caused a negative political reaction, which ultimately led to the very restrictive and racist Immigration Act of 1924 (also called the Johnson-Reed Act after the Congressmen who sponsored it).

It may be a fool's errand to look for parallels between 1924 and 2024, but we're going to try it anyway. And perhaps there are lessons to be learned from the Immigration Act one hundred years later.

To get started, let's briefly discuss what led to the Immigration Act, which was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on May 24, 1924.

Concern about the number and "quality" of immigrants had been increasing in the early years of the 20th Century. In 1907, Congress established the bi-partisan Dillingham Commission to look into the issue. Four years later, the Commission released a massive 41-volume report examining the impact of immigration on numerous industries and on American life more generally. Volumes had titles such as "The Children of Immigrants in Schools," "Immigrants as Charity Seekers," and "Immigrants in Industries: Japanese and Other Immigrant Races in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain States." The report concluded that immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe posed a threat to American society and culture, and that it should be greatly reduced. The report also endorsed existing restrictions on immigration from East Asia.

Efforts had already been in the works to limit immigration, and the Dillingham Commission Report, along with a number of other factors--the Red Scare, the post-World War I recession, and a labor movement concerned about low-wage workers--conspired to boost the cause. Between 1917 and 1921, several restrictive immigration laws were passed. Those laws combined with impediments to travel caused by the War greatly reduced immigration to the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1924 codified the new restrictions and further limited immigration to the U.S. Overall migration from outside the Western hemisphere was reduced by 80% from pre-WWI levels to 165,000 people per year. The annual quota for immigrants from any given country was set at 2% of the number of foreign-born persons from that country who were residing in the U.S. in 1890. The practical effect of this provision was to block immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe (Italians, Poles, Czechs) and privilege those from Northern Europe (British, Irish, and Germans). The number of Jewish immigrants--who primarily came from Eastern Europe--were also dramatically reduced. Indeed, after 1924, more Eastern European migrants left the U.S. than arrived here.

The strict quotas for Europe, which were enthusiastically enforced, had a particularly tragic effect during the Holocaust, when Jews were prevented from escaping Nazi Germany. Many died as a result, though a few--including my wife's grandfather--managed to reach the United States.

The Act also completely excluded immigrants from Japan, which increased estrangement between the two nations and ultimately helped push them towards war. Immigration from China was also blocked, but this had little real world effect, since Chinese immigrants had already been barred decades earlier.

In terms of the economy, after the Immigration Act became law, scientific advancement was stifled (as measured by the number of new patents filed) and wages for American workers did not increase. Rather, sectors reliant on migrant labor either shifted to more capital-intensive methods of production (agriculture) or shrank (mining).

The regime put into place by the Immigration Act of 1924 remained in effect through 1952, when Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which largely retained the old law's national and regional quotas, though it allowed the President to override those quotas (the law was passed over President Truman's veto, which was based on his opposition to keeping the old quotas). The INA also allowed for skilled workers, family members, and refugees to enter the U.S. outside the quota system.

National quotas ended once and for all in 1965, when Congress amended the INA so that "No person shall receive any preference or priority or be discriminated against in the issuance of an immigrant visa because of the person's race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence." These provisions went into full effect in 1968, ushering in the modern era of immigration in the United States.

Fast forward to today. For the last fifty-odd years, the number of non-native born Americans has been increasing. According to the Migration Policy Institute, there are about 46.2 million immigrants in the United States, the most in U.S. history. These immigrants comprise 13.9% of the total U.S. population, which is short of the record high: 14.8% in 1890. With so many immigrants living in our country, can we expect a backlash? Put another way: Is it 1924 all over again?

As usual, I don't have an answer. But it is clear that the Trump campaign is rallying its supporters with promises to restrict immigration, close the border, and deport "illegals." The Biden Administration is also making efforts to reduce irregular migration, as it fears the President is vulnerable on this issue (or as I wrote previously, Biden's ballot bid burdened by busy border).

Of course, we are a different country today than we were a century ago. We benefit mightily from immigrants, who help drive our economy through entrepreneurship and innovation, contribute disproportionately to the healthcare industry, and help maintain our nation as world leader. But we also suffer from the same fears about newcomers taking our jobs and bringing crime.

To counter the anti-immigrant narrative, advocates must continue to educate the public about the benefits of immigration and debunk falsehoods spread about newcomers. But we must also be prepared to make concessions where necessary to help win over moderate voters, especially on issues such as the border where there is widespread consensus that something needs to be done. Through advocacy and reasonable compromise, we can hopefully preserve our immigration system and prevent the mistakes of 1924.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: