Emergency Quota Act of 1921: Definition & Overview

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

In 1921, the United States Congress enacted the Emergency Quota Act aimed at limiting immigration. Learn more about the definition of the Act through an overview of its background, immigration in early 20th-century America, and the impact of the quota system. Updated: 11/27/2021

Land of the Free?

America is a land of immigrants. Does your heritage involve someone coming here from another country? If so, many people can relate to you. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the United States witnessed a boom in the number of people coming from other countries, also called immigrants. The quantity of those who came was as numerous as their reasons for coming.

Despite our nation tempting immigrants with the American Dream, the U.S. government began restricting the quantity of those who could come into the country. This was done through the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, also known as the Emergency Immigration Act and Immigration Restriction Act. This act restricted the number of new immigrants per year to 3 percent of the number of residents from that country already in the U.S. Let's examine the basis of the act, why it was passed, and the impact it left.

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  • 0:03 Land of the Free?
  • 0:58 Background on Immigration
  • 1:38 The Emergency Quota Act
  • 4:11 Impact of the Quota System
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Background on Immigration

To understand the Emergency Quota Act, one has to know why there were so many immigrants in the first place. Beginning with the Pilgrims (the first settlers) in 1620, religious freedom has always been a reason to come to America. Some also came for better economic opportunities, such as during the Gold Rush, while others simply wanted a better quality of life. Europe in the 1880s through 1920s was not a great place to be, given World War I and other conflicts. Leadership was poor and brutal, and dreams were to be realized by going to the United States. Millions would come, especially during the height of immigration from approximately 1880 to 1920.

The Emergency Quota Act

So, what spurred the Emergency Quota Act? This question is among the most difficult and diverse to answer regarding the Emergency Quota Act, and there are many reasons why the system was put into place. In the early 1900s, there was a social anti-immigration movement in the United States. People began to push the federal government to restrict the number of foreigners who could enter the country. This is ironic given that there were already many people here that were in fact foreign-born. There was an inherent prejudice and fear against those who were born elsewhere. Known as xenophobia, this fear contributed to the Nativist movement, which believed in rejection of anyone foreign-born.

There were also economic reasons. In 1919, a recession hit the United States. Mainly caused by a decline in the economy after World War I, there was also an increase of the inflation rate. Unemployment was also very high, and many people who were out of work blamed recent immigrants for taking the few jobs that were out there.

Politically, there were reasons as well. In the late 1910s, the U.S. went through the Red Scare, which was inspired by World War I and a revolution in Russia. Many Americans feared a communist rising could occur in this country. Further, it was believed that allowing immigrants from countries that aligned with communist and socialist beliefs would open the floodgates for these ideologies. Once these immigrants arrived, there was no telling how they might convince workers to rise up and revolt. In fact, anarchists (those who want to overthrow the government) were a real problem - to the extent that they were tied to a bombing on Wall Street in 1920. These reasons were enough to push the government to control immigration.

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