The National Origins Act of 1924: Immigration & Definition

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the 1920s, anti-immigrant sentiment swept the U.S. and culminated in the National Origins Act of 1924. This measure sharply reduced immigration to America, and especially targeted those from southern and eastern Europe. Learn about this act and quiz yourself.

Background to the National Origins Act

It's human nature to be uncomfortable with big changes and even with those people who have different ways of living than you do. Ideally, you would seek to understand the changes and these people's culture, and come to terms with it. In the 1920s, however, most old-stock Americans responded negatively to the increasing numbers of immigrants entering the county. Congress followed their lead and in 1924 passed the National Origins Act, which drastically reduced the number of immigrants coming from southern and eastern Europe.

By 1920, the majority of newcomers to the U.S. were Catholics and Jews from southern and eastern Europe. For instance, between June 1920 and June 1921, southern and eastern Europeans made up 65% of the more than 800,000 immigrants that entered the country. These men, women, and children, from places such as Italy, Hungary, and Poland, spoke foreign languages and brought with them customs that seemed strange to many Americans.

Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, New York
ellis island

Most old-stock Americans believed these newcomers should jettison their customs and native languages and become Americanized. They also feared that the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the United States was becoming diluted by the mass of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Other observers equated the new immigrants with radical political views such as anarchism and socialism. Academics, using distorted theories of genetics, proclaimed America was committing 'race suicide.' In the 1920s these strands merged into nativism, a strong anti-immigrant sentiment that called for tighter laws restricting immigration.

The National Origins Act

Also called the Johnson-Reed Act after its congressional sponsors, the National Origins Act of 1924 sharply restricted the number of immigrants allowed to enter the U.S., and it also set immigration quotas for each European nation.

The National Origins Act of 1924 amended an earlier immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1921. The 1921 law stipulated a maximum yearly immigration at 357,000. The National Origins Act reduced that number to 164,000 per year. The 1921 law also set quotas for each European nation: the annual immigration from each European country was limited to 3% of the number of its American residents according to the 1910 U.S. census. The National Origins Act reduced the quotas to 2% of the total number of each European nationality that was represented in the 1890 census (in 1890, there were much less southern and eastern Europeans present in the U.S., as compared to 1910).

Legislators were not shy in admitting the National Origins Act was aimed at specifically limiting immigration from the countries of southern and eastern Europe. In passing the law, U.S. Representative from Kentucky John M. Robsion rhetorically asked, 'How long shall America continue to be the garbage can and the dumping ground of the world?' And the Los Angeles Times printed a bold headline reading, 'Nordic Victory Is Seen in Drastic Restrictions.'

The National Origins Act also added Japan and other Asian territories to a list completely banning immigration. As well it renewed the ban on Chinese immigration, which was codified in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

A cartoon entitled, Uncle Sam Kicks Out the Chinaman

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