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100th Anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1924

author Published by Jeremy Beck

This article was originally posted on May 24, 2024 and has been updated periodically with new content.

Sunday, May 26th, 2024 marked the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Immigration Act of 1924. Also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, the 1924 law is arguably the most overlooked and misunderstood immigration legislation in American history. As NumbersUSA’s CEO James Massa says, the 1924 Act “made the American middle class.”

Although the 1924 law ushered in an era of economic progress not seen in America before or since, Johnson-Reed was far from perfect. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, was meant to fix the fatal flaws in the 1924 law. The 1965 legislators had good intentions, but they unintentionally set America down the path of greater inequality. Both reforms had pros and cons. A better immigration policy in 2024 requires a better understanding of the Immigration Act of 1924.

Read: Andre Barnes’ oped in the Boston Herald; Roy Beck’s oped in the Detroit News (paste up here); Jeremy Beck’s oped in the New York Post. PR Newswire featuring Andre and James Massa.

Listen: Andre’s appearance on Ringside Politics (46:50-57:20); Roy’s appearance on Parsing Immigration (see also: here & here); Andre on the Black Information Network (0:47-1:26); Roy on American Viewpoints; Andre on the Todd Feinberg Show

Watch: The Shocking Truth about the Immigration Act of 1924; Let’s Talk About the Immigration Acts of 1924 & 1965; Andre Barnes’ appearance on The Chat; “Armies of Recruiters” – Opportunity and The Great Migration; The Great Wave vs. The Great Migration; The Ellis Island Story is Awesome.

Related articles: So they were forced, essentially, to hire African Americans.”; “The Essential Barbara Jordan”.

Excerpts from Back of the Hiring Line: Stop Taking Black Wealth”; “‘Worker Shortage’ or Employer Preferences?”; “Immigration and Unions”.

The Results of the 1924 Act: An American Middle Class

1924 act provided mixed results for citizens of other countries wanting to immigrate to the United States (more on that below). For Americans, however, the benefits of Johnson-Reed were almost universal.

The lower levels of immigration (an average of less than 200,000 per year) helped the U.S. get through the Great Depression in better shape than if the Great Wave had continued to add close to a million permanent job seekers every year.

The moderate levels of immigration over the next four decades contributed to the “Great Leveling,” when America truly became a middle class nation.

Between 1940-1980:

  • Real incomes of white males grew by two-and-a-half fold;
  • Real incomes for Black men expanded by four-fold; and
  • The Black middle class grew from 22 percent to 71 percent.

“The immigration pause changed the employer-employee dynamic from one where workers had to hustle to find jobs to one where companies had to hustle to find labor,” says Mark Krikorian.

The new law “gave still-racist employers little choice but to recruit descendants of American slavery instead of waiting for the next wave of immigrants to arrive,” says Roy Beck. The “Great Migration” of American Blacks moving from the South to the North and West began when mass immigration came to an abrupt halt. When the Great Migration began, 90 percent of Black Americans were living in the South. By the 1970s, nearly half were in the North and West.

Images: President Coolidge signing the Immigration Act of 1924. W.E.B. Du Bois quote: "The stopping of the importing of cheap White labor on any terms has been the economic salvation of American Black labor."

The Results of the 1924 Act: Greater Economic Equality

The 1924 restrictions helped drive inequality into a decades-long retreat. The benefits of a tight labor market lasted until Congress inadvertently restarted mass immigration with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.


The Results of the 1924 Act: Immigrant Gains

Immigrants from the the “Great Wave” were among the primary beneficiaries of the “Great Leveling” that followed immigration moderation.

“Immigrant communities were thus not continually refreshed with newcomers,” says Krikorian, “that, combined with vigorous and self-confident Americanization efforts in schools and elsewhere, forged the strong common national identity that helped America prevail over Nazism and Communism.”

Read: 100 years ago, the US took a break from immigration — and America thrived,” by Mark Krikorian, New York Post; “Lessons of the 1924 Immigration Act,” by Richard Vedder and Matthew Denhart, Wall Street Journal; “May is the 100th Anniversary of Congress’ 1924 Immigration Reform,” by Neil Munro, Breitbart; “A Century Later, Restrictive 1924 U.S. Immigration Law Has Reverberations in Immigration Debate,” by Muzaffar Chishti and Julia Gelatt, Migration Policy Institute”Shaming Americans,” by Amity Shlaes, City Journal; “On immigration, we could take a lesson from 1924,” by Joe Guzzardi, Longview News-Journal (and Substack); “Exploiting Mass Immigration to Displace Blacks,” by George Fishman, Center for Immigration Studies; “America Would Lose Its Soul”: The Immigration Restriction Debate, 1920-1924, by Vilja Lehtinen

Watch: Why did A. Philip Randolph call for an Immigration Moratorium in 1924? – Institute for Sound Public Policy; Why did Calvin Coolidge Cut Immigration to the United States in 1924? – IfSPP; Angus Deaton and Paul Krugman in Conversation – CUNY Graduate Center

The Quota System

The widespread benefits of the 1924 law were the results of the lower immigration numbers. But the other relevant part of the law concerned not the question of “how many?” but the question of “which ones?”

The law “imposed discriminatory national origins quotas that favored northern Europeans at the expense of Asians, Africans, and southern and eastern Europeans,” says Barnes.

The quotas were based on the 1920 Census.* The rationale was supposedly to preserve the ethnic balance of the country. But the bill excluded Blacks, despite their families having been in the country longer than most white families at the time.

Northern and Western Europeans comprised 36% of immigration through the end of World War II. From the end the war through 1965, that dropped to just 23 percent.

A key reason for the failure of the quotas to preserve the 1920 ethnic balance was the business lobby. Industrialists carved out an exception for Latin America to preserve the free flow of labor from that part of the world.

“The effect of the bill was actually not to make America whiter,” explain Beck and Krikorian, “it was to make it more Latin American.”

The legislators who designed the quotas “were not nearly so successful in their racism as they were in cutting the numbers down,” adds Beck.

*The quotas were based on the 1920 Census for all but the first three years of the law. During the initial period, the1890 Census served as the basis for the quotas. The 1920 Census reflected a more diverse country due to the Great Wave, although the quotas were calculated in ways that excluded or undercounted groups, including descendants of “slave immigrants.”

Mixed Intentions

The 1924 quotas may not have been entirely “successful in their racism,” as some intended, but Krikorian says there is “no doubt that various flavors of bigotry drove much of the support” for them.

“Probably the most striking feature of the support for restriction,” observes Vilja Lehtinen, “is the diversity of its sources: patrician New Englanders, labor unionists, Republicans, Democrats, black leaders, Klansmen, industrialists and eugenists all seemed to expect some benefit from limiting the influx of newcomers.”

“Which Ones?” Intentions, Part I

The eugenicist movement, born of new Darwinian theory, was nascent but influential. The Eugenics Research Association appointed Rep. Albert Johnson (lead sponsor of the 1924 bill) as its honorary president in 1923. Johnson’s “expert eugenics agent” on the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization stated that: “[t]he character of a nation is determined primarily by its racial qualities; that is, by the hereditary physical, mental, and moral or temperamental traits of its people.”

Johnson himself publicly stated that his chief concern was not the “who” but the “how many” when he said, “It makes no difference from whence they come — too many come.” There is no denying, however, that racism and pseudo-science informed the construction of the national-origin quota system.

Additionally, many legislators shared the widespread – but not universal – concern at the time about the ability of Catholics and Jews to assimilate. The 1924 law earned support from the Ku Klux Klan for its promise to severely limit the immigration of those groups.

In the aftermath of the Great War (WWI) and the Russian Revolution, legislators were responsive to common concerns about ethnic loyalties, the spread of socialism, and balkinization. All of these contributed to the motivations of legislators tried micro manage who could immigrate.

“How Many?” Intentions

President Coolidge opposed the Japanese exclusion, and said he would have vetoed that provision had it been separated from the law.

And Black leaders like A. Philip Randolph opposed the quota systems and all of the eugenics rationales behind them. They supported the law for the moderation in the overall numbers. They were explicit in wanting less immigration, period.

Mass immigration had helped keep most Black Americans trapped in the unreconstructed South for a half century. But the brief cessation of mass immigration during the war demonstrated that the industrial North would hire (and even recruit) Black Americans…if they had no other choice.

The Messenger: Black Americans' industrial future is tied to immigration restriction.

“Black newspapers and leaders also spoke fervently against the Japanese exclusion clause,” reports Lehtinen. “The economic argument, however, tended to outweigh the distaste for the racial implications of the quotas, and by 1924 most black newspapers supported the Johnson-Reed bill.”

“Which Ones?” Intentions, Part II

Southern leaders viewed immigration as a valuable method to replace Black workers. Walter Fleming wrote in 1905 that “the negro laborers have proven so unreliable, the preference for north Europeans has given way before necessity, and Italians are being brought in to furnish more efficient labor.” The historian from West Virginia University continued: “Texas has secured colonies of northerners, of Germans and of Italians, and smaller numbers of Japanese rice farmers.”

There is a long history of that kind of thinking.

Righting an old wrong; creating a new one

Black Americans spent the four decades between 1924 and 1964 proving their doubters wrong, raising their families into the middle class, building economic power, and nurturing the leaders who would win the landmark Civil Rights victories in the 1960s.

In the spirit of the civil rights movement, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 to do away with the origin-based quotas required by the 1924 Act.

“Everywhere else in our national life, we have eliminated discrimination based on national origins,” Senator Ted Kennedy said, “Yet this system is still the foundation of our immi­gration law.”   

Kennedy and his fellow reformers vowed to leave the successful and popular “how many” part of the 1924 Act in place. They promised a system that would admit 265,000 immigrants per year. Their aim was only to recalibrate the “which ones” part. The new system, they promised, would be less discriminatory.  In the end, the bill changed both the “which ones” and the “how many.” The discriminatory quotas were abolished, but immigration numbers almost immediately doubled. Decades of declining inequality, an expanding middle class, and shrinking racial wealth gaps were halted and reversed.

Correlation_Income Inequality_Immigration_gif

Inadvertently, it seems, Congress created new economic barriers to equality within a month of passing landmark civil rights legislation. But since then, multiple Congresses and administrations have been indifferent to the deleterious impacts mass immigration has imposed in the decades since.

Sir Angus Deaton Quote on Immigration & Inequality
Sir Angus Deaton on immigration and inequality

How Many and Which Ones? – Final Lessons from 1924

“Two lessons come from the 1924 legislation. First, while America is a nation of immigrants that generally welcomes newcomers, there are limits to the number of migrants Americans will tolerate. Second, how immigration is limited matters: Whom do you choose to admit—or exclude?”

Richard Vedder, distinguished professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University, and Matthew Denhart, president of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2024

“The Immigration Act of 1924 fumbled on who should immigrate,” writes Beck. “But in deciding how many should, the law enabled descendants of American slavery to prove that — despite racist domestic laws and social mores that still remained in place — they could prosper in tight labor markets even faster than white workers.”

“The 1924 Immigration Act wasn’t perfect — far from it,” admits Barnes. “It imposed discriminatory national origins quotas that favored northern Europeans at the expense of Asians, Africans, and southern and eastern Europeans. But the law got immigration levels right — and resulted in decades of upward mobility for Black Americans. Congress today can learn something from that history.” 

Take Action: Teach Congress about the lessons of the 1924 law.

Explore More: Hiring Line Initiative; Economic Challenges; Immigration History

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