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1920-1932! So many issues with salience in today's politics. Evolution (the Scopes Trial)! Injustice (Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys)! Economic issues (The stock market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression) accompanied by presidential incompetence (Harding, Coolidge [sorry, Ms. Shlaes, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear], Hoover)! But as I started the sequence on immigration restriction for the second time I knew that this diary would be about the fact that, between 1918 and 1924, Congress passed three increasingly restrictive immigration laws, the last two signed willingly by a Republican President.

Last time we discussed immigration (two weeks ago), I discussed the poem by Emma Lazarus that had been inscribed on a plaque in the pediment of the Statue of Liberty. I wonder why the Congresses that passed these three laws didn't have it removed. So follow me below the great orange turnstile for more nativism and xenophobia from the people that brought you Prohibition. No illustrations this week; this is presented as word slides.

Three bills. The first was the Literacy Bill that Grover Cleveland vetoed, saying don’t make illiteracy a pretext for exclusion if what you fear is something else. William Howard Taft vetoed it too, and so did Woodrow Wilson (twice), but Congress had enough votes to override Wilson's second veto. You read about this, the issue that the Immigration Restriction league had been pushing for decades, in the other diary. But there were other issues connected to the bill by the time it reached Wilson's desk.

This revision, first brought to Congress in 1917, required that future immigrants be able to read some language, with the caveat that if a married couple was seeking admission, the wife need not be literate. Any recognized language, including Hebrew and Yiddish, could be used to prove literacy. Naturally, some extreme nativists wanted all immigrants to be able to read English but Congress didn't take those demands seriously.

The bill also created an Asiatic “barred zone” that excluded all of Asia except China, Japan and the Philippines (remember the Spanish-American War here). This was directed at immigration from India, because for all practical purposes other laws existed to bar most Chinese and Japanese immigration and to prohibit Filipinos from becoming American citizens. It also expanded the mental, physical and "moral" defects that could be used as reasons for expulsion, and made the anti-radical provisions adopted in 1903 more severe. Specifically, it provided for the deportation of aliens who preached revolution or sabotage at any time in the first five years after entry.

It worked, sort of. Between July 1920 and June 1921, more than 550,000 immigrants arrived in the United States to stay. Of these, nearly 14,000 entrants  (2.5%) were excluded for one reason or another, 1,450 (.2%) for failing the literacy test. This told the restrictionists that more had to be done to limit immigration.

They had new theories to use as well. As Nell Irvin Painter tells us in her magisterial book, The History of White People (2010 - and this is a must-read book for anyone interested in the subject), nativists looked at the immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and concluded that the melting pot idea had failed. Kenneth Roberts, who we know as a historical novelist, began his career with the increasingly restrictionist Saturday Evening Post, and wrote a book based on the material he had published called Why Europe Leaves Home (1922). American culture was under threat from the mongrelization that would occur if good people of Nordic stock married these immigrants. Edward A. Ross, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, in his book The Old World in the New (1914), talked about the new "Caliban-type" immigrants who

belong in skins, in wattled huts at the close of the Ice Age. These oxlike men are descendents  of those who always stayed behind.
For Ross, race purity meant beauty, and I should note here that for the American in 1920, "race" meant what we mean today by "ethnicity." Ross especially didn't like Jews who he said could not be made into boy scouts.

Nordics. We can thank the conservationist founder of the Bronx Zoo, Madison Grant, for that update of "Anglo-Saxon." Grant's book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916) warned that the melting pot worked when all the immigrants were Nordic (this incidentally included the Irish), but that the influx of all those non-Nordic immigrants meant the end of democratic human rights, and that anyone who criticized this view was a "sentimentalist." Besides being a conservationist, Grant was a eugenicist who believed that by eliminating inferior types from the population, the more vital and intellectual strains would carry on the race. As Professor Painter observes,

Grant and other eugenicists envisioned negative eugenics as the glorious future of evolution. If this sounds Nazi-like, it most certainly was, and Nazis in Germany took lessons from Grant.
Theodore Roosevelt, Painter tells us, loved the book enough to produce a blurb for the cover:
It shows a fine fearlessness in assailing the popular and mischievous sentimentalities and attractive and corroding falsehoods which few men dare assail.
When the young Horace Kallen, a philosopher who is probably the father of multiculturalism, reviewed the book negatively, Grant dismissed the review as the work of a Jew (which Kallen was). Grant even maintained that images of a blond Jesus were perfectly appropriate because the artists of the Renaissance (Raphael, Titian, Leonardo da Vinci) were Nordic. He makes Pat Buchanan sound sane.

In an environment like this, it was a sure thing that immigration would be restricted severely. A law instituting a quota system, which Wilson had pocket-vetoed at the end of the previous session of Congress, flew through the next one in March 1921 (78-1 in the Senate, and a voice vote in the House). Harding, fresh from his "America First" campaign, signed the bill Wilson would have vetoed again. The underlying principle of the law was a system of national quotas based on the preexisting composition of American population, and it had been designed specifically to reduce the flow from Eastern and Southern Europe. To refresh your memory, that meant Italians, Greeks, Poles, Jews and southern Slavs. The senate passed a bill -- the Emergency Quota Act of 1921-– that allowed 5% of the number of foreign-born from each country already in the United States based on the 1910 census (the most recent figures available) to enter the country, with a maximum of 600,000 immigrants per year. If the immigrants from a country with a large allocation, like England, didn't fill the country's quota, the unused space could not be used for people from countries where the quota was filled.

The more restrictionist House accepted the quota system but reduced it to 3% of the number of foreign-born of each nationality in the census of 1910 with the caveat that a maximum of 357,803 immigrants could enter each year. Children under eighteen whose parents were US citizens could enter outside the quota system, as could other close relatives of immigrants who had already filed for citizenship. A proposal  by Hiram Johnson (R-California) to exempt those fleeing from religious or political persecution (favored by those sympathetic to plight of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia) failed by a wide margin. Considerations of Pan-American good will and desire for Mexican labor meant restrictions for western hemisphere unchanged although some restrictionists urged that a quota be assigned to Mexico, thus this wasn't a full attempt to control immigration. The measure was supposed to expire in May 1922, but since Congress wanted to write a "permanent" bill they extended it for two more years.

So in 1924, fueled by the new racial theories discussed above that elevated Nordics above the “mongrel” races and that raised fears that “streams of foreign blood” threatened to “pollute the race, Congress faced four major issues:

1. Which census should be used? The 1920 census was now available.
2. Should the Western hemisphere be left out of the quota system?
3. Should the "Gentleman's Agreement" on Japanese immigration be maintained?
4. What kind of "permanent" system of control should be set up?
The National Origins Act of 1924 pushed the base of the quota system back to the Census of 1890 and reduced it from 3% to 2%. As Roger Daniels writes in Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924,
The leader of the extreme restrictionist forces in the House . . . calculated that instead of the 42,000 Italian and 31,000 Polish annual qouts spaces created by [applying 2% to the 1910 census], a similar quota based on the 1890 Census would cut the numbers to 4,000 Italians and 6,000 Poles.
The bill also forbade anyone ineligible for citizenship from entering the United States. This meant ALL Asians: Ozawa v U.S. (1922) had ruled that, Mr. Justice Sutherland writing,
The appellant, in the case now under consideration, however, is clearly of a race which is not Caucasian and therefore belongs entirely outside the zone on the negative side. A large number of the federal and state courts have so decided and we find no reported case definitely to the contrary. These decisions are sustained by numerous scientific authorities, which we do not deem it necessary to review. We think these decisions are right and so hold.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 said "free white persons." Game. set and match.

That's not all the bill did. It narrowed the Western Hemisphere exception to persons born in independent nations, which cut out Caribbean Blacks from the colonial  possessions of Great Britain, France and the Netherlands. It allowed wives and unmarried children under the age of eighteen (husbands of American citizens were added in 1928 and then only if the marriage took place before June 1 1928). It allowed previously admitted immigrants, ministers and college professors, and women who had previously lost their citizenship by marriage or because their husbands had lost theirs. Before 1922, women who married citizens of foreign countries were automatically stripped of their American citizenship;the Cable Act of 1922 [it's Chapter 421] stated

That the right of any woman to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of her sex or because she is a married woman.
Unless, of course, her husband was an Asian of any nationality. You didn't expect to find misogyny in this discussion, did you.  Surprise! Professor Daniels notes
No man ever gained or lost citizenship because of marriage.
With regard to control, visas were required of each immigrant for the first time which meant that presumably you couldn't get on a ship in Europe unless you had one. There was already an eight-dollar head tax, and Congress added a nine-dollar charge for a visa. In today's money, that's $106 for the head tax and $120 for the visa. Mexicans, unrestricted by the quota system, also needed visas. This could also be prohibitory.

Some industrialists opposed the restriction, knowing full well that American industrial power would be inconceivable without the contribution of immigrant workers, but massive African American migration from the South had relieved labor shortage in most industries. The American Federation of Labor embraced restriction, as did most African American leaders who saw immigrants taking black jobs.

The quota system was replaced by a family reunification approach to immigration in 1965. That means it was in place through the Second World War, with the dire consequences you probably know it had. All the United States did officially to rescue the victims of Nazism before 1941 was to combine the quotas for Germany and Austria, which probably saved a few thousand refugees. All because a group of restrictionists decided that American culture was too fragile to survive the immigration of large numbers of people from Southern and Eastern Europe. Yet no one removed the plaque, even as this country turned its back on those huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Sat Mar 09, 2013 at 8:43 AM PT: Thanks, Community Spotlight.  This one was important.

Originally posted to History for Kossacks on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 04:10 PM PST.

Also republished by In Support of Labor and Unions and Community Spotlight.

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