Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy

Larry Holzwarth - July 19, 2018

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
The Immigration Act of 1924 was designed to curtail immigration from specific regions, including Italy, where these women came from. Library of Congress

The Immigration Act of 1924

On May 24, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed into law the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed further limitations on immigration from the countries of Eastern and Southern Europe, while allowing unlimited immigration from Latin America. It also included funding for the enforcement of the provisions. The act amended the Immigration Act of 1921 by changing the National Origins Formula. Its intent was the immediate reduction of the number of immigrants coming into the United States from the above mentioned regions without having a significant impact on those from Northern Europe and other more desirable areas.

It accomplished its goal by first modifying the National Origins Formula, reducing the percentage to be used to calculate the annual permissible number of immigrants to 2%. It further reduced the number by using the base population from a given nation as recorded in the census of 1890, rather than the 1910 census which had been used since 1921. The peak immigration years for people from Eastern Europe and Southern Europe occurred between 1890 and 1910, thus the total number of people from Italy, for example, was much lower during the 1890 census than that of 1910.

Using the old formula had led to almost 360,000 immigrants entering the United States in 1923. Using the new calculation reduced the number of immigrants to just under 165,000 in 1924. Immigration from Italy dropped in 1924 by 90%, but from Great Britain, from which far fewer people had immigrated between 1890 and 1910, the drop was less than 20%. Within the new quotas established under the act additional preferences were created, including for those with relatives already in the United States. For the first time, control of immigration was placed in the hands of American consulates overseas, which had to provide a visa to anyone desirous of immigrating to the United States.

The requirement for a visa divided the responsibility for immigration between the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department, which employed the consuls which provided the visas. This made it doubly difficult for some persons to immigrate to the United States as fascism and Nazism grew in Europe. In 1924 nearly 86% of the immigrants authorized under the act were from Northern European countries. In 1924 more people of Eastern and Southern European regions left the United States than were authorized to immigrate to it, while Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland sent the most immigrants to the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1924, and subsequent modifications and amendments, continued to establish the quotas for immigration to the United States from Europe until 1952. The quotas it established were a major cause of why so many attempting to flee Europe before World War II were denied entry into the United States. The Act also reaffirmed prior laws which stated that only whites or those of African descent were eligible for American citizenship (Latin Americans were considered to be white for the purposes of immigration) and that only those eligible for American citizenship were allowed to immigrate to the United States.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
Operation Wetback was authorized by the Eisenhower administration to reduce illegal immigration from Mexico. The White House

Displaced persons and Operation Wetback

At the end of World War 2 Europe was inundated with displaced persons, many with little or no identification or money. While the quota system remained in use for immigration to the United States it was quickly apparent that emergency action was necessary as Europe did not have the infrastructure nor the means to house and care for them. The Displaced Persons Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Truman as a temporary emergency measure. Although Truman supported the measure and signed it in 1948, he did so while objecting to some of the provisions of the act, one of which was that the immigration quota for a given country was transferred to the displaced persons list.

If a nation did not possess a sufficient number in its annual quota to support the number of people placed on the displaced persons list, the numbers were “borrowed” from quotas in succeeding years. The numbers in particular excluded the numbers of persons coming from Eastern Europe and the Balkan nations, as well as Italy. A second Displaced Persons Act was created and signed in 1950 which removed the provision assigning the quota numbers to the displaced persons list. Under the Displaced Persons Act, 200,000 refugees who qualified under its terms entered the United States annually.

In 1952 the Immigration Act of 1924 was re-affirmed under the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which also limited total immigration to the United States to one sixth of 1% of the total population of the United States, excluding the territories of Hawaii and Alaska, as recorded in the census of 1920. This allowed total immigration of 175,455, and excluded from the total certain family members of those already residing in the United States, as well as refugees, and the wives and children of American citizens, allowing entry of spouses married by troops of occupation in Europe and elsewhere around the globe.

In 1954, in response to growing illegal entry into the United States from Mexico and other Latin American countries across the Mexican border, President Eisenhower authorized a program to return illegal immigrants. During the Second World War Mexico and the United States jointly operated a program known as Bracero, in which migrant Mexican workers came to the United States to assist with harvests. The legal workers faced competition from illegal workers who crossed the border and worked for the farmers for lower wages than the Braceros, who were recruited by the Mexican government in an attempt to bolster the Mexican economy when they returned with American money in their pockets.

Operation Wetback was a joint operation of the US Border Patrol and the Mexican government. Beginning in May 1945, US Border Patrol teams located and arrested illegal immigrants and transferred them to the control of the Mexican government, who either removed them far from the Mexican-US border or returned them to their nation of origin. Over 1 million were deported in the first year of Operation Wetback. The most significant result of Operation Wetback was the increased surveillance of the Mexican-American border by agencies of both sides, which continues to the present day, though illegal crossings have never been fully stopped.

Coming to America: 10 Mileposts in American Immigration Policy
President Johnson signing the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, part of his Great Society reforms. LBJ Library

The Hart-Celler Act of 1965

The Hart-Celler Act was part of the legislation drive which was promoted by President Lyndon Johnson in the reforms which he referred to as the Great Society. The Act was proposed by Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York, and backed in the US Senate by Edward Kennedy. Hart-Celler altered the quota system of immigration which had existed since 1921 by abolishing the National Origins Formula, which Celler argued was discriminatory against the people of Eastern and Southern Europe. Quotas were not eliminated, but the manner in which they were calculated was changed, and a limit of 170,000 visas per annum was established.

Hart-Celler was an amendment to the McCarran-Walter Act, and though it eliminated the National Origins Formula, it retained limits per country. The act established labor certification as a requirement, meaning that for a given skill the Secretary of Labor needed to certify that it was needed in American industry. This did not necessarily mean that there needed to be shortages of the skill in question, only that the possessor of such a skill would be able to apply it in the American workforce. Priority was given to relatives of people already residing in the United States, either as permanent residents or former immigrants who had achieved citizenship.

During the years prior to the enactment of the Hart-Celler Act, the overwhelming majority of immigrants coming to the United States came from Europe. In the 1950s alone nearly 70% of immigrants were either from Europe or Canada. From 1970 to 1990 the demographic changed, with just over 47% of immigrants coming to the United States arriving from Latin America, and just over 35% coming from Asia. The increase of immigration was driven by the demands of American industry and agriculture for foreign workers, and that in turn led to the increase in illegal immigration by workers who found US employers willing to flout the law.

In 1986 the Immigration Reform and Control Act was signed by President Ronald Reagan. The act required that all employers in the United States ascertain that all workers they hire are in the United States legally, and established penalties for employers which knowingly hired illegal immigrants. It also provided for seasonal immigrant workers, most of whom entered the country to help harvest crops, and provided an amnesty program for illegal immigrants who had been in the United States since 1982, if they had remained there continuously since entry. The Act was controversial at the time of its passing and has remained so ever since.

The waves of immigration which the United States underwent throughout its first two centuries brought with them many of the core features of its culture today. The celebrations of Christmas came from Northern Europe, Cinco de Mayo from Mexico, St. Patrick’s Day from the Irish. Most of what Americans consider native cuisine, the hot dog, pizza, macaroni and cheese, even ice cream, were brought to the United States by immigrants. Even the American symbol of the log cabin was brought to the New World by Nordic settlers from Sweden and Germany. Immigration has long been the source of debate among the American people and politicians, and there is no sign of the debate ending in the foreseeable future.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The Real History of American Immigration”, by Joshua Zeitz, Politico Magazine, August 6, 2017

“History of U. S. Immigration Law”, by The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), online

“How U. S. immigration has changed”, by Dan Keating and Reuben Fischer-Baum, The Washington Post. January 12, 2018

“The ugly history of American immigration”, by Rebekkah Rubin, The Week, September 21, 2017

“The Oxford Handbook of American Immigration and Ethnicity”, ed. by Ronald H. Bayor, 2015

“Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882”, by Roger Daniels, 2005

“Open doors, slamming gates: The tumultuous politics of U. S. immigration policy”, by Marc Fisher, The Washington Post, January 28, 2017

“The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act)”, by the Office of the Historian, U. S. Department of State, online

“How Eisenhower solved Illegal border crossings from Mexico”, by John Dillin, The Christian Science Monitor, July 6, 2006

“The Development of U. S. Immigration Policy since 1965”, by Charles B. Keely, Journal of International Affairs, Winter, 1979