Immigration Laws 100 Years Ago

Immigration History Expert

On Tuesday, March 5th, I had the pleasure to attend an informative lecture about Immigration History in the United States, focusing on the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The speaker was Dr. John Grabowski, professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Grabowski is a nationally recognized expert in immigration history and is also involved with the Western Reserve Historical Society.

Dr. Grabowski began his remarks by noting that, while immigration and ethnic history has always been his focus, it is a particularly timely topic today. However, he said that he did not want to get too political and would let us draw our own parallels. True to his word, he did not talk about modern politics at all. Even so, the parallels were certainly easy to see.

Before going any further, I would like to make clear that many terms and views about race discussed below reflect the mindset of some people during the time period in question and do not represent my own views or those of Margaret W. Wong & Associates.

Different Peoples Arrive

It was interesting to learn that the Federal Government only officially took control of immigration in 1882; previously it had been left to the states. From that time, Dr. Grabowski noted, the United States began “closing the door slowly.” For example, in that same year, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring all Chinese from the country. However, the door remained more or less open for several decades following, and tens of millions of people came to the United States.

Immigration was nothing new, of course; with the exception of indigenous peoples, every American’s ancestors were immigrants at some point. Even while recognizing this fact, people at the time became increasingly worried about exactly who was coming in, and from where. Ideas of racial ‘science’ and eugenics dominated the discussion.

Previous waves of immigrants had come largely from the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. They were generally light-skinned, protestant Christians. To many, these groups represented the ‘old immigrants’ of ‘good stock,’ the so-called superior ‘Nordic race.’ In period writings, they often call themselves ‘native Americans.’ The terrible irony of that term seems to have been lost on them.

Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s, ‘new immigrants’ began to arrive. They came from other parts of the world, including Ireland, the Middle East, and Eastern and Southern Europe, and they came in ever greater numbers. These people often followed religions like Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity, Judaism, Islam and had comparatively darker features. As such, under the racial ideas of the day, they were considered ‘other’ and inherently inferior by the ‘old immigrants.’



One group that lobbied heavily against this new wave of immigrants was the Immigration Restriction League, headed by Harvard lawyer Prescott Farnsworth Hall. Farnsworth Hall and his associates wanted to curb immigration by excluding what they considered to be undesirable peoples. He felt that this could be accomplished with a literacy test. Farnsworth Hall had the ear of influential congressman Henry Cabot Lodge. After many failed attempts, congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, which instituted a literacy test where immigrants had to write a few sentences in their native language. Farnsworth Hall’s literacy test was unsuccessful in weeding out many immigrants. Education was on the rise in Europe and few people failed. This Act also created the Asiatic Barred Zone, effectively prohibiting immigration from almost the entirety of Asia. Any Asians already here were considered Aliens Ineligible for Citizenship.

To illustrate the racial attitudes prevalent at the time, Dr. Grabowski cited a Supreme Court case from 1923, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind. Under the laws of the time, only whites and those of African descent were allowed to become citizens. Mr. Thind argued that, ethnographically, a high-caste northern Indian man like himself should be considered ‘caucasian’ and allowed to become a citizen. The court rejected his argument since, basically, he did not really look like a white man.

It is also certainly worth mentioning that the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in this era. At its inception after the Civil War, this group was mostly concerned with imposing white supremacy over recently freed black slaves. This time, they were also anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-Italian, anti-Jew, in a word anti-‘new immigrant.’ The KKK and other groups felt that these peoples could never assimilate and become Americans. The Klan wielded considerable influence in many states, including Ohio, and even staged a huge parade in Washington that is now infamous.

The Culmination of Restriction

After World War One, the government decided to curb immigration once and for all and impose quotas on different groups. First, Congress passed the temporary Emergency Quota Act in 1921, which limited the numbers of new arrivals to 3% of the number of US residents from that country based on the 1910 census. In the following year, the number of immigrants was less than half of what it had been before: falling from about 805,000 to 310,000. Even this was not enough for anti-immigration hardliners: by the 1910 census, many people from ‘undesirable’ countries had already arrived.

The Johnson Reed Act of 1924 was even more strict than the previous legislation, and limited immigrants based on the 1890 census, before the vast majority of ‘undesirable’ groups arrived. In this way, the Act aimed to increase the proportion of immigrants coming from Northern and Western Europe. Let us be perfectly clear that this was done for racist reasons. The act succeeded in its goals and the proportion of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe increased. The quotas remained in place until 1965 and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which is the basis for immigration law today. By that time, the percentage of immigrants had fallen from around 14% in 1920 to barely 4%. Today, it has bounced back to around 13%.


Dr. Grabowski briefly touched how this legislation shaped the city of Cleveland. Like many industrial centers, this city was a patchwork of immigrant neighborhoods that have largely faded away today. Dr. Grabowski noted that this would likely have happened anyway, but that these quotas hastened their demise. The racist advocates of restriction were wrong: in the end, all these groups did indeed assimilate into American culture, even while shaping it with their own customs.

He also noted that the Cleveland Cultural Gardens might not exist without these laws. They were founded soon after the passage of the Johnson Reed Act to honor different cultures since, in Dr. Grabowski’s words, “the door was slammed in the face of groups that were considered inferior.” Today, the cultural gardens stand as a monument to acceptance of diverse cultures from around the world.


As mentioned above, Dr. Grabowski did not make any references to what was going on today during his talk. During the Q&A, when pressed by an audience member’s question, he stated simply that “Fear is a good way to power… I find it terrifying.”

While Dr. Grabowski did not wish to comment on the current situation, I feel that it is important to do so, if only briefly. Clearly, the United States’ attitude towards immigrants has long been a paradox of one wave of immigrants fearing different groups arriving. These ideas were frequently unashamedly racist. It seems that the cycle is repeating again today. The ancestors of many people today who fear and persecute immigrants were themselves feared and persecuted. We should try to overcome this cycle of fear and accept that successive waves of immigration are what helped make this country strong and wealthy.

By Justin Faulhaber
Margaret W. Wong & Associates