To Elena, I’d suggest you go back to your history a bit more to discover the role many labor unions and related American-worker interests had in demanding limits to immigration in the 1920s. What labor wanted was a need to limit immigration in order to obtain bargaining leverage. How can any union successfully strike for lower wages without limits to the labor supply? Check out the ILGWU resolutions dating back as early as 1905.
I think it is imperative, for all who discuss immigration, to understand its origins. I may not be an expert on unions, but I do understand the fear and anxiety that lives in all of us when we encounter people that are different from own small world experiences. The original, over-reaching 1924 Johnson-Reed act was in response to a changing face of America. What I found interesting was that “The 1924 Immigration Act also included a provision excluding from entry any alien who by virtue of race or nationality was ineligible for citizenship. Existing nationality laws dating from 1790 and 1870 excluded people of Asian lineage from naturalizing. As a result, the 1924 Act meant that even Asians not previously prevented from immigrating – the Japanese in particular – would no longer be admitted to the United States.” Now Really Mr. Stein, does this sound like unbiased labor union concerns, or just simply racism codified within the immigration legislation?
It is also extremely noteworthy that the KKK had great influence in working towards passage of the 1924 Johnson Reed Act. The eugenics movement was integral to the passage of the immigration act.
Local eugenics societies and groups sprang up around the United States after World War I, with names like the Race Betterment Foundation. The war had given many Americans a greater fear of foreigners, and immigration to the United States was still increasing. In 1923, organizers founded the American Eugenics Society, and it quickly grew to 29 chapters around the country. At fairs and exhibitions, eugenicists spread the word and hosted “fitter family” and “better baby” competitions to award blue ribbons to the finest human stock — not unlike the awards for prize bull and biggest pumpkin. Not only did eugenicists promote better breeding, they wanted to prevent poor breeding or the risk of it. That meant keeping people with undesireable traits in their heritage (including alcoholism, pauperism, or epilepsy) separate from others or, where law allowed, preventing them from reproducing.
These vocal groups advocated laws to attain their aims, and in 1924, the Immigration Act was passed by majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. It set up strict quotas limiting immigrants from countries believed by eugenicists to have “inferior” stock, particularly Southern Europe and Asia. President Coolidge, who signed the bill into law, had stated when he was vice president, “America should be kept American. . . . Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races.”
At the turn of the 20th century, unprecedented levels of immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to the United States aroused public support for restrictive immigration laws. After World War I, which temporarily slowed immigration levels, anti-immigration sentiment rose again. Congress passed the Quota Act of 1921, limiting entrants from each nation to 3 percent of that nationality’s presence in the U.S. population as recorded by the 1910 census. As a result, immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe dropped to less than one-quarter of pre-World War I levels. Even more restrictive was the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act) that shaped American immigration policy until the 1960s. While it passed with only six dissenting votes, congressional debates over the Johnson-Reed Act revealed arguments on both sides of this question of American policy and national identity. For example, on April 8, 1924, Robert H. Clancy, a Republican congressman from Detroit with a large immigrant constituency, defended the “Americanism” of Jewish, Italian, and Polish immigrants and attacked the quota provisions of the bill as racially discriminatory and “un-American.”
Since the foundations of the American commonwealth were laid in colonial times over 300 years ago, vigorous complaint and more or less bitter persecution have been aimed at newcomers to our shores. Also the congressional reports of about 1840 are full of abuse of English, Scotch, Welsh immigrants as paupers, criminals, and so forth.
Old citizens in Detroit of Irish and German descent have told me of the fierce tirades and propaganda directed against the great waves of Irish and Germans who came over from 1840 on for a few decades to escape civil, racial, and religious persecution in their native lands.
The “Know-Nothings,” lineal ancestors of the Ku-Klux Klan, bitterly denounced the Irish and Germans as mongrels, scum, foreigners, and a menace to our institutions, much as other great branches of the Caucasian race of glorious history and antecedents are berated to-day. All are riff-raff, unassimilables, “foreign devils,” swine not fit to associate with the great chosen people—a form of national pride and hallucination as old as the division of races and nations.
But to-day it is the Italians, Spanish, Poles, Jews, Greeks, Russians, Balkanians, and so forth, who are the racial lepers. And it is eminently fitting and proper that so many Members of this House with names as Irish as Paddy’s pig, are taking the floor these days to attack once more as their kind has attacked for seven bloody centuries the fearful fallacy of chosen peoples and inferior peoples. The fearful fallacy is that one is made to rule and the other to be abominated. . . .
It must never be forgotten also that the Johnson bill, although it claims to favor the northern and western European peoples only, does so on a basis of comparison with the southern and western European peoples. The Johnson bill cuts down materially the number of immigrants allowed to come from northern and western Europe, the so-called Nordic peoples. . . .
Then I would be true to the principles for which my forefathers fought and true to the real spirit of the magnificent United States of to-day. I can not stultify myself by voting for the present bill and overwhelm my country with racial hatreds and racial lines and antagonisms drawn even tighter than they are to-day. [Applause.]
Source: Speech by Robert H. Clancy, April 8, 1924, Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st Session (Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1924), vol. 65, 5929–5932.
Another thing to remember is that all this anti-immigrant ferver of the 1920’s was needed to distract voters from the Teapot Dome Scandal. For those who aren’t familiar, this was an instance where Big Oil worked in cahoots with the White House to defraud the American people of our natural resources, namely the oil reserves that belonged to the U.S. Navy, one of which was named after a teapot shaped mountain in Wyoming. By bribing Warren G. Harding during the Republican National Convention (this is where the term “smoked filled room” comes from), America’s two biggest oil barons, Doheny and Sinclaire, were granted leases to the Navy oil reserves. As the scandal was beginning to break, anti-immigrant legislation was being crafted.