The Immigration Act of 1924

A century after a federal law established a national quota system on immigration, legal historian Hardeep Dhillon explains the act’s significance and legacy.

A group of Chinese and Japanese women and children waiting to be processed, held in a wire mesh enclosure. Benches line either sides of the room, with a stool in the middle.
A group of Chinese and Japanese women and children waiting to be processed, held in a wire mesh enclosure at the Angel Island Internment barracks in San Francisco Bay. The Angel Island Immigration Station processed one million immigrants from 1910 to 1940, mostly from China and Japan. (Image: AP Photo/File)

In a recent Gallup poll, 28% of Americans cite immigration as their biggest concern, topping a list that includes the federal government, the economy, inflation, and poverty, hunger, and homelessness. One hundred years ago, America was in a similar situation.

Faced with rapid social, economic, and demographic changes along with increasing political anxiety, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 on May 26 of that year. The new federal law prevented immigration from Asia, expanded the role of consuls in immigration enforcement, and established the national origin quota system, placing a total cap on immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere. A revised version of this system is still present today.

Hardeep Dhillon, assistant professor of history, studies the history of U.S. immigration and border enforcement, along with the laws and legal practices that shape immigrant lives. In a Q&A, she explains the significance of the Immigration Act of 1924 and how it continues to shape American laws and more, a century after it was enacted.

What was the purpose of the Immigration Act of 1924?

Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 at the height of the eugenics movement and growing nativism following World War I. Their main goals were to restrict immigration, alter the demographic makeup of the United States, and expand immigration and border enforcement globally. The Immigration Act established the first numerical limit on immigration in U.S. history, which was managed through a system of consuls, passports, and visas. This global cap was then divided into national quotas for the Eastern Hemisphere, largely based on existing census data. Additionally, the law prohibited entry for immigrants who were ineligible for naturalization under federal law—effectively barring immigrants from Asia—but exempted immigrants from the Western Hemisphere and U.S. colonies, such as the Philippines, from these quotas.

Although each aspect of the Act, including quotas, legal status, and census records, seemed to be impartial, it was actually cleverly designed to create a discriminatory and racially biased immigration system. In practice, the national quotas for the Eastern Hemisphere, which were determined by existing census data, favored immigration from northern and western Europe. Restrictions that limited immigration to those eligible for naturalization effectively prevented immigration from Asia because until 1952 U.S. naturalization law only granted citizenship to white individuals and individuals of African descent. Furthermore, exemptions for the Western Hemisphere and U.S. colonies ensured that the agricultural sector and American industrialists would have access to migrant labor, particularly from Mexico. The enforcement of the law was so racially biased that U.S. consuls even manipulated quotas from colonized territories under European rule to prioritize European immigration, thereby limiting the entry of many Black immigrants.

The combination of an immigration cap, national quotas, legal status, and exemptions ensured a ‘whiter’ pool of immigrants could be admitted to the United States without compromising the need for labor.

To effectively implement the discriminatory intent of the law at the nation’s borders, Congress supported the creation of the U.S. Border Patrol a few days after the 1924 Immigration Act was passed.

Why were Asian immigrants targeted?

The Immigration Act of 1924 did not begin Asian exclusion. Rather, it cemented it. Asian immigrants became the only group of immigrants prohibited from entering the United States on the basis of race, with certain exemptions for Asian diplomats, merchants, students, and religious figures.

Asian immigrants were the first group to be excluded from the United States through federal immigration law. As early as the 1860s, Congress started restricting Asian immigration by targeting Chinese women and laborers. Americans fueled fears about the religious, racial, sexual, and labor threats posed by Asian immigrants to the United States. Many of these fears were manufactured by lawmakers seeking to secure votes, labor unions and ordinary people who felt threatened by Asian immigrants in the labor market, as well as nativists who believed that Asian immigration was incompatible with the ‘American way of life.’

Moreover, there were hundreds of violent acts committed against Chinese communities, including women and children who were born in the United States. These acts included drive-outs, massacres, and lynching.

During the 1880s, Congress supported a complete ban on nearly all Chinese immigrants amid anti-Chinese violence, including those who had previously lived in the United States. As a result, the United States set a precedent of limiting immigration in response to anti-immigrant violence rather than holding the perpetrators accountable.

Even after federal immigration law banned most Chinese immigrants, anti-Asian violence, both verbal and physical, persisted. Americans continued to refer to an ‘Asiatic invasion’ from the Pacific, stoking fears that Asian immigrants threatened the health, morals, and ‘fitness’ of the nation. By 1917, Congress expanded the range of Asian immigrants prohibited from entering the United States while strengthening emigration controls that aimed to prevent people from leaving their own countries.

However, anti-Asian violence, both physical and verbal, persisted. Some teachers associations, boards of commerce, real estate boards, state and federal legislators and candidates, and ordinary people feared that Asian immigrants and Asian American families posed a threat to their livelihoods and the nation.

In 1924, Congress had enough legislators and electoral support to firmly consolidate Asian exclusion, with the exception of the Philippines, which the U.S. had colonized at that time.

The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed during a period of relative prosperity. Can you explain the theory that nativist surges occur during times of economic expansion and large-scale change, rather than during economic recessions?

Americans frequently scapegoat immigrants for the economic hardships and inequality caused by American economic policies.

There is a common assumption that anti-immigrant sentiments only increase during economic recessions. However, nativism also rises during periods of economic expansion and significant social and political change.

In the 1910s and 1920s, for example, the agricultural industry experienced substantial growth and transformation. Technological advancements, the expansion of agricultural development areas, and increased corporate investment revolutionized the industry. These changes resulted in new tensions and uncertainties as families struggled to compete with corporations, and capitalists sought to maximize profits by reducing labor costs through low wages. When wage workers and farm owners faced economic hardship, they blamed nonwhite immigrants instead of critically examining the economic changes and policies that led to their hardships.

The current rise in explicit anti-immigrant sentiment, which supports mass detention, deportation, and incarceration, including that of families and children, is occurring during a post-pandemic economic recovery. It is important to note that noncitizen immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, have played a critical role in this recovery. They have served as educators, doctors, nurses, farmworkers, and meatpackers and were disproportionately represented among the categories of frontline workers during the pandemic. Unfortunately, some Americans continue to blame immigrants for their woes without critically considering American policies that contribute to widening wage and wealth disparities, as well as employment insecurity, despite overall national economic growth.