Published: 14-02-2012, 11:27

Immigration Act of 1921

The Law: Federal legislation limiting the immigration of aliens into the United States

Date: Enacted and signed into law on May 19, 1921

Also known as: Johnson Act; Emergency Quota Act of 1921

Significance: The first federal law in U.S. history to limit the immigration of Europeans, the Immigration Act of 1921 reflected the growing American fear that people from southern and eastern European countries not only did not adapt well into American society but also threatened its very existence. The law specified that no more than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants from any specific country already living in the United States in 1910 could migrate to America during any year.

On May 19, 1921, the same day on which the law was passed by the U.S. Congress, recently inaugurated President Warren G. Harding signed the Emergency Quota Act into law. The premise of the act had been debated in the Congress for several years. Indeed, a version of the bill had passed during the previous session of Congress only to fall victim to a pocket veto by the ailing President Woodrow Wilson during the last days of his administration.

The bill was a product of the Dillingham Commission, which had been chartered in 1907 and was chaired by Representative William P. Dillingham of Vermont. It represented several versions, the latest of which had been created by Representative Albert Johnson ofWashington. Although concerns about undesirable immigration to the United States had been discussed for decades, and action had been taken to prevent the immigration of most Asians, fears springing out of the aftermath of World War I again bestirred those who would close the floodgates of immigration.

According to federal officials scattered throughout European consulates, literally millions of Europeans hoped to emigrate to the United States in the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918). Some of these would-be immigrants could be considered as coming from the “desirable” classes of western and northern European nations, but it appeared that the vast majority of the potential immigrants would be coming from southern and eastern Europe.

Many Americans held the perception that individuals from southern and eastern Europe could not be assimilated properly into the culture of the United States. Their languages, customs, and religions were thought to be too different from those of preceding generations of immigrants for fullscale integration into American culture. The fear was that these newer immigrants would always be “hyphenates,” or citizens who would call themselves, or be called by others, by such hyphenated names as “Polish-Americans,” “Greek-Americans,” and “Italian-Americans.”

Beyond the fear of being swamped by unassimilable immigrants from eastern and southern Europe was the fear that these immigrants’ increasing numbers would depress wages for American workers. In addition, some people feared the potential of the rising political power of the new class of immigrants. To counter the tide of uneducated, working- class immigrants, professionals were allowed to enter the United States with few restrictions, regardless of their nations of origin.

As signed into law, the 1921 bill required that no more than 3 percent of the number of persons from a nation living in the United States, as recorded in the census of 1910, could be admitted to the country in the forthcoming year. Taken to its ultimate understanding, the law allowed only about 357,000 people to immigrate to the United States during the 1922 fiscal year. Based on the 1910 population figures, the bill effectively limited emigration of northern and western Europeans to approximately 175,000 individuals. As this figure reflected almost precisely the numbers of immigrants from these regions during the years leading up to 1921, the bill had little impact on northern and western European immigration. The bill imposed no limitations on immigration from the Western Hemisphere.

The impact of the 1921 law on southern and eastern Europe was much different. Again basing its quotas on 1910 population figures, the bill effectively limited nations in these regions to about 175,000 individuals. However, in contrast to western and northern Europeans, immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had contributed approximately 685,000 persons during each of the years immediately prior to the passage of the 1921 law.

The bill was intended to be in effect for only a single year; however, it was not replaced until 1924. The significance of the 1921 bill lies in the fact that it was the first time Americans had actively and legally sought to limit European immigration.

Kimberly K. Porter

Further Reading

  • Briggs, Vernon M. Mass Immigration and the National Interest: Policy Directions for the New Century. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2003. 
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1880-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. 

See also: Congress, U.S.; Dillingham Commission; European immigrants; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration law.