National Origins Quota System

With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act), immigration restrictionists achieved their long-sought goal of establishing a permanent nationality-based system of quotas to limit the number of immigrants admitted to the United States. Reflecting the ideology of ‘‘scientific’’ racism prevalent during the Progressive Era, which viewed ethnicity in hierarchical terms, the quotas strongly favored northern Europeans over those from eastern and southern Europe, and excluded most Asians.

The implementation of the quotas proceeded in steps beginning in 1921. The permanent system, which took effect in 1929, capped immigration at approximately 150,000 people annually. It allotted these spaces based on the supposed national origins (ethnicity) of the American population in 1920 as determined by a study of dubious validity that analyzed surnames. Immigration of members of Asian races was severely limited or prohibited entirely.

Throughout its history, critics denounced the quota system as un-American and discriminatory due to its unequal treatment of individuals based on, in President Kennedy’s words, ‘‘accident of birth.’’ By the late 1950s, the racist ideologies that served as the system’s intellectual basis had lost favor, and its system of national preferences had proven a diplomatic liability in the context of the cold war. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 revamped the nation’s immigration laws by eliminating race and race-based national quotas as a consideration for admission.

JASON A. COLE

References and Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
  • Kennedy, John F. A Nation of Immigrants, revised and enlarged edition. New York: Harpers, 1964.
  • Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004

See also Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965; Race and Immigration

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