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Racism and the Passage of The Immigration Act of 1924: The Beginning of the Quota System

Gary D. Livingston

Abstract


The concept of international political borders has, throughout history, been tied to immigration issues. Almost all nations with recognized political boundaries have designed immigration policies either to encourage the immigration of people with desirable qualities and skills or to keep certain people out. The United States is no exception. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a national movement to restrict immigration into the U.S. on the basis of immigrants' national origins. The movement's goal was to restrict or eliminate immigration from southern and eastern Europe. Several applied research projects generated empirical results to bolster the movement's arguments that immigrants from these countries could not assimilate into American culture without detrimental effects upon it. The restriction movement then created a favorable political climate in which public and Congressional opinion evolved toward its position, culminating in the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924.

The movement was endorsed by liberals, conservatives, the labor movement and politicians of every stripe. The social scientists who embraced its themes came from economics, psychology and sociology. The common ground for all was a theory of the human condition based upon Social Darwinism or the more radical eugenics movement. Each involved racial theories and each was in its heyday when immigration restriction was an issue in the public mind. The purpose of this article is to examine the philosophical and historical bases of this movement and to show that inappropriate data and methodology were used to scientifically validate its racial arguments favoring restrictive legislation. It will be further argued that the result of the movement was a national immigration quota system that favored immigrants from preferred areas, northern and western Europe, at the expense of less preferred areas, southern and eastern Europe.


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Print ISSN: 0886-5655
Online ISSN: 2159-1229

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