Early 20th century anti-immigrant laws fueled by fears migrants were turning cities into ‘foreign colonies’ (2024)

The Tribune applauded when the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 revoked a commitment symbolized by the Statue of Liberty and spelled out by a plaque on its pedestal:

“Give me your tired, your poor

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Emma Lazarus wrote those lines in 1883. A well-fixed New Yorker, she was inspired by the myriad Jews seeking refuge from the poverty and persecutions of the Old World.

But a century ago the Tribune strained its credibility by assuring readers the Johnson-Reed Act — which drastically reduced opportunities for immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe — wasn’t intended to target Jews:

“The discrimination is not against Jews as such, but against peoples who colonize, develop ghettos, and do not melt in the melting pot.”

The issues over immigration dominating headlines today are not all that different from those of the earliest 20th century, when millions of people from the overcrowded European continent crossed the Atlantic for a bid at a better life in America.

Already in 1910, the Tribune lamented a changing U.S. that was increasingly alien to old-stock Americans. A reporter sent to observe cases in Chicago courtrooms told readers he heard scarcely a word of recognizable English.

“Shattered syllables, disconnected consonants and fractured verbs were sounded in Judge La Buy’s courtroom,” the reporter noted. “Justice La Buy has passed judgment on cases in which the Polish, French, German and Hebrew languages were spoken.”

During one of the day’s trials, the clerk struggled with the names of the litigants and five witnesses. “An attempt to pronounce the names of two others whose testimony was desired was abandoned as futile, and the men were designated as Frank and John Doe.”

Early 20th century anti-immigrant laws fueled by fears migrants were turning cities into ‘foreign colonies’ (1)

At the Maxell Street Police Station, the reporter noticed: “Several of the policemen of the precinct, while unable to speak more than a few words of the ghetto language, can understand and translate the statements of witnesses, and their attorneys. A few of the policemen have been assigned to the foreign settlements for years, and during their working hours hear only the languages of the ghetto.”

On the eve of a vote on the 1924 immigration bill, the Tribune upped the ante with an outlandish headline: “POLAND SEEKS TO SEND U.S. HER TROUBLE MAKERS.”

“The Polish government hoped to turn its minorities over to the United States for safekeeping,” the accompanying story explained. “As a result of that policy 60,000 of the minorities, about 90 percent of this number being Jewish, have registered at the American consulate in Warsaw today and are waiting for their visas.”

When the Brooklyn Eagle rejoiced that the Johnson-Reed bill seemed headed for defeat, the Tribune took it as a sign that Brooklyn was a lost cause. The Eagle reported that, “Catholics, Protestants and Jews joined in a meeting to assail the bill.”

“It would be difficult to find better arguments in favor of Johnson’s bill than those offered by the Eagle against it,” the Tribune coyly wrote.

Its editors firmly believed that America’s manifest destiny was to be a white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant country, and feared its heritage was endangered.

“Unrestricted immigration in the years prior to the Great War was rapidly turning many of our greatest cities into foreign colonies,” the Tribune wrote. “It was especially noticeable that in those cities (immigrant communities) were composed largely of Southern and Eastern Europeans.”

The prequel to the Johnson-Reed Act dates to the formation of the Immigration Restriction League in 1894. Its founders were “Boston Brahmins” and similar East Coast notables. Among them was Henry Cabot Lodge, a Massachusetts senator and author of “The Great Peril of Unrestricted Immigration.” Its premise was that America’s prosperity was indebted to Lodge’s belief that its Yankee-stock founders were racially superior.

“You can take a Hindoo and give him the highest education the world can afford,” he wrote, “but you cannot make him an Englishman.”

He fine-tuned his racial theory by rating Northern Italians “more Teutonic” than the Southern Italians he considered unfit immigrants.

When a bill to restrict immigration was debated in 1896, Lodge argued its beneficiaries would far exceed the membership of the elite social class to which he belonged. “If we have any regard for the welfare, the wages, or the standard of life of American workingmen, we should take immediate steps to restrict foreign immigration,” he said in a speech to his fellow senators.

The bill provided that immigrants had to be literate. The league thought that the demonstration of an ability to read 40 words in any language would favor immigrants from western Europe over those from Southern and Eastern Europe, where access to education was rarer.

Congress approved the 1896 bill, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed it. Similar bills were vetoed in1913 and 1915. In 1917, Congress overrode a presidential veto, but it failed to provide the barrier to entry advocates had hoped for because of improved literacy rates in Southern and Eastern Europe.

The following year, the league found a formula to achieve its goal: Setting quotas for immigrants based on a percentage of their countrymen here on a set date. By that standard, admissions for Southern Europeans would have fallen dramatically, while substantially more Northern Europeans would be allowed into the country.

The league’s formula was written into the Emergency Quota Law of 1921. It was hastily cobbled together amid fears that the United States would soon be drowning in a tidal wave of refugees created by World War I and the Russian Revolution. It was renewed in 1922. So when Congress debated permanent legislation in 1924, the question was no longer whether there should be immigration quotas, but how they might be adjusted.

Representatives of states with sizable ethnic minorities were either outvoted or fought a rear-guard defensive action. The Johnson-Reed bill was passed by the House by a vote of 323-71.

When 20 of New York’s 22 Democratic representatives opposed the bill, the Tribune wasn’t surprised.

“In population and in many of its social phases, New York is largely foreign,” the paper noted. Ergo its politicians think “whatever may be good for the aliens within our gates, or knocking at the gates, is good the country.”

Illinois Rep. Adolph Sabath tried making the best of his constituents’ ill fortunate situation. He had been a judge in one of the Chicago courtrooms where English was a rare commodity.

“Some of you maintain that this bill is not discriminatory,” he said. “I say that to discriminate is our right, but that when we discriminate, we ought to discriminate fairly.”

He wanted to substitute 1910 for 1890 as the baseline of immigrants in the U.S. to calculate how many of their countrymen would be entitled to join them. In 1910, immigration was in full steam, so as a reference point it would yield more visas than 1890 for Eastern and Southern Europeans.

Sabath lost the battle, which the Tribune proclaimed a “a Nordic victory.”

As enacted, the Johnson-Reed Act also barred entry for most Asians, a provision insisted upon by Californian business owners and trade unions who didn’t want Asian competitors.

Early 20th century anti-immigrant laws fueled by fears migrants were turning cities into ‘foreign colonies’ (2)

Ellis Island, where nearly 12 million immigrants landed, was phased out as a way station for incoming migrants. For many, the spirit of welcome it symbolized was obsolete. The Johnson-Reed Act also led to unforeseen or discounted tragedies: Visas denied Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany, Holocaust survivors and refugees fleeing the Iron Curtain Joseph Stalin dropped on Eastern Europe.

Yet even as its effects were manifest, the Tribune didn’t budge from its support of the Johnson-Reed Act. In 1939, after the Great Depression left millions of Americans unemployed and destitute and with a war that would devastate Europe looming, the paper voiced opposition to a plan to admit 20,000 refugee children.

“The choice seems to be between helping those who are starving in Europe and those who have been pauperized here by a ruthless economic system,” the paper editorialized.

Early 20th century anti-immigrant laws fueled by fears migrants were turning cities into ‘foreign colonies’ (3)

Curiously, the paper’s position was underscored with the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who Col. Robert McCormick, the Tribune’s editor, detested: “One third of the nation is still ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed.”

They were the theme of FDR’s New Deal, a social safety net that, the Tribune preached, would bankrupt America financially and morally.

Have an idea for Vintage Chicago Tribune? Share it with Ron Grossman and Marianne Mather at rgrossman@chicagotribune.com and mmather@chicagotribune.com

Early 20th century anti-immigrant laws fueled by fears migrants were turning cities into ‘foreign colonies’ (2024)


What were the immigration acts early 20th century? ›

The Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 national census.

What caused immigration in the 20th century? ›

Like most immigrants that came before them, early 20th century immigrants came to better their lives. In Europe, many left their homelands in search of economic prosperity and religious freedom. Living conditions in Europe were degraded, as poverty and an exploding European population led to food shortages.

What were the anti immigration laws in the 1920s? ›

The 1921 Emergency Quota Act, initially set to last for just over one year, placed the first annual numerical cap on U.S. immigration, limiting total arrivals from outside the Western Hemisphere to about 358,000 per year, with each country allotted annual caps equal to 3 percent of the size of that country's immigrant ...

What was one reason for anti immigration sentiment in the early 1900? ›

These anti-immigrant, or nativist, sentiments had many sources. They were fueled by economic competition over jobs, housing, and public services, but also by religious, cultural, and political biases. Those beliefs were often intertwined with racist views of immigrants that saw them as debased, immoral, and criminal.

Which of the following are effects of immigration in the early 20th century? ›

Final answer: Immigration in the early 20th century significantly influenced demographic changes, economic growth, and led to changes in law and policy in the United States.

What were the causes of internal migration in the early 20th century? ›

The most important reason for internal migration was the industrialization of northern cities that offered the promise of economic prosperity and a better life.” “Internal migration during the period between 1900 and 1970 were driven by wars, economic opportunities, and the growth of the middle class.”

For which reason did most early 20th century immigrants settle in large cities? ›

Most of the immigrants chose to settle in American cities, where jobs were located.

How did immigration during the late 19th and early 20th century impact urban areas? ›

There are some studies that conclude that the flood of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had an adverse impact on the per-capita economic growth, the wages of native workers, and diverted domestic migration away from industrializing cities (Hatton and Williamson 1998: Chapter 8; Goldin 1994).

Who were the new immigrants of the early 20th century? ›

Immigration to America reached a high point between 1880 and 1920. Many of the new immigrants who migrated during this period were from southern and eastern European nations, such as Greece, Italy, Poland, and Russia.

How did immigration impact the United States in the 1920s? ›

In the 1920s, policymakers reduced immigration with several cultural and economic goals in mind. One economic goal was to reduce the number of low-skilled workers in the U.S. economy, therefore allowing manufacturing to evolve in the direction of higher-skilled, higher productivity manufacturing activity.

What were two things that led to the anti immigrant feelings in the 1920s? ›

Causes of the Red Scare
  • World War I, which led many to embrace strong nationalistic and anti-immigrant sympathies;
  • The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which led many to fear that immigrants, particularly from Russia, southern Europe, and eastern Europe, intended to overthrow the United States government;

What were the anti immigration laws in 1921? ›

An Act to limit the immigration of migrants into the United States. The Emergency Quota Act restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that country living in the United States as of the 1910 Census.

How did America's cities change with the influx of immigrants? ›

Between 1880 and 1890, almost 40 percent of the townships in the United States lost population because of migration. Industrial expansion and population growth radically changed the face of the nation's cities. Noise, traffic jams, slums, air pollution, and sanitation and health problems became commonplace.

Why did many Americans oppose immigration in the 1920s? ›

Organized labor feared that American workers' wages would decline if unskilled immigrant workers flooded the labor market. Meanwhile, many businessmen feared dangerous foreign radicals. During the 1920s, most ethnic groups agreed that the overall volume of immigration should be reduced.

What was the intention of most immigration rules in the early 1920s? ›

During the early 1920s, the United States implemented immigration rules that aimed to control and restrict the number and types of people entering the country. These rules were influenced by nativist sentiments and aimed to limit immigration from certain countries and regions.

What were the immigration acts in the 19th century? ›

The Immigration Act of 1882 set a precedent for barring categories of individuals from entry, and the next major immigration law, the Immigration Act of 1891, expanded these categories to include polygamists, individuals convicted of crimes of moral depravity, and those with contagious diseases that posed a threat to ...

What were the immigration Acts 1798? ›

These laws raised the residency requirements for citizenship from 5 to 14 years, authorized the president to deport "aliens," and permitted their arrest, imprisonment, and deportation during wartime.

What is the 2 Immigration Act of 1921? ›

2. (a) That the number of aliens of any nationality who may be admitted under the immigration laws to the United States in any fiscal year shall be limited to 3 per centum of the number of foreign born persons of such nationality resident in the United States as determined by the United States census of 1910.

What did the Immigration Act of 1990 do? ›

The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the annual limits on the total level of immigration to the United States. For fiscal years 1992 through 1994, the law limited the total number of immigrants to 700,000, to be decreased to 675,000 in fiscal year 1995 and each year thereafter.

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