January 2013 2-03: Explain why Congress passed laws to limit the numbers of immigrants to the USA in the early 1920s. (12 marks)

January 2013 2-03: Explain why Congress passed laws to limit the numbers of immigrants to the USA in the early 1920s. (12 marks)

CausesGetting Started

  • Past desires to limit immigration
  • the 1907 Dillingham Commission Report
  • pressure on the government from the big trade unions
  • growing anti-foreigner feeling before 1920 reflected in the Immigration Act and the Literacy Act of 1917.
  • The Sedition Act of 1918 (and in the ‘Red Scare’ of 1919).
  • The Russian Bolshevik revolution on October 1917 in the name of the workers.
  • the relatively high numbers of immigrants
  • Harding and return to normalcy.
  • Unemployment and recession.


  • the widespread desire to limit Chinese and Japanese immigration before 1914
  • the report recommended limits on immigration to avoid social problems
  • Trade unions like the AFL, demanding limits on the inflow of cheap immigrant labour.
  • This raised the price of entry for immigrates on the grounds that they might become an economic burden on society. It barred immigrants over the age of 16 who could not read 30-80 words in any language and denied entry to homosexuals, criminals, epileptics, insane, alcoholics and polygamists.
  • Fear that the communist revolution in Russia would spread to America. Immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe seen as spies or anarchists. The Sedation act 1918 passed to try to clamp down on anti-government/American ideas.
  • This and other uprisings led people to fear an American workers uprising. The establishment of the Soviet Union led many Americans to believe communists would attempt to inspire workers to bring down the American government. This lead to greater fear of people coming to America that did not share the same political/religious/social values.
  • fears were roused from the relatively high numbers of immigrants arriving in 1920 and 1921 most from Western Europe. 400, 000 still arriving each year.
  • the new mood of American politics after the election of Warren G Harding to the presidency in 1921 – his emphasis on ‘normalcy’ reinforced the anti-immigrant views of the restrictionists.
  • 1920 to 1921 unemployment rose by nearly 5 million. The Emergency Quota Act 1921 was introduced In order to reduce unemployment in this time of economic recession. The Act set an overall limit of 357,000 immigrants a year & fixed quotas 3% of the number of people from any country in the 1910 census.

Overall summary

Offer links, differentiation or comment on higher and lower priorities – for example seeing the issue of national security as a dominant influence; or showing how long-term and short-term factors were interrelated. The first-ever numerical restrictions on immigration to the US were passed in 1921 with the Emergency Quota Act. These measures were strengthened by the National Origins Quota Act of 1924, limiting the numbers of immigrants from any one country to 2% of the numbers at the 1890 census. The focus of the question is on explaining the reasons why Congress passed them. The range of reasons offered will mostly be focused on the early 1920s but long-term factors from before 1918 could also be relevant.


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