Changing attitudes towards immigration in the 1920s

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When Sauerkraut became ‘Liberty Cabbage’

Changing attitudes towards immigration in the 1920s

This is what is written on the base of the Statue of Liberty

This is what it means

Give me your tired and poor people, the crowds of poor people who want a better life, the poor who live in your overcrowded cities.

Send the homeless who have suffered from storms and war to me

I promise them a bright new future of freedom

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these the homeless, tempest tossed to me

I lift my lamp beside the golden door

A Nation of Minorities

America needed immigrants to settle the prairies, construct the railroads and operate the new industries, and in the process created a vibrant multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and powerful nation. A multi-ethnic society is where there is more than one ethnic group forming the basis of the population. In the USA, people of many races emigrated from the country of their birth to start a new life. The USA was willing to take in people who felt they had to leave their native country. The vast majority of those who journeyed to America did so in an attempt to improve their lives and the prospects for their children.
The USA has often been referred to as a ‘melting pot’. It is a nation with both black and white minorities. There are few places in the world not represented within America’s population. America, ‘Land of the Free’, the ‘Land of Unlimited Opportunity’, has acted like a magnet to the world’s poor and oppressed as well as to its adventurers and go-getters. Apart for the Native American Indians, every other American was either an immigrant or a descendant of people who had emigrated in pursuit of the ‘American dream’ of freedom, opportunity and prosperity. That has given hope to countless millions over successive generations.

Where did the immigrants come from?

During the later part of the c.19th and early c.20th, immigration rates were high. As many as 400,000 people per year emigrated to the USA, amounting to 35 million between 1850 and 1914. In these years, 1% of the annual increase of the US population was due to immigration alone. Between 1900 and 1920 more than 14 million immigrants landed in America so increasing the population to more than 106 million. Where did these people come from?

  • ‘Old immigration’ [1820s-1880s] - mostly Protestants from Northern Europe – Britain, Germany and Scandinavia many escaping mistreatment due to their religious beliefs. By 1917 their children were first and second generations of US citizens who were proud of their roots but committed to an ideal view of America that was shaped by their own background and beliefs. They tend to be known as WASP’s – White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

  • The ‘New immigration’ [1880-1920] - mostly made up of poor and illiterate people from eastern and southern Europe who were held in some contempt by many American WASPs. Assimilation was difficult for these new arrivals mainly from Italy, Poland and Russia.

Why were immigration controls introduced during the 1920s?

The USA, after 300 years of virtually free immigration, suddenly all but shut its doors in the 1920s. The era in which America was a safe haven was gone. But, with closer scrutiny it can be seen that the immigration controls introduced in the 1920s were not the radical changes they may appear. Indeed, immigration controls were apparent before World War One. It can be said that immigration controls were not a new phenomenon in the 1920s.
It would be wrong to think that immigration controls were a sudden step taken by the US Government in the 1920s. The first calls for immigration restrictions were made in the 19th century, during which time clear signs of anti-immigrant feeling became apparent. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism were common, as was the widespread fear of immigrant radicalism. The movement that called for a curb on immigration was born out of these fears. In 1884, the Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston. It claimed that America was in danger of being swamped by ‘lesser breeds’ and campaigned for the literacy test as a way of making sure that many of the ‘new’ immigrants did not get into America. A series of immigration laws were passed.
In 1882, the first Federal Immigration Act was passed placing restrictions on convicts, lunatics and paupers entering the country. It was closely followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in California that excluded Chinese immigrants entering the state. In 1907, the Gentleman’s Agreement followed after an attempt to segregate Japanese and white-American schooling by the San Francisco authorities. After provoking great anger in Japan, the President was forced to see that San Francisco withdrew the segregation, on the condition that Japanese labourers were denied passports that would allow them to emigrate to the USA. The Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade ‘aliens’ from owning any agricultural land in California. It was meant to apply to all recent immigrants but was more directed at the Japanese. Eleven other states quickly followed the Californian example.
Therefore, calls for immigration controls began in the 19th century and had widespread support by 1914.

Conflict of loyalties during and after World War One

World War One was a catalyst (sped up process) of the movement to limit immigration. During the war the newest public relations techniques developed by businessmen were used to ‘sell’ Americans the war and generate hatred towards the Germans. Soon, anyone and anything that smacked of foreign culture became suspect, and patriotism often degenerated into an ugly xenophobia. For example:

  • German languages were stopped in colleges and schools

  • German Americans were beaten, tarred and feathered

  • Families with German sounding surnames changed them

  • The German dish of sauerkraut became known as liberty cabbage.

World War One had revealed that many immigrants in the USA still had tentative sympathies for their mother country. Life for foreign-born Americans was not an easy one. If they were born in –

  • Germany, Austria or Italy they were immediately suspected as sympathisers of the Kaiser

  • Ireland they were suspected as being dangerously anti-British and potentially anti-American saboteurs if they were Catholic

  • Eastern Europe, they were suspected of being Communists or anarchists.

Once World War One had ended, many Americans began to look upon the whole conflict as a nightmare and regretted that their country had become involved in European affairs. Many felt hostile to anything foreign. The Senate refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, and consequently, refused to make the USA a member of the League of Nations.

Isolationism had its counterpart in a determination to curb immigration, to avoid ‘alien contamination’ and to preserve the old American stock ethnically before it was too late.

The 100% Americanism Movement

In the early 1920s, politicians called for restrictions to be placed on the numbers and types of immigrants. This desire was known as 100% Americanism and the people who promoted it as often referred to as ‘nativists’, people who were born in America as opposed to abroad.

In The Passing of the Great Race [1916], Madison Grant wrote that:

“The man of the old stock is being crowded out of many country districts by foreigners, just as he is today being literally driven off the streets of New York City by swarms of Polish Jews. These immigrants adopt the same language of the Native American, they wear his clothes, they steal his name and they are beginning to take his women, but seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals.”

Protection of racial purity

The drive for immigration restrictions in the 1920s was based on pseudo-scientific racism commonly seen in the years prior to and during the war. Men with little knowledge of either science or public affairs were accepted as experts on ‘race’, although their writings revealed neither insight nor good judgement.

Most influential of all were the widely read articles of Kenneth Roberts in the Saturday Evening Post where he:

  • Urged that the immigration laws be revised to admit fewer Polish Jews who were “human parasites”

  • Cautioned against Social Democrats since “social democracy gives off a distinctly sour, Bolshevik odour”

  • Believed that immigration had to be restricted because it would inevitably produce “a hybrid race of people as worthless and futile as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and South Eastern Europe”

Nativist Americans believed that the immigrants were a danger to the American way of life. They spoke out against the ‘alien menace’. Nativist intellectuals wrote articles and books. They preached sermons from church pulpits and university lecterns but the majority of people never heard this. More serious was the hostility generated by ordinary people who held nativists views. Such nativists believed that immigrants threatened their economic and social position. For example, many middle class Americans dreaded job competition and congested cities full of foreigners, who they distrusted.

‘Un-American’ immigrants

The sheer numbers and diversity of people flocking into the USA created problems. M A Jones suggests that it was not so much the increased numbers of immigrants, but the changing nature of the immigrants that worried the American people. In 1914 the majority of immigrants came from Southern and Eastern Europe. They were escaping social revolutions, poverty, persecution and unemployment. The ‘new’ immigrants were largely illiterate and unskilled. New immigrants confronted substantial and escalating hostility. Americans were intimidated by the size and diversity of the foreign intrusion and by 1921 were welcoming the federal legislation that finally dammed the flow from abroad.
Americans had specific grounds for objecting to these newcomers:

  • Majority of immigrants were Catholic or Jewish and so frightened predominantly Protestant America.

  • Almost all immigrants had left non-democratic societies and tended to view the law and Government as institutions that always catered to rulers and statesmen. To Americans, the unfamiliarity of the immigrants with the ways of democracy and their general mistrust of Government loomed as a threat to the constitution of US republican Government.

  • The physical appearance frightened Americans. Amongst immigrants were many malnourished and with deformities caused by vitamin deficiencies and poor diet.

  • Immigrants sometimes continued to wear native clothing. Out of place on America’s modern streets.

  • With each boatload, Americans worried about the influence of foreign blood on the vitality of the American population.

Social fears

By 1920 many otherwise humane and broad-minded Americans just did not like foreigners. Often immigrants were dirty and unskilled, knew little or no English and had no home to go to and no money with which to buy or rent one. There was no more free land available for farming but many new immigrants were not farmers, instead they congregated in the rapidly growing cities at which they had arrived, usually New York, and lived in atrocious conditions, eking out a living at some tedious and often unhealthy manual job. As they were usually poorly paid, the areas in which they lived became run down and overcrowded. They crowded together with people from their native country, continued to speak their native language and follow their traditional culture.
The population of the cities was increasing rapidly, accompanied by social problems such as poor housing and crime. Immigrants were blamed for social disorders that burdened American society, especially in the cities. Statistics in the soaring crime rates in neighbourhoods with high concentrations of immigrants were held up by journalists, reformers and politicians who favoured restricting immigration as proof of the bad influence of the immigrant on his or her environment. However, further investigation reveals a more complex interpretation. Because taverns, gambling houses and brothels were not tolerated in the refined neighbourhoods of the American citizens, they often could only exist in immigrant enclaves. In such establishments immigrants sought temporary escape from cramped housing and their grey and depressing lives.
Settlement workers (charity organisations, social workers) were more realistic in acknowledging that abominable living conditions, sickness, fear and loneliness were the real causes of crime. Most of the immigrant arrests were for crimes of poverty such as drunkenness, vagrancy or petty theft. Social workers argued that the thief who stole small amounts of food, clothing or money was desperately attempting to cope with poverty and hopelessness, rather than responding to an innate criminality. The facts suggest that the criminality of foreign born in America was no larger than that of the native population. Yet the myth of immigrant criminality persisted.
By the 1920s, some new immigrants were beginning to pound on the doors of America’s top, most prestigious universities. Schools such as Columbia, Harvard, Yale and Princeton responded by trying to refuse their entry. Wealthy private educational institutions, protected by influential patrons and graduates, were impervious to the efforts of political bosses to allow the students in. Pressure groups that formed to aid immigrant access to education had to influence and change public opinion and privately persuade influential people. However, such groups were little match for the WASP establishment that opposed them.

Economic fears

Most of the ‘new’ immigrants were unskilled and therefore looked for work in America’s growing industries in the cities. The poverty-stricken immigrants were often so desperate to find work that they were prepared to work in appalling conditions for very little pay. Many were employed as strikebreakers. For these reasons, labour organisations such as trade unions resented the ‘new’ immigrants. They even backed the idea of a literacy test for immigrants believing that many unskilled workers would be denied entry into the USA. Indeed the idea of the literacy test for immigrant was debated 32 times in Congress prior to its introduction in 1917.
While World War One had boosted the American economy, when the war ended wartime industries reduced production. Troops returned home seeking jobs in the already saturated labour market. The American economy seemed destined for trouble. Factories closed and people lost their jobs. In this climate of economic slump and hostility towards ‘new’ immigrants, the possibility of Europeans flocking to America to seek refuge and work at the end of the war was taken very seriously. There was a belief that those who could not speak English – immigrants – seemed to be taking American jobs. Industrialists, on the other hand, relished the abundance of cheap, unskilled labour for their factories and it was ignored that many of these jobs were so dangerous, dirty or low paid that ‘Americans’ would not do them. ‘American’ labour went on strike and because the immigrant population was desperate for money, they could be lured as strikebreakers into factories. The result was industrial discontent followed. The economic recession lasted until 1921.

Religious fears

Catholic immigrants from Italy, Poland, Greece, Mexico and Canada had to contend with the hostility and fear of the American predominantly Protestant population. Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe faced similar hostility.

Political fears

Immigrants found themselves under attack for political reasons. They were believed to be Communists or anarchists. A wave of strikes and violence after the First World War caused great alarm in the USA. The Russian Revolution in 1917 had established the first Communist state committed to spreading revolution against capitalism. Many Americans felt an acute fear that such disturbances were caused by immigrant Communists from Eastern Europe trying to provoke a similar revolution in the USA. Local police departments and the Federal Justice Department harassed those who supported Socialist or Communist ideas. So the spectre of the Russian Revolution, coupled with the economic recession set off the ‘Red Scare’ period.

Communist fears: Palmer Raids – August 1919

The house of America’s Attorney General, Mitchell Palmer, was blown up. Palmer, an ambitious man who one day wanted to be President, believed that taking an anti-Communists and anti-anarchist stand would make him popular. He said the bombing was the work of a radical element and pledged to purge it by whatever steps were necessary. Palmer thought he would find many of these radicals in the immigrant community.
He set up the General Intelligence Division within the Department of Justice, run by his assistant J Edgar Hoover. This division spied on Communists and others considered dangerous. In January 1920, Hoover’s agents and local police organised raids on Communists in 33 cities, arresting 6,000 ‘foreign radicals’ and putting them in jail without trial. They were held in filthy conditions, were beaten up and forced to sign confessions. 600 people were deported. Most had to be released due to lack of evidence. Palmer then warned of a May Day demonstration, organised police and special troops but the riot did not happen. People lost faith in him. The hysteria passed almost as suddenly as it began. The Bolshevik threat had been exaggerated.
Most immigrants were too preoccupied with adjusting to their new environment to consider subversive political activity of any kind.

Anarchist fears: The case of Sacchio and Vanzetti

On May 5th 1920, Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacchio and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested in Massachusetts and charged with murdering two men during an armed robbery. They were anarchists, spoke no English, but were found carrying guns. Their lawyer put forward the defence that they were elsewhere when the robbery took place and claimed they were being persecuted for their well-known political beliefs. There was little concrete evidence against them. The judge in the case privately called them ‘those anarchist bastards’ and they were found guilty and sentenced to death. Many people believed that the two men were innocent and despite serious doubts and a massive worldwide campaign, they were executed in the electric chair in 1927. This shocked many people in the liberal minded north of the USA but many in rural America supported the executions. They were coming to believe that the cities were filled with ‘foreigners’ who would not adopt the American ways and were determined to overthrow the American way of life.

Did the new immigrants have any political clout?

Immigrants had little influence in the political system until they became naturalised US citizens and gained voting rights. Even then they were not all equally enthusiastic about exercising their right once granted. The immigrant population helped increase the number of Congressmen who represented states such as New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois and Ohio but the American-born population continued to determine the Congressional and Presidential politics of their respective states.
Immigrants who became eligible to vote did not do so en bloc. They expressed party preferences in different states. In 1920, Poles tended to back Woodrow Wilson who was advocating the creation of the new nation of Poland, whereas the Italians, East Europeans, Irish and Germans did not. Therefore the immigrant vote was too divided.
At the state and local levels, party bosses understood the political potential of the new immigrants. In cities, their machines protected immigrants from hostility and urban politicians plotted to capture the immigrant vote.

Legal challenges

The law court was the logical place for immigrants to launch grievances against specific hostile activities of American citizens towards them but they often found the legal system ponderous, judges unsympathetic, the procedures unfamiliar and officials intimidating.
In The Immigrant’s Day in Court, a 1923 study, Kate Holladay Clayhorn found that: “The attitude of the immigrant towards the law courts, insofar as it is determined by the teaching of lawyers and the courts, will naturally be one of distrust and disrespect. The immigrant is taught that bribery and influence are the regular methods of securing favourable decisions and that the extortionate fees he is called upon to pay are necessary to provide the expected bribes. The immigrant has no chance before the American court without the aid of a lawyer skilled in a special kind of trickery.”
Clayhorn advocated legal aid and education for the immigrants in their rights under the American legal system.
Immigrants realised that if they hoped to settle peacefully and live prosperously in the USA they must demonstrate their willingness to be 100% patriotic.
1. The Trade Unions (called Labour Unions in America) were hostile to new immigrants who worked for low wages and took jobs away from union members.

5. Some Americans thought new immigrants would bring dangerous new ideas such as Communism that would threaten the safety of America.

2. WASPs were afraid that America’s racial and religious strength would be weakened by more Catholic and Jewish immigration.

3. World War One made many Americans realise that new immigrants might be more loyal to their old country and would not be ‘good’ Americans.

4. Many Americans thought there were enough people already. After World War One there was not enough work or housing to go round.


Microsoft clipart © 2006 Microsoft Corporation The Immigration Acts 1917, 1921 and 1924

The 1917 Immigration Act increased the Head Tax that new immigrants had to pay, extended the list of ‘undesirables’ and created a ‘barred zone’ forbidding immigration from most of Asia. It also finally introduced a literacy test marking a major shift in American policy.

Between June 1919 and June 1921 more than 800,000 people entered the USA – 65% from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Consuls in Europe warned that millions more were preparing to leave. By February 1921, Ellis Island was so jammed that immigration authorities had to divert ships to Boston. Alarmed almost to the point of panic, Congress rushed through an emergency act to restrict immigration; it passed the House of Representatives in a few hours and was adopted by the Senate soon after by a vote of 78-1.
The Emergency Immigration Law Act (1921) allowed only about 350,000 immigrants to enter the USA every year. By carefully organising a quota system, the American Government could make sure that large numbers of people from ‘undesirable’ countries were kept out. This law imposed an annual limit on immigration from any European country, limiting it to 3% of the number of nationals from that country who were living in the USA in 1911.
Under the quota system, based on national origins, four-fifths of those allowed to enter came from Britain and Ireland, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Scandinavia. However, few if any were permitted from Southern European countries, none at all from Asia. Most new immigrants after 1921 were, therefore, white and Protestant, which was, after all, the whole idea.
Sentiment for a more lasting form of immigration restriction soon gained strength. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act [Johnson-Reed Act], with little opposition. This Act:

  • Drastically cut down the total of immigrants to be admitted each year

  • Set an absolute limit of 150,000 immigrants per annum

  • 85% of quotas favoured those from Northern and Western Europe

  • Forbade all Oriental immigration – marked in Japan by a day of National mourning

  • Did not apply to Mexicans as cheap labour was needed during the times of fruit harvest

The law aimed at freezing the country ethnically by sharply restricting the ‘new’ immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

Thus, it can be seen that the idea of immigration controls was not new, but had its roots in the early 19th century. By 1914, many people were in favour of some sort of restriction on immigration. This was partly because of the large numbers of immigrants arriving in the USA each year, especially between 1900 and 1914, but it probably had more to do with the changing nature of immigrants. They became associated with the city slums and everything else that was considered to be wrong with America. The organisations representing American workers resented the ‘new’ immigrants, as they were willing to work for little pay in poor conditions. World War One saw an increase in xenophobia (fear of foreigners) and nativism. ‘Old’ immigrants were afraid of losing old values. The traditional small town America was slipping away and was quickly being replaced by an industrialised nation. These changes were blamed on the ‘new’ immigrants. Many people thought that if they could just get rid of the ‘new’ immigrants, life would return to their slow paced ‘Golden Age’ of their fore fathers. This, and the fear of a rush of immigrants fleeing the war-torn countries of southeastern Europe were the immediate reasons for the passing of the immigration controls in the 1920s.

Is there another explanation for the restriction of immigration?

Was the American attitude towards immigration restrictions a part of a larger desire to look inwards towards herself and to shun the problems of other nations? Was immigration restriction a part of isolationism?

On 2nd April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany. At the start of the war in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had argued that the USA should remain neutral and not become involved in Europe’s ‘Civil War’. At first American public opinion was firmly on the side of neutrality. Most Americans had little or no interest in world affairs and supported the policy of isolationism – keeping well out of foreign problems and concentrating on its own business. Americans, they believed, had no reason to become involved in the arguments of other nations…
When World War One ended, many Americans were keen to withdraw once again from world affairs and return to a policy of isolationism. They were afraid that membership of the League of Nations would involve them permanently in the affairs of Europe. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Leader of the Republican opposition to President Wilson [Democrat], successfully led the campaign against the League. Republicans were hostile to Wilson anyway, but they were also concerned to protect American sovereignty and the freedom to act independently. They argued that the decision to go to war should rest solely with the US Congress and not with the League. Another Republican, Senator Borah, declared he would vote against the League even if Jesus Christ returned to earth to argue in its favour, and many others were just as inflexible. Many Senators feared that if the USA got involved then it might soon get dragged into another European war.

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