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How the 1924 Immigration Act changed the course of history

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One hundred years ago this week, the U.S. enacted a sweeping immigration law that changed the course of history. The 1924 Immigration Act created a system of quotas for immigrants based on race and nationality. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has this report.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: If you'd grabbed a copy of the New York Times back in spring of 1924, you would have read this headline - "America Of The Melting Pot Comes To End." The opinion article by Pennsylvania Senator David A. Reed lamented immigration from places like Italy and Poland. These new people, Reed writes, speak strange languages. Our incoming immigrants should be of the same race as those of us who are already here.

ANDREW SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: Between the 1870s and the middle of the 1910s, about 23.5 million people immigrated to the United States, mostly from Europe, also to some extent from Asia and some from Latin America.

GARSD: Professor Andrew Sandoval-Strausz teaches history at Penn State.

SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: These were mostly people who were Catholic or Jewish or Orthodox, and the people who had all of the power were Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

GARSD: There was enormous support to keep immigrants out. In 1924, the governor of Georgia gave a speech at a Ku Klux Klan convention.

SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: And he said, quote, "I would build a wall of steel, a wall as high as heaven against the admission of a single one of those southern Europeans."

GARSD: Anti-Asian sentiment had also been rampant for decades, along with laws banning Asian immigrants. Professor Beth Lew-Williams is the director of the program in Asian American Studies at Princeton.

BETH LEW-WILLIAMS: There was a concern that the white race was actually vulnerable in America and that intermixing could produce racial degeneracy.

GARSD: By 1924, Senator Reed co-authored the Immigration Act, and what it did was set quotas, limits for how many people could come in from specific countries. There were no quotas for Asian immigrants, who were already largely excluded from entry and citizenship. Mexicans were not restricted to a quota system. They were seen as indispensable for agriculture. The act was signed into law on May 26. The system became a reference for other countries.

SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: Adolf Hitler specifically praises it as recognizing that the foreign and, you know, the strange blood in a country must be limited or cut off.

GARSD: It wasn't until 1965 that the act was replaced by the Immigration and Nationality Act.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: This bill says simply that from this day forth, those wishing to immigrate to America shall be admitted on the basis of their skills and their close relationships to those already here.

GARSD: That's President Lyndon B. Johnson at a ceremony at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. It's a pretty stunning backdrop, but...

MADDALENA MARINARI: Johnson wasn't exactly thrilled to embrace immigration reform.

GARSD: Professor Maddalena Marinari is a historian of immigration from Gustavus Adolphus College. She says the civil rights movement and Cold War geopolitics had a big part to play.

MARINARI: For him, the most persuasive argument was this just looks bad, right? You can't on one hand say that you are the defender of democracy around the world and have a racist immigration law on the books.

GARSD: The 1965 act ushered in a new era of immigration to America, but historians say some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric today is similar to that of the 1920s. Here's Professor Sandoval-Strausz again.

SANDOVAL-STRAUSZ: Almost exactly the same things were said by Anglo-Saxon Protestants about Italians as are being said by many people about immigrants, especially from Latin America. So in the 19-teens and '20s, you would have heard people saying that Italians are all criminals - right? - that they are the sort of peasant scum of the old world.

GARSD: 1924 was a long time ago, but in many ways, he says, you can still hear its echoes. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jasmine Garsd is an Argentine-American journalist living in New York. She is currently NPR's Criminal Justice correspondent and the host of The Last Cup. She started her career as the co-host of Alt.Latino, an NPR show about Latin music. Throughout her reporting career she's focused extensively on women's issues and immigrant communities in America. She's currently writing a book of stories about women she's met throughout her travels.