It was clear to Congress that too many undesirable people were coming to this country. They feared that their progeny would soon be overrun by aliens who would take their jobs and “pollute” the overall population. Although the 1790 Naturalization Act limited the possibility of citizenship to “free white persons,” it was expanded to include blacks by the amendments to the Constitution that were passed after the Civil War.
The year was 1920, and the “undesirables” were mostly Irish Catholics and Italians. Irish Protestants, mainly from the Belfast area, as well as “Scotch Irish,” had arrived a few decades earlier, and were not really seen as a problem. But the new immigrants brought with them a history of poverty, papism, ill manners, and a lack of education. Something had to be done.
The quota system
Congress looked at the “swarm” of southern and eastern Europeans (including Jews who were escaping persecution in Poland and Russia), and took action. The members drafted the National Origins Act, which went into effect in 1921. It limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 3 percent of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States. However, for the base numbers, it used the 1890 census. Of course, that national count did not include the many Italians and Irish who were admitted during the previous 30 years. A few years later, the cap was lowered to 2 percent. Of course, the purpose of the National Origins Act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”
Proponents of the act, like Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, did not mince words about the act. In fact, his colleague, Sen. David Reed, told the Senate that earlier legislation “disregards entirely those of us who are interested in keeping American stock up to the highest standard — that is, the people who were born here.” Legislators like Lodge, Reed, and Congressman Albert Johnson (one of the bill’s authors) believed that Southern and Eastern Europeans arrived in this country sick and starving “and therefore less capable of contributing to the American economy and unable to adapt to American culture.”...