While the United States has its roots in being a welcoming place for immigrants, that hasn’t always been the case. As a wave of new arrivals flooded U.S. shores in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but a movement to restrict who was allowed into the country took hold as well.
In 1882, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first major federal law to put immigration limits in place and the only one in American history aimed at a specific nationality. It came into being in response to fears, primarily on the West Coast, that an influx of Chinese immigrants was weakening economic conditions and lowering wages. It was extended in 1902.
Other laws followed, like the Immigration Act of 1917, which created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” to restrict immigration from that part of the world, and the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited the number of immigrants from any country to 3 percent of those people from that country who had been living in the United States as of 1910.
The 1924 Immigration Act capped the number of immigrants from a particular country at 2 percent of the population of that country already living in the United States in 1890. That favored immigrants from northern and western European countries like Great Britain over immigrants from southern and eastern European countries like Italy.
It also prevented any immigrant ineligible for citizenship from coming to America. Since laws already on the books prohibited people of any Asian origin from becoming citizens, they were barred entry. The law was revised in 1952, but kept the quota system based on country of origin in the U.S. population and only allowed low quotas to Asian nations.
The American children of Italian and other European immigrants saw that law “as a slur against their own status” and fought for the system to be changed, said Mae Ngai, professor of history and Asian American studies at Columbia University. In fighting for change, they looked to the civil rights movement.
The political leaders who agreed with them saw it in the same terms, as a change needed for equality’s sake, as well as to be responsive to shifting relationships with nations around the world.
Speaking to the American Committee on Italian Migration in June 1963, President John F. Kennedy cited the “nearly intolerable” plight of those who had family members in other countries who wanted to come to the U.S. and could be useful citizens, but were being blocked by “the inequity and maldistribution of the quota numbers.”
Two years later, in signing into law a replacement system that established a uniform number of people allowed entry to the United States despite national origin, President Lyndon B. Johnson said it would correct “a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation.”
Stephen Klineberg, sociology professor at Rice University in Houston, said the civil rights movement “was the main force that made that viciously racist law come to be perceived as intolerable,” precisely because it raised questions about fairness and equality.