100 years ago, the US halted immigration — and America thrived

One hundred years ago this Sunday, the Ellis Island wave of immigration was brought to an end.

And all Americans are better for it.

For decades we’ve been taught to be ashamed of the period of immigration restriction the law inaugurated.

And it’s true that many supporters of the 1924 immigration law were motivated by racial and ethnic concerns that are rightly rejected today.

Migrants walk around the border fence and into the United States in Jacumba Hot Springs, where they are detained by Border Patrol.
Migrants walk around the border fence and into the United States in Jacumba Hot Springs, where they are detained by Border Patrol.
James Breeden for New York Post

The descendants of the Southern and Eastern Europeans whose mass arrival prompted passage of the law (including my own forebears) are now integral parts of the American people.

But it was precisely the two-generation-long pause in immigration brought about by the bill that made the earlier Great Wave a success.

Only by taking an extended breather was America able to successfully assimilate the 25 million-plus newcomers who’d arrived after 1880.

The pause in immigration led to a half-century-long decline in the foreign-born share of the population, from a level that fluctuated between 13% and 15% of the nation’s inhabitants during the Great Wave, to a low of less than 5% in 1970.

Immigrant communities were thus not continually refreshed with newcomers; that, combined with vigorous and self-confident Americanization efforts in schools and elsewhere, forged the strong common national identity that helped America prevail over Nazism and Communism.

In contrast to the more gradual process of assimilation, the economic benefits for American workers were immediate and immense.

With the temporary halt in immigration during World War I, and then after the statutory reductions of the 1920s, less-skilled American workers saw their bargaining power increase overnight.

Inspection of health and processing immigrants at Ellis Island, New York in 1920.
One hundred years ago this Sunday, the Ellis Island wave of immigration was brought to an end. Pictured is Ellis Island, New York in 1920. Bettmann Archive

Without the endless stream of immigrants from Europe, employers had little choice but to raise wages and improve working conditions.

The immigration pause changed the employer-employee dynamic from one where workers had to hustle to find jobs to one where companies had to hustle to find labor.

All Americans — as well as immigrants already here — benefited, but the gains for black Americans were the greatest and most obvious.

Not only were jobs that had been closed to them opened up, but recruiters for industrialists actually roamed the South essentially begging people, black or white, to come work for them.

Without the 1924 law, the Great Migration of blacks to the North and West — described most memorably in “The Warmth of Other Suns” — could not have happened.

From virtually all black Americans living in the South, by 1970 almost half lived outside the South, drawn by the employment opportunities opened up by the 1924 law.

This tighter labor market contributed to reducing economic inequality more generally and allowing the growth of a large middle class.

Simply put, a tight labor market (i.e., low immigration) is the best social policy.

There’s no doubt that various flavors of bigotry drove much of the support for the 1924 law, with hokum about “Nordic superiority” and whatnot, leading to a system of national origin quotas that favored certain nations and disfavored others.

But, this being the 1920s, there was racialist nonsense on both sides of the debate.

Some opponents of immigration restriction, especially in the South, wanted more Southern and Eastern European immigration for explicitly racialist reasons.

One writer, a professor no less, wrote in opposition to immigration restriction because, “[b]y its lack of initiative and inventive genius the black race has acted as a hindrance to progress.” (And that’s one of the more polite sentiments.)

But the sponsor of the 1924 law in the House, Rep. Albert Johnson (R-Wash.), denied any ideas of racial superiority or inferiority; as he said on the House floor, “It makes no difference from whence they come — too many come.”

Our situation today is not unlike that of 1924.

We have experienced more than a half-century of another Great Wave of immigration, unintentionally sparked by the 1965 immigration law, that undid the ethnically discriminatory national origins quotas of 1924, but failed to cap the overall number of newcomers.

The result has been the largest wave of immigration ever, with arrival of more than 40 million legal immigrants, plus millions more illegal immigrants.

It’s been supercharged under President Biden, with at least 6.4 million — that we know about — entering the country since he was inaugurated.

As a result, the foreign-born share of our population is now the highest in history, exceeding anything from the prior Great Wave; in March this year, immigrants made up 15.6% of America’s residents, and without changes in policy, nearly one in four people living here will be from abroad by 2040.

The 1924 law bore the marks of the obsolete racial fixations of its time, but had astonishingly positive consequences for all Americans.

The 1965 law was well-intentioned, but has caused immigration to spin out of control.

We should be able to combine the best of the two approaches to bring an end to this latest Great Wave, and give America another much-needed breather.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

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