In the aftermath of World War One, and many changes in the previous decades, many in 1920s America wanted a return to ‘normalcy’ - and this included a change in immigration policy. Here, Jonathan Hennika (his site here) continues his Scared America series by looking at nativism in the 1920s.

Past articles in the series are on strained 19thcentury politics here, Chinese immigration here, and anti-German propaganda during World War One here.

29th US President Warren G. Harding. Harding signed the 1921 Quote Law that restricted immigration to the US.

29th US President Warren G. Harding. Harding signed the 1921 Quote Law that restricted immigration to the US.

As the United States headed towards the holiday season and the new year, another government shutdown loomed. President Donald Trumpinstigatedthe showdown over funding for the Mexico border wall. Congress and the White House entered a tense negotiating stance; on the ground in Mission, Texas another type of battle loomed.

On the outskirts of the town situated close to the border on the Rio Grande River is the National Butterfly Center. Recently Border Agents informed the Executive Director of the Center that wall construction wouldcommence in February 2019. It is unknown how much land the Center will lose, but estimates indicate 70% of the Center’s propertywill be on the other side of the wall. “The center's 100-acre sanctuary… is home to at least 200 species of butterfly, and serves as criticalhabitat for the migration of the threatened Monarch butterfly and endangered species including the ocelot and jaguarundi.” Also, for construction to commence, twenty-eight federal laws governing the land were waived; including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act.[i]

The Mexico border wall is a cornerstone of the Trump administration. When dealing with border security, the President fixateson the southern border. However, it was using the legal student visa process that enabled the September 11, 2001 terrorists to enter the country and not via the Mexican border. Politicians, usually of the conservative stripe, have been decrying the lax border security conditions on the southern border for decades. Immigration control on the southernborder links back to the nativist movement of the 1920s.


A Return to Normalcy

The European War was over, peacebrokered, and the American people were tired. The decades of the aughts and the teens were exhausted with the rapid change of Progressive reforms and mobilization towards war. In the election of 1920, one man was speaking their language; in a campaign announcement “aide Ed Scobey announced: `One of his slogans is `back to normal’ and another is `America First.’ In connection with the former, I think I can say there is no man better fitted to bring this country backtonormal more efficiently than Warren G. Harding.” [ii]The return to normalcy included a return to the isolationist days of the nation. One of the ways to achieve that goal was a severe limitation of immigrants permitted entry into the United States.  Congress enacted, and Harding signedthe 1921 Quota law. The Quota law mandated the number of immigrants permitted into the United States, limiting it to three percent of each nationality. The percentage derived by the total number of that nation’s immigrant counted in the 1910 census. While structured around the category of “nationality” soon the quotas naturally evolved into ones based on race.  The Johnson-Reed Act amended the Quota Act of 1921becoming the Immigration Act of 1924.[iii]

The 1924 law had two significant changes: the origin point in determining a nationalities population shifted from 1910to the 1890 census, andthe percentage of acceptable immigrants fell from three to two percent.  “The new immigration law differentiated Europeans according to nationality and ranked them in a hierarchy of desirability…. non-European immigrants—among them Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, and Filipinos—acquired ethnic and racial identities that were the same. The racialization of the…national origins rendered them unalterably foreign and unassimilable to the nation.”[iv]

The 1921 law established the Quota Board whose job it was to determine the definitions governing immigration. Tocalculate quotas, the Board needed to define such terms as “National origin,” “foreign stock,” and “native stock.” Any citizen who traced their lineage to those present in the United States before1790 were native stock. All other were foreign stock. The countryof birth defined national origin. However, there was no American nationality because “inhabitants in [the] continental United States in the 1920s’does not include (1) immigrants from the [Western Hemisphere] or their descendants, (2) aliens ineligible to citizenship or their descendants, (3) the descendants of slave immigrants,or (4) the descendants of the American aborigines.”[v]The American nation, therefore, was made up only of those white European settlers who arrived before1790. 

In addition to setting quotas on immigration,the act also banned outright immigration from the Asian states. Citizens of Japan, China, et al.were considered aliens ineligible for citizenship. Unfortunately, thepolitical reality of the 1920s included a system of mandates and protectorates established after World War One. Great Britain and France were the major colonial powers after the war and governed much of modern-day Africa, the Middle East and parts of Eurasia. Most often, immigrants from those regions were not natural born citizens, but rather, descendants of the governing colonial powers. For instance, there were scant black South African emigresadmitted while white South Africans, with British heritage, entered the United States.  This practiceaided the quotas in decreasing non-white immigration.


The Era of Scientific Racism 

Attitudes towards indigenous and non-white populations made an interesting turn at the end of the 19thcentury.Aboriginesand indigenous peoplewere considered something less than the civilized white Europeans. This belief was so strong that English author and poet Rudyard Kipling penned a poem mocking this belief, entitled The White Man’s Burden. In 1903, G. Stanly Hall, President of Clark University wrote in the Journal of Education: “My plea is that Indians, who are men of the stone age, and other low races should be first of all sympathetically studied as we study children.”[vi]

It was during this period that scientific theory was gaining a widespread societal acceptance. By the 1920s the White Man’s Burden became a defactoscientific theory. “Historical and sociological data [were] used to prove that race lines, racial distinctions, and inequality of the races are essential.”[vii]In drawing up,the quotas the scientific rationalization of racial prejudice casts its influence. Racial mixing resulted in the downfall of ancient civilizations from Rome to Athens was the argument used to justify limitations on the unacceptable nationalities. That same worry dominated a large segment of the American population in the 1920s. It was a period that saw a sharp rise in membership and activities of patriotic clubs, as well as the Ku Klux Klan. These organizations preached a message of fear regarding the unadvanced foreign interloper. The main concern revolved around the theory that the outsider was unable to conform to accepted American societal norms. The fear was the outsider might manipulate the system toachieve equal societal status with the average American. Thus, “the ambitious immigrant, non-Anglo-Saxon, non-Protestant, whose frequent tendency to overachieve led to actions to `keep him in his place.’”[viii]One of those actions was the strict immigration acts of the 1920s.


The Trouble with Mexico

The Mexican-American war ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. As part of the peace, Mexico ceded a broadswathof territory to the United States. The present-day states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and California all comprise former Mexican territory. The treaty declared that those living in the areasbecame American citizens after one year if they did not announce their intentions to return to Mexico. Unlike the other nations of the world, the treaty governs the naturalization of Mexicans to American citizens.  Hence, Mexico was exempt from the quota system. “While not subject to numerical quotas or restrictions on naturalization, Mexicans were profoundly affected by restrictive measures enacted in the 1920s, among them deportation policy, thecreation of the Border Patrol, and the criminalization of unlawful entry.”[ix]

Embracing the respectability of scientific theory, President Herbert Hoover commissioned a large study conducted by academics and social scientists. The resulting report provides a detailed look at American life in the decade of the 1920s. The report, entitled Recent Social Trends, examined the state of racial and ethnic groups in chapter eleven.  In discussing Mexican migration, the report noted: “that the Mexican element has increased from 3 to 16 percent of all immigration within the past twenty years. Thishas meant an increase from 400,000 in 1910 to nearly a million and a half in 1930 in the number of persons born in Mexico or of Mexican parentage. Of this million and a half,about 65,000 were enumerated in 1930 as "white Mexicans" or those of Spanish descent, while the remaining 1,400,000 were of “Indian and Negro descent.”[x]The report found a variety of pull and push factors for Mexican migration; civil unrest in Mexico and a strong United States economy beforethe Stock Market crash. The impact of the Great Depression decreased the flow of migrants into the United States from Mexico. The American border while porous became tighter in the 1920s; the trickle of emigres permitted in through the quota system virtually stopped as a result of the events of the 1930s. As for the immigrants already present in the United States, the return to normalcy translated into Americanization. Under the pressures of nativism, the narrative of the American melting pot became more one of assimilation. 


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[i]CBS News, “Butterfly Sanctuary in Texas Expected to be Plowed Over for Trumps Border Wall,”

[ii]David Pietrusza, 1920: The Year of Six Presidents, (New York: Basic Books, 2007) 314.

[iii]Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The 1920s to the 1990s, (Harper Collins: New York, 1983) 205.

[iv]Mae M. Ngai, “The Architecture of Race in Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924,” The Journal of American History, 86 June 1999, 69-70

[v]Ibid., 72

[vi]G. Stanley Hall, “The White Man’s Burden Versus Indigenous Development of the Lower Races,” The Journal of Education, 58 July 1903, 83.

[vii]W.O. Brown, “Rationalization of Race Prejudice,” International Journal of Ethics, 43 April 1933, 302-3.

[viii]Paul L. Murphy, “Sources and Nature of Intolerance in the 1920s,” The Journal of American History, 51 June 1964, 69.

[ix]Ngai, 71, 88.

[x]T.J. Woofter, Jr., “The Status of Racial and Ethnic Groups,” Recent Social Trends (York, Pa: The Maple Press Company, 1933), 561.