National Origins Act Established the US Immigration Quota System

Immigrants Arriving in United States
Immigrants arriving to the United States. Ellis Island, May 27, 1920. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The National Origins Act, a component of the Immigration Act of 1924, was a law enacted on May 26, 1924, to greatly reduce the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States by setting immigration quotas for each European nation. This immigration quota setting aspect of the 1924 law remains in effect today in the form of the per-country visa limits enforced by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Fast Facts: National Origins Act

  • Short Description: Limited US immigration by imposing per-country quotas
  • Key Players: US Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding, US Senator William P. Dillingham
  • Start Date: May 26, 1924 (enactment)
  • Locations: United States Capitol Building, Washington, D.C.
  • Key Cause: Post World War I isolationism Sentiment in the United States

Immigration in the 1920s

During the 1920s, the United States was experiencing a resurgence of anti-immigration isolationism. Many Americans objected to the growing numbers of immigrants being allowed to enter the county. The Immigration Act of 1907 had created the Dillingham Commission—named for its chairman, Republican Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont—to review the effects of immigration on the United States. Issued in 1911, the commission’s report concluded that because it posed a serious threat to America’s social, cultural, physical, economic, and moral welfare, immigration from southern and eastern Europe should be drastically reduced. 

Based on the Dillingham Commission report, the Immigration Act of 1917 imposed English literacy tests for all immigrants and completely barred immigration from most of Southeast Asia. However, when it became clear that literacy tests alone were not slowing the flow of Europe immigrants, Congress looked for a different strategy.

Migration Quotas

Based on the findings of the Dillingham Commission, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 creating immigration quotas. Under the law, no more than 3 percent of the total number of immigrants from any specific country already living in the United States, according to the 1910 decennial U.S. Census, were allowed to migrate to the United States during any calendar year. For example, if 100,000 people from a particular country lived in America in 1910, only 3,000 more (3 percent of 100,000) would have been allowed to migrate in 1921.

Based on the total foreign-born U.S. population counted in the 1910 Census, the total number of visas available each year to new immigrants was set at 350,000 per year. However, the law set no immigration quotas whatsoever on countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Uncle Sam's Quota
A cartoon showing Uncle Sam putting the Emergency Quota Act (aka the Johnson Quota Act) in place, 19th May 1921. The act limits the annual number of immigrants who can be admitted from any country to 3% of the number of persons from that country already living in the United States according to the census of 1910. MPI / Getty Images

While the Emergency Quota Act sailed easily through Congress, President Woodrow Wilson, who favored a more liberal immigration policy, used the pocket veto to prevent its enactment. In March 1921, newly inaugurated President Warren Harding called a special session of Congress to pass the law, which was renewed for another two years in 1922.

In passing the National Origins Act, legislators made no attempt to hide the fact that the law was to limit immigration specifically from the countries of southern and eastern Europe. During debates on the bill, Republican U.S. Representative from Kentucky John M. Robsion rhetorically asked, “How long shall America continue to be the garbage can and the dumping ground of the world?”

Long-Term Effects of the Quota System

Never intended to be permanent, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 was replaced in 1924 by the National Origins Act. The law lowered the 1921 per-country immigration quotas from 3 percent to 2 percent of each national group residing America according to the 1890 Census. Using 1890 instead of 1910 census data allowed more people to migrate to America from countries in northern and western Europe than from countries in southern and eastern Europe.

Immigration based exclusively on a national origin quota system continued until 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) replaced it with the current, consular-based immigration system that factors in aspects such as the potential immigrants’ skills, employment potential, and family relationships with U.S. citizens or legal permanent U.S. residents. In conjunction with these “preferential” criteria, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services also applies a per-country permanent immigration ceiling.

Currently, no group of permanent immigrants from any single country can exceed seven percent of the total number of people immigrating to the United States in a single fiscal year. This quota is intended to prevent immigration patterns to the United States from being dominated by any one immigrant group.

The following table shows the results of the INA’s current quotas on U.S. immigration in 2016:

Region Immigrants (2016)   % of Total
Canada, Mexico, Central, and South America 506,901 42.83%
Asia 462,299 39.06%
Africa 113,426 9.58%
Europe 93,567 7.9%
Australia and Oceania 5,404 0.47%

Source: US Department of Homeland Security - Office of Immigration Statistics

On an individual basis, the three countries sending the most immigrants into the United States in 2016 were Mexico (174,534), China (81,772), and Cuba (66,516).

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, current U.S. immigration policies and quotas are intended to keep families together, admit immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protect refugees, and promote diversity.

Sources