The Emergency Quota Act 1921

The Emergency Quota Act 1921
Joseph Keppler’s 1882 cartoon “Uncle Sam’s Lodging-House” depicts the tension America was facing as a result of an influx of immigrants from around the world. The nation’s response took the form of restrictive immigration laws and, beginning in 1907, immigration quotas. | The Emergency Quota Act 1921

The Emergency Quota Act 1921

Through a national origins quota, the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. According to the 1890 national census, 2% of the total number of persons of each nationality in the United States were eligible for immigration permits. Immigrants from Asia were absolutely excluded.

Literacy Tests and “Asiatic Barred Zone”

The United States Congress passed the first comprehensive immigration statute in 1917. Because of the uncertainty about national security created by World War I, Congress was able to enact this bill, which included numerous key measures that opened the way for the 1924 Act. The 1917 Act imposed a literacy test on immigrants above the age of 16, requiring them to demonstrate basic reading ability in any language.

President Coolidge signing the Johnson-Reed Act
President Coolidge signing the Johnson-Reed Act

It also increased the tax that new immigrants must pay upon arrival and gave immigration officials additional power in deciding who to exclude. Finally, except for Japanese and Filipinos, anybody born in a geographically specified “Asian Barred Zone” was barred from entering the country. In the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, the Japanese government voluntarily curtailed Japanese immigration to the United States. Because the Philippines was a US colony, its residents were US citizens who could freely travel to the US. Although China was not included in the Barred Zone, the Chinese Exclusion Act has previously denied them admission visas.

Quotas for immigration

In the 1920s, members of Congress sought a new mechanism to restrict immigration because the literacy test alone was not enough to keep most potential immigrants out. William P. Dillingham, an immigration specialist and Republican Senator from Vermont, sponsored legislation to establish immigration quotas, which he set at 3% of the total population of foreign-born of each country in the United States as recorded in the 1910 census. This brings the total number of visas available to new immigrants to 350,000 every year. It did not, however, impose any type of quotas for Western Hemisphere residents. Because President Wilson opposed the limiting act and preferred a more liberal immigration policy, he used his pocket veto to stop it from becoming law. In early 1921, freshly elected President Warren Harding convened a special session of Congress to pass the measure.

Senator William P. Dillingham
Senator William P. Dillingham

The act was extended for another two years in 1922.
Senator William P. Dillingham is a member of the United States Senate.
The quota system was so well-established when the legislative debate over immigration began in 1924 that no one questioned whether it should be kept or adjusted. Despite the efforts of those who advocated for lifting quotas and allowing more people to enter, the restrictionists were victorious. They devised a strategy to reduce the existing quota from 3% to 2% of the foreign-born population. They also shifted the starting point for quota calculations from 1910 to 1890.

Another quota adjustment changed the basis for quota computations. The quota had been set depending on the number of persons born outside of the US or the number of immigrants in the US. The new law tracked the ancestors of the whole population of the United States, including natural-born citizens. Many persons of British heritage whose family had long lived in the United States were included in the revised quota calculations. As a result, the number of visas available to people from the British Isles and Western Europe grew, while recent immigration from other parts of Europe, such as Southern and Eastern Europe, was limited.

The 1924 Immigration Act also includes a clause barring admittance to any alien who was disqualified for citizenship due to race or nationality. People of Asian ancestry were barred from naturalizing under existing nationality regulations dating from 1790 to 1870. As a result of the 1924 Act, even Asians who had previously been barred from entering the country – particularly the Japanese – were no longer permitted to do so. The new law, which was in breach of the Gentlemen’s Agreement, offended many people in Japan. The Japanese government appealed, but the law was upheld, escalating already high tensions between the two countries. Despite the rising tensions, it appeared that the US Congress had determined that maintaining the country’s racial makeup was more essential than fostering good relations with Japan.

The Act’s restricted principles could have strained relations with certain European countries as well, but for a variety of reasons, these prospective issues did not arise. European emigration was slowed by the global downturn of the 1930s, World War II, and greater enforcement of US immigration policies. After these crises passed, emergency provisions for displaced individuals resettlement in 1948 and 1950 helped the US avoid debate over its new immigration laws.

The most basic goal of the 1924 Immigration Act, in all of its aspects, was to protect the concept of American homogeneity. In 1952, Congress amended the Act.


The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882);

Equal Protection Rights (1886);

The Displaced Persons Act (1948).


The Emergency Quota Act 1921

The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)