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Today In Labor History: Calvin Coolidge Screws Immigrants
Oh Immigration Act of 1924, you're so racist!
On May 26, 1924, the doors of the United States closed to most immigrants as President Calvin Coolidge signed the Immigration Act of 1924. The law set the yearly quota for a nation’s population to immigrate to the US at two percent of its US population in the 1890 census. Beginning in 1927, immigration would then decline even further, to 150,000 total.
This law put an end to the immigrant flows to the US that had provided the labor force for the nation’s stupendous industrial growth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It also demonstrates the great discomfort many Americans had with the diversity that became a byproduct of the need for such an expanding labor force.
Immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe seemed to threaten American values for reasons outside their funny religions, peasant clothing, and garlic-eating ways. Most people came to the US for the precise reason they do today: to make money for their families back home. Like Mexicans and Guatemalans today, many hoped to make money and then return and maybe buy some land and build a little house in their home village. And many did that – for groups like the Italians and Greeks there was significant out-migration.
But some of these immigrants, even if they just wanted to work, also believed in the need for a better world. That was especially true among the immigrant group least likely to return to Europe: Jews. They, and to a lesser extent other groups such as the Italians, Greeks, and Finns, had been introduced to socialist ideas in Europe and brought them to the United States. The Jewish women leading the Uprising of the 20,000 against apparel company exploitation in 1909 and after the Triangle Fire in 1911 were the cheap labor the department stores and clothing designers wanted but they had radical tendencies of standing up for their rights that was definitely not what the capitalists wanted.
The corporations intentionally brought in different and competing ethnic groups to undermine workplace solidarity (not to mention basic communication). This could be successful but as companies found out at Lawrence, Paterson, and Ludlow, diverse workforces could unite for decent wages and living conditions. And individual acts like Russian Jewish immigrant Alexander Berkman trying (and failing in spectacular fashion) to assassinate plutocrat Henry Clay Frick after Homestead or the native-born but son of immigrants Leon Czoglosz killing President William McKinley was a sign of the very real violence that some would commit in the cause of punishing capitalists.
While unions like the Industrial Workers of the World embraced these new workers, mainstream organized labor considered them competition for jobs already poorly paid and thus disdained them, a choice that was as much cultural and racial as it was about principles of labor. The American Federation of Labor strongly supported all anti-immigration legislation despite being headed by an English immigrant by the name of Samuel Gompers. But of course Gompers and others came out of an older Protestant immigration that had caused little tension in American history, outside of some anti-German sentiment around the time of the American Revolution. Gompers would have no patience for these Southern and Eastern Europeans and especially those with ideas about labor movements more radical than he.
Despite the strikes many of these new immigrants engaged in, for most corporate leaders, the need for cheap labor won out over concerns about radicals. The plutocrats buying the Republican Party managed to keep the door open long after nativists wanted it shut. But the events of World War I changed the equation. The unfair equation of the IWW with pro-Kaiser sentiment (absurd on the face of it and the IWW in the US only opposed the war in theory, allowing their members to take whatever position they felt right) meant that immigrants were more suspect than ever and that everything about them needed watching. This is also how the 18th Amendment finally gathered the necessary support to pass since even beer drinking was now German. The Espionage and Sedition Acts, the Bisbee Deportation, the Centralia Massacre, the Palmer Raids and Red Scare, and the deporting of 566 radicals including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman all helped influence a more comprehensive solution to the fears middle class Protestants had of what this nation was becoming, which was just ending immigration almost entirely.
This trend had been coming for some time and the 1924 act, properly known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was only the final straw. The US had already effectively banned the Chinese in 1882 and the Japanese in 1907. The Immigration Act of 1917, passed over Woodrow Wilson’s veto, barred “undesirables” from entering the US, a category which included criminals, the insane, and alcoholics, and imposed a literacy test which led to 1,400 immigrants being denied entry in 1920 and 1921.
Perhaps the most notable feature about the Immigration Act was setting the racial quotas to the 1890 level. The quotas of immigrants from each country would be based upon their numbers in the United States according to the 1890 census. It meant that Germans, Irish, and English could still come over in relatively undiminished numbers. It meant basically no Asians, which eliminated the rather sizable immigrant stream of “Syrians” (mostly what we would call today Lebanese Christians).
There was one core exception to the Immigration Act, which was Mexicans crossing into the US to provide cheap farm labor in the Southwest. This would begin a long history of American labor law making exceptions for farmworkers, eventually creating long-term inequality in the sector that continues today.
Was the end of immigration the boon for organized labor that its proponents claimed it would be? Not really. The same conservative movement that ended immigration also crushed organized labor. The powerful union movement flexing its muscles in 1919 was at a low point a mere decade later. And that was before the Great Depression created 25 percent unemployment and another 25 percent underemployment.
In 1927, Albert Johnson said of the act he sponsored that it protected America from “a stream of alien blood, with all its inherent misconceptions respecting the relationships of the governing power to the governed.” Or in other words, people who would challenge capitalism.
The nation would finally revise its racist immigration policy with the Immigration Act of 1965. But today, racism still dominates our response to immigrants, even as we face worker shortages in key fields. Republican states are moving toward legalizing child labor rather than allow in more immigrants. Even among Democrats, anti-immigrant sentiment has risen thanks to the fearmongering media.
Alas, the nation taking in your tired and poor is more a self-serving myth than the reality of how we as Americans act.
Thomas Mackaman, New Immigrants and the Radicalization of American Labor, 1914-1924.
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