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Growth Through Immigration, Restrictions on Immigration

western European descent, settlement house movement, strange religions, Japanese immigration, Social Darwinism

Late-19th-century immigrants, with their different ways and seemingly strange religions, made American voters anxious enough to enact the first laws restricting immigration. Social Darwinism, with its beliefs that national characteristics or ethnic traditions were inherited, led Americans to view immigrants from nonindustrialized nations as not only economically backward but biologically inferior. It gave more-established, native-born Americans a supposedly scientific excuse for blocking immigration. Convicts and prostitutes were barred in 1875. Then paupers, the so-called mentally defective, and all Chinese immigrants were excluded in 1882. Contract workers, who were often Italian or Chinese, were also banned in the 1880s. Japanese immigration was stopped in 1907.

By 1910 African Americans made up only 11 percent of the population, and Native Americans constituted only 0.3 percent, their smallest proportions ever. For Native Americans, the population decline was due in part to the military defeat of the last of the independent nations and in part to their impoverishment on reservations. Segregation, lynching campaigns, and poverty slowed the growth of the African American population. Even though more than three-quarters of Americans were native-born whites in 1910, many citizens still felt insecure. The settlement house movement, whose most prominent advocate was social reformer Jane Addams, sought to speed the Americanization of foreign-born urban residents through education and social services. This was an insufficient response for some American citizens, and additional restrictions were placed on immigration. After 1917 only literate individuals were admitted.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 convinced many Americans that all foreigners were Bolsheviks, anarchists, or criminals. Fearing the importation of radical political ideas, labor unrest, and attempts at subversion, many Americans retreated into isolationism, the idea that America should separate itself from the rest of the world. In 1921 and 1924 Congress mandated a quota system for immigration, which soon became based on European ethnicities present in the United States in 1890, before many eastern Europeans had arrived. This granted 80 percent of the 150,000 annual visas to immigrants from western Europe, leaving only 30,000 visas for immigrants from other countries.

The Great Depression of the 1930s only sharpened feelings against foreigners in America. With anti-immigrant feelings running high and with jobs being scarce, more people emigrated from the United States than arrived during the 1930s, the first period of negative migration since the Revolution. The emigrants included an estimated 500,000 Mexican Americans, many of them U.S. citizens or legal immigrants, who were forced out of the country on the grounds they were taking jobs from supposedly real Americans, that is, those of western European descent. This decade also saw the lowest population growth rate in the history of the United States.

Not only did old-stock Americans fear eastern and southern Europeans, Hispanics, and Asians, but anti-Semitism was also commonplace in the early 20th century. This was especially true after the turn of the century, when immigration produced a substantial eastern European Jewish presence in the cities. After World War I (1914-1918), the children of these immigrants sought admission to high schools and colleges, and they entered skilled and professional occupations, and many Christians responded with fear. Quotas enforced during the 1920s limited immigration from countries with large numbers of Jewish emigrants. Colleges, professional schools, and businesses barred Jews entirely or admitted only a few during this period. Through the first half of the 20th century, towns and individual householders barred Jews from buying real estate by including restrictive covenants in property deeds, a practice known as “gentleman’s clauses.” Although 102,000 Jewish refugees escaping Nazi Germany were admitted into the United States before World War II (1939-1945), many more were refused entrance. As a consequence of this policy, some died in German labor and death camps.

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