The law court was the logical place for immigrants to launch grievances against specific hostile activities of American citizens towards them but they often found the legal system ponderous, judges unsympathetic, the procedures unfamiliar and officials intimidating.
In The Immigrant’s Day in Court, a 1923 study, Kate Holladay Clayhorn found that: “The attitude of the immigrant towards the law courts, insofar as it is determined by the teaching of lawyers and the courts, will naturally be one of distrust and disrespect. The immigrant is taught that bribery and influence are the regular methods of securing favourable decisions and that the extortionate fees he is called upon to pay are necessary to provide the expected bribes. The immigrant has no chance before the American court without the aid of a lawyer skilled in a special kind of trickery.”
Clayhorn advocated legal aid and education for the immigrants in their rights under the American legal system.
Immigrants realised that if they hoped to settle peacefully and live prosperously in the USA they must demonstrate their willingness to be 100% patriotic.
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The Immigration Acts 1917, 1921 and 1924
The 1917 Immigration Act increased the Head Tax that new immigrants had to pay, extended the list of ‘undesirables’ and created a ‘barred zone’ forbidding immigration from most of Asia. It also finally introduced a literacy test marking a major shift in American policy.
Between June 1919 and June 1921 more than 800,000 people entered the USA – 65% from Southern and Eastern Europe. The Consuls in Europe warned that millions more were preparing to leave. By February 1921, Ellis Island was so jammed that immigration authorities had to divert ships to Boston. Alarmed almost to the point of panic, Congress rushed through an emergency act to restrict immigration; it passed the House of Representatives in a few hours and was adopted by the Senate soon after by a vote of 78-1.
The Emergency Immigration Law Act (1921) allowed only about 350,000 immigrants to enter the USA every year. By carefully organising a quota system, the American Government could make sure that large numbers of people from ‘undesirable’ countries were kept out. This law imposed an annual limit on immigration from any European country, limiting it to 3% of the number of nationals from that country who were living in the USA in 1911.
Under the quota system, based on national origins, four-fifths of those allowed to enter came from Britain and Ireland, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and Scandinavia. However, few if any were permitted from Southern European countries, none at all from Asia. Most new immigrants after 1921 were, therefore, white and Protestant, which was, after all, the whole idea.
Sentiment for a more lasting form of immigration restriction soon gained strength. In 1924 Congress passed the National Origins Act [Johnson-Reed Act], with little opposition. This Act:
Drastically cut down the total of immigrants to be admitted each year
Set an absolute limit of 150,000 immigrants per annum
85% of quotas favoured those from Northern and Western Europe
Forbade all Oriental immigration – marked in Japan by a day of National mourning
Did not apply to Mexicans as cheap labour was needed during the times of fruit harvest
The law aimed at freezing the country ethnically by sharply restricting the ‘new’ immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.
Thus, it can be seen that the idea of immigration controls was not new, but had its roots in the early 19th century. By 1914, many people were in favour of some sort of restriction on immigration. This was partly because of the large numbers of immigrants arriving in the USA each year, especially between 1900 and 1914, but it probably had more to do with the changing nature of immigrants. They became associated with the city slums and everything else that was considered to be wrong with America. The organisations representing American workers resented the ‘new’ immigrants, as they were willing to work for little pay in poor conditions. World War One saw an increase in xenophobia (fear of foreigners) and nativism. ‘Old’ immigrants were afraid of losing old values. The traditional small town America was slipping away and was quickly being replaced by an industrialised nation. These changes were blamed on the ‘new’ immigrants. Many people thought that if they could just get rid of the ‘new’ immigrants, life would return to their slow paced ‘Golden Age’ of their fore fathers. This, and the fear of a rush of immigrants fleeing the war-torn countries of southeastern Europe were the immediate reasons for the passing of the immigration controls in the 1920s.
Is there another explanation for the restriction of immigration?
Was the American attitude towards immigration restrictions a part of a larger desire to look inwards towards herself and to shun the problems of other nations? Was immigration restriction a part of isolationism?
On 2nd April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany. At the start of the war in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had argued that the USA should remain neutral and not become involved in Europe’s ‘Civil War’. At first American public opinion was firmly on the side of neutrality. Most Americans had little or no interest in world affairs and supported the policy of isolationism – keeping well out of foreign problems and concentrating on its own business. Americans, they believed, had no reason to become involved in the arguments of other nations…
When World War One ended, many Americans were keen to withdraw once again from world affairs and return to a policy of isolationism. They were afraid that membership of the League of Nations would involve them permanently in the affairs of Europe. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Leader of the Republican opposition to President Wilson [Democrat], successfully led the campaign against the League. Republicans were hostile to Wilson anyway, but they were also concerned to protect American sovereignty and the freedom to act independently. They argued that the decision to go to war should rest solely with the US Congress and not with the League. Another Republican, Senator Borah, declared he would vote against the League even if Jesus Christ returned to earth to argue in its favour, and many others were just as inflexible. Many Senators feared that if the USA got involved then it might soon get dragged into another European war.
The Jazz Age
The social, economic and political status of the Blacks in the 1920s and 1930s
In the ‘land of the free’ the 10.5 million Black people living in the USA in 1920 suffered discrimination in the northern states and the indignity of segregation in the South where they were denied equal rights and opportunities. They faced the barbarism of the Ku Klux Klan, middle class hostility to black labour, were amongst the poorest in the nation and had virtually no political say in how their country was governed. However, the 1920s also saw the development of Black consciousness as well as a Black cultural explosion.