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Donald Trump and the Legacy of the Immigration Act of 1924

Updated: Aug 12

By Seth Eislund

A political cartoon satirizes America's new immigration quota system, 1920s


Immigration has always been a hotly debated topic in the United States, but with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States in 2016, it has become a more politically-charged, and important, issue. Anti-immigration and nativist rhetoric characterized much of Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016 and has continued to play an important role in the Trump administration’s policies. Whether pledging to build a wall on the US-Mexico border to keep out Central and Southern American immigrants, implementing a travel ban on Muslims, or referring to Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries,” Donald Trump has prioritized the immigration of certain people over others into the United States. However, Trump’s attitude toward immigration is nothing new. Rather, it has historical precedent in a nefarious law that was replaced in 1965: the Immigration Act of 1924.


The Immigration Act of 1924, which was the brainchild of Congressman Albert Johnson and Senator David Reed, was devastating in its xenophobia and its impact on immigration to the United States. It implemented “national origins” quotas to restrict the immigration of all non-Western or Northern European immigrants. The law discriminated against ethnic groups who had previously immigrated to the United States in large numbers, especially Jews and Italians, banned all immigration from Asia, and established the US Border Patrol on the Mexican border. The law gave immigrants from Western Europe priority over those from Southern and Eastern Europe, as such immigrants tended to be white, Protestant, and hailed from countries with which the United States frequently cooperated. Ultimately, the Immigration Act of 1924 reduced overall immigration into the United States to 150,000 persons per year. It remained the nation’s official immigration policy until 1965, when the newly-passed Immigration and Nationality Act outlawed immigration quotas based on “national origin.”


While the United States’ immigration system is far from perfect, it is still far more inclusive than it was in 1924. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which undergirds America’s modern immigration system, banned national origin quotas and granted visas to immigrants from around the world, especially to close relatives of US residents. According to the American Immigration Council, today’s immigration system is “built upon… the reunification of families, admitting immigrants with skills that are valuable to the U.S. economy, protecting refugees, and promoting diversity.” However, Donald Trump and his administration threaten to destroy the current system, using rhetoric that sounds eerily similar to the language of the Immigration Act of 1924. Activists, lawyers, politicians, and voters must recognize the threat that Trump represents to the future of America’s immigration system, or else our country will revert to a policy of legalized xenophobia, intolerance, and stigmatization.

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