During the 1800s and early 1900s, millions of people immigrated to the United States. But the mostly “open door” policy slammed shut during the mid-1920s, when the numbers and origins of immigrants changed dramatically.
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How Did Immigration Change during the 1920s?
In the 75 years before World War I, the number of immigrants to the United States rose sharply. In the 1850s, only about 2.2 million foreign-born people lived in the country. That figure doubled within 10 years and continued to climb steadily until it peaked in the 1930s, during which time about 14.2 million of the nation’s residents had been born abroad.
During the 1920s, immigration trends in the United States changed in two ways. First, the numbers leveled out and then fell dramatically—fewer than 700,000 people arrived during the following decade. Second, though Europeans continued to constitute most new arrivals, the most common places of origin shifted from Southern and Eastern Europe to Western Europe.
How Did Nativism and Immigration Laws Impact Immigration in the 1920s?
During the early 1900s, growing numbers of United States citizens expressed sentiments of nativism, an attitude that favors people born within a country over its immigrant residents. Anti-immigration sentiment increased after World War I. Soldiers returned home looking for jobs—just as a fresh surge of job-seeking immigrants also arrived. Among some, ethnic prejudice fueled nativist feelings.
Immigration Act of 1917
Anti-immigration sentiment resulted in a series of increasingly restrictive immigration laws. Laws dating to the 1880s already barred Chinese immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1917 introduced a literacy test and prohibited entry of most others born in the Asian-Pacific region.
Emergency Quota Law
In 1921, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act, which drastically scaled back the number of entries to the country and assigned new birthplace quotas. An annual quota was set at 3 percent of the number of immigrants in the 1910 census (about 358,000 people total). The quota was divided proportionately according to the birthplaces of the foreign-born listed in the 1910 census. This quota was meant to ensure that the nation would continue to have similar ethnic demographic as in the past.
Immigration Act of 1924
The Immigration Act of 1924 reduced the quota to 2 percent; altered geographic quotas to further favor those born in Western Europe, Britain, and Ireland; and completely prohibited Asians, including Japanese (who had not been previously restricted). The approval process moved from United States ports of entry to offices in the places of departure, where hopeful immigrants applied for visas. The 1924 changes contributed to the closure of Ellis Island in New York City, which had once been the largest immigrant processing station in the nation.
Where Can I Find Records about Immigrants in the 1920s?
Passenger Arrival Lists
Immigrant passenger arrival lists for the 1920s are searchable by port of arrival. These records preserved detailed information about passengers, including their visa numbers (once that process went into effect). Visa files may reveal additional information about immigrant ancestors.
You may also find later records about immigrants. Some may have applied for citizenship. Their naturalization files may include various types of documents pertaining to their arrival, in addition to their petitions for citizenship.
Later, during World War II, anyone who wasn’t a citizen had to fill out detailed alien registration forms. If your relatives were of Japanese, German, or Italian origin, they may have been detained in internment camps during World War II, and additional records or histories may exist.
How Can I Learn about the Immigrant Experience in the 1920s?
Millions of immigrants in the early 1900s lived in urban areas, often near their ports of arrival. (By one estimate, immigrants and their children constituted 75 percent of New York City’s population in 1910.) Others migrated to areas where their labor was sought in particular industries, such as mining or automobile production. In some areas, immigrants clustered together in neighborhood enclaves, where they worshipped, shopped, and socialized together.
You can sometimes learn about these ethnic communities in local histories or from heritage groups that have preserved their stories. To learn about the specific experiences of your ancestors, ask your older relatives about family stories, memories, and documents. Trace your immigrant ancestors in United States censuses, newspapers, and other historical records.