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The Racial Origins of Immigration Policy in the United States

Race and immigration have gone hand in hand since the beginning of the United States of America. Assimilation and the perceived ability of people from different races to achieve it were at the core of most of the immigration laws from the 1870s to the 1960s.

The first formal immigration law, enacted in 1791, limited naturalization to "free white persons." After the Civil War, Congress added an exception in 1870 for persons of African descent, but defeated a push by U.S. Sen. Charles Sumner to strike all references to race from requisites for citizenship.

Under those first laws, millions of immigrants, nearly all from European countries, gained U.S. citizenship. Many more had entered the country since the early 1800s, when the nation had no immigration limits, and being a legal immigrant was mostly a matter of surviving the transatlantic crossing and proving that one was able to work and not gravely ill.

Hostility against Chinese immigrants after they had served the purpose of building the railroads fueled one of the most restrictive immigration policies in U.S. history.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur became the first significant law that curtailed immigration of a racial or ethnic group into the United States. It originated in anti-Chinese sentiments, mostly in California, where the Chinese were 25 percent of the labor force at the time. The law was not repealed until 1943.

The government’s official position was that the Chinese were unable to assimilate. In 1889, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field’s majority opinion in a case challenging Chinese exclusion said that if "the government of the United States, through its legislative department, considers the presence of foreigners of a different race in this country, who will not assimilate with us, to be dangerous . . . its determination is conclusive upon the judiciary."

Anti-Chinese sentiment soon affected citizens of other countries from East and South Asia that sought to immigrate or naturalize in the United States. In 1917, Congress defined the "barred Asiatic zone" to cover an area stretching from Afghanistan to the Pacific, except Japan, which was added in 1924.

According to historians, these exclusions were based on the pseudoscience of eugenics, which promoted the superiority of the white race.  Eugenics was prevalent in the decisions of immigration authorities in the United States and supported in 1914 by the U.S. surgeon general and Public Health Services officials who inspected passengers disembarking at Ellis Island.

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During those years, a few cases challenged the anti-Asian laws and in 1922 and 1923, the Supreme Court found the Japanese and Asian Indians "racially ineligible for citizenship."

Takao Ozawa, a Japanese citizen who immigrated to this country as a child and was unable to naturalize in 1915 because of the exclusion of nonwhite persons, lost his case in 1922. He did not challenge the anti-Asian laws themselves, but tried to prove that the Japanese were part of the "Caucasian race." The Supreme Court disagreed.

The challenges continued, and over the next few years, federal courts admitted Syrians, Armenians and Asian Indians to citizenship as white persons.

Race and national origin were not the only reasons for exclusion although they were the most impactful. Several laws from the 1880s through 1917 excluded persons with "dangerous contagious diseases, paupers, polygamists, the feebleminded" and the "insane."

Watch SoCal Connected's video on the history of U.S. immigration policy.

All of the exclusions still were not enough for the believers in eugenics, among whom was President Calvin Coolidge. In 1921, before he became vice president, Coolidge had started promoting the superiority of northern Europeans over the southern Europeans who were then migrating by the millions.

In an article titled "Whose Country is This?" Coolidge wrote that "the Nordics (northern Europeans) propagate themselves successfully. With other races, the outcome shows deterioration on both sides."

In 1924, then-President Coolidge signed an immigration law that established a quota system prioritizing visas for countries already represented in the United States. The legislation was intended to "preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity."

Also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, the law established quotas limiting immigration to 2 percent of each nationality present in the U.S. by 1910. In effect, it restricted the migration of Italians, Slavs, and Jews, among other southern and eastern Europeans, and it was an important reason why many Jews could not come to America to escape the Holocaust.

At the ceremony where he signed the act, Coolidge said that "America must remain American," which would be a rallying cry of anti-immigration sentiments until after World War II.

The quota system remained in place until it was repealed by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

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