The end of the First World War provoked drastic political, economic, and cultural change throughout Europe and Asia. A new era of industrial and technological warfare had never been seen before in human history. The expenses of such a large scale war left many countries deep in debt. Key industrial areas were often left damaged from enemy bombing, making recovery a difficult task and inflation a prevalent issue. Social and political unrest further exacerbated the recovery efforts. Economic struggles caused more radical forms of political ideology to be accepted, fueling colonial revolts in parts of Asia and the Middle East. The Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empires fell as a result while several other countries found independence. In addition, country borders were redrawn all throughout Europe and in the Middle East. In turn, cultures drastically changed. Class systems were restructured, social activities were altered, propaganda circulated, and pop culture became more grounded in reality. Mass murder in Armenia and outbreaks of influenza further contributed to an already chaotic period of history. This chaos and instability bred an era of unpredictability and skepticism, culminating in extreme push factors. After four years of bloodshed, the world sought stability.
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America, on the other hand, enjoyed a much different post war reality. Unlike their European allies, the many industrial centers remained intact. A new, tremendous workforce then occupied them. With little competition, America transformed into the first global superpower. Subsequent years saw unprecedented prosperity. Wages increased across all classes, agriculture and factory production increased, and unemployment rates dropped historically low. These economic changes were accompanied with cultural shifts as well. Starting in their involvement in the workforce, women sought a new role in society, eventually culminating into the passage of the nineteenth amendment. Similarly, African Americans started their push for equality, laying down the groundworks for a future civil rights movement. However, this movement was not embraced nationwide. Following a controversial and bloody wartime, America yearned for a return to normalcy. For some, this push evolved into intense patriotism and xenophobia. Coinciding with a mass influx of immigrants following the end of the First World War, a negative view of immigrants and a fear of national security began to spread throughout the new mass society. In an effort to maintain economic success and a strictly American identity, President Coolidge passed the National Origins or Immigration Act of 1924. This heavily decreased the amount of immigrants allowed entry into the United States. Following a national origins quota, only two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the US were provided with visas. With the exception of the Filipinos and Japanese, this controversial law outright forbid all entry by immigrants from Asian lineage. By doing this, immigrants, mostly from northwestern Europe, could easily assimilate to a culturally and politically similar country. In fear of the socialist and radically different religious beliefs and values brought about by eastern Eurasian cultures, President Coolidge aimed to ensure that the American culture of the roaring twenties remained strictly American. In his own words, “America must be kept American.” Even today, this act stands as one of the most strict immigration laws in American history. In just the twenty-three years it lasted, it sent ripples through American society and culture. The eugenics movement and racist sentiments surged, racial categories were redefined, and the issue of illegal immigration was created. Despite its eventual revision in 1965, these societal changes would go on to negatively impact immigrants for decades to come.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was, in part, caused by a changing social climate. For America, this principle is nothing new. Immigration policies have been created and altered in accordance to the social evolution of America and other similar countries (Fairchild, 1924). This implies that such sentiments were present even before the wave of eastern Eurasian immigrants. Indeed, historians have found that a relatively small discussion over the “superiority” of white men over those of color took place as early as before the Civil War (Ludmerer, 1972). The subsequent increasing percentage of immigrants from non-Anglo-Saxon countries only further facilitated attention to their differences (Ludmerer, 1972). An explicit eugenics movement, on the other hand, found its start much later. Nevertheless, both movements found that the passage of the Immigration Act was validation for their controversial beliefs. As the act moved through legislation, both eugenicists and Ku Klux Klan leaders remained at the helm of its campaign. Active lobbying, rallies, and propaganda popularized the idea of Nordic superiority and anti-immigrant sentiment on grounds of biological inferiority (Ludmerer, 1972; McVeigh, 2001). Taking advantage of concerns over national security, eugenics leaders highlighted the politically radical ideology of incoming eastern immigrants, despite the fact that the vast majority of immigrants were deeply conservative (Ludmerer, 1972). Spurred on by a mounting and recurring fear of losing industrial jobs, the movement also gained traction with the general population (McVeigh, 6). With mostly national support and powerful advocates prying in Washington, President Coolidge signed it into a law. At its passage, advocates championed it as “the greatest triumph of the American eugenics movement in national affairs – its one major nationwide success” (Ludmerer, 1972). Subsequently, both movements enjoyed unprecedented growth and approval. By 1925, three to six million Americans joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. This phenomenon stretched across all 48 states (McVeigh, 2001). Eugenicists even retained a presence in government for years after the Act was passed (Ludmerer, 1972). Though support of this magnitude would eventually dwindle, its effect on American culture was evident for decades. While women used the end of the First World War as a catalyst for equal rights and role changes, African-Americans were left essentially the same. Despite their unrelenting involvement in factory production and military aid in the war, success in their civil rights movement would lag decades behind that of women. Whether or not the preceding social shift caused this is admittedly doubtful. However, lingering racially discriminatory sentiments from the Immigration Act most surely affected the public opinion of future key historic events.
In the process of this polarization in America, racial categories were created, established, and maintained. More specifically, social processes were made more concrete through legislative action, namely affecting the Asian and Mexican population. When first deciding the eligibility for Asian immigrants to be granted visas, the Court asserted that it is imperative that they consider assimilability above all. Only on this front should aliens then be considered land owning citizens capable of working for the welfare of the country (Hanihara, 1924). Following this logic, the Court ruled that any immigrant from Asian descent is ineligible for citizenship under the premise of racial unassimilability (Ngai, 1999)(Parker, 1924). This ruling completed the legally backed “Asiantic” racial category. Through convoluted technicalities, the Court attributed this decision on grounds of nationality and not race. Because of their complex history between Mexican and American citizenship, establishing a racial category for Mexican immigrants would prove to be more vexing task. Rather than starting with sweeping legal terminology, the court sought to first highlight one specific case. Ricardo Rodriguez, a Mexican Native, lived in Texas for ten years when he applied for citizenship. Attorneys of the court then contested his eligibility under the same principle applied to Asian immigrants: assimilability. Though there was evidence of his strong work ethic and moral character, he was deemed fully Mexican, illiterate, and ignorant of the basic principles of the constitution. Failing literacy tests and illegals soon became synonymous with Mexican-Americans, building a wholly negative racial category (Ngai, 1999). When compared to the Anglo-American immigrants, these divisive and derogatory stereotypes become evident. As the court judges these two groups as unassimilable burdens, the population soon followed suit. Even after immigration restrictions are lifted or altered, these manufactured racial categories persist. And as history warns, social norms are much more difficult to change than laws.
Though racially categorized, the majority of Mexican immigrants were granted citizenship. Due to underestimation and a hastened solution for the immigration crisis, independent countries of the Americas were completely exempt from the national quota restrictions (Eckerson, 1966). Driven by poverty and political instability, the unchecked neighboring Latin Americans flocked to US cities and towns in the hundreds of thousands. As word of a better life spread, desperate and impatient Latin Americans began to illegally cross the Rio Grande (Eckerson, 1966). Though many industries appreciated the new workforce, competition was inevitable, especially in such a polarized society. Pre-existing nativist sentiment pushed the Mexican-American population to find solace in each other, forming separate communities and developing deep ties to their homeland. Subsequent literacy tests financial test served to only further this cultural separation. With little loyalty to America and a promise for more opportunity, a stream of both legal and illegal Latin American immigrants have been entering the United States (Kenny, 2014). And because of the legal and social implications of the National Origins Act, illegal immigration has remained at the forefront of national debate ever since.
That being said, the present time is certainly no exception. With national security concerns and nativism on the rise, it seems that Coolidge would not be the only president that believes “America must be kept American.” Tasked with addressing the immigration crisis, the latest US president’s approach seems to mirror actions taken during the 1920s. One such example can be seen through his travel ban. In it, the issuing of visas were outright prohibited with the aim to increase nation security against a distinctly Muslim culture. This is reminiscent of the Chinese Exclusion Act. One goal was to also increase national security against radical political beliefs and influences. He has also expressed opposition to granting visas for refugees and others from troubled nations. The establishment of a national quota in the 1920’s also reflects a concern for their impact on American culture, economy, and security. With no controversy over Western European immigration, it becomes clear that assimilability remains an important consideration. Unfortunately, its implications on society will also prove to be the same as before. Some maintain that the number of white nationalist groups climbed 48 percent in 2018. More definitively the FBI recorded a 17 percent increase in hate crime incidents since 2017 (FBI, 2017). Though controversial now, history most definitely mirrors this trend. Nationalism, racial categories, and a massive swell in Ku Klux Klan membership also coincided with federal action against immigrants. Worst of all, some even say that the president is directly reshaping these racial categories again today. If this is the case, complete racial polarization may grip America to extents unseen in contemporary America just as it did with the eugenics movement just a century ago.
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The Immigration Act of 1924 was the first in many subsequent controversial attempts to address the immigration crisis. Its extreme measures served to reflect and amplify the nationalistic and anti-immigrant sentiment most prevalent in the nation at the time. Through inadvertent legislative support, the eugenic and racially discriminatory movements gained notoriety and reassurance. With their newfound presence, these social groups impacted the way society viewed immigrants for decades to come. Again facilitated through court rulings, Asian and Mexican immigrants found themselves confined to racial categories. Like the developed discriminatory attitudes of greater American culture, these categories would follow these two groups long after the immigration acts were altered. These lasting sentiments also impacted civil rights movements, subsequent laws and housing regulations, and how we see history today. Its effects are most clearly seen in the ongoing struggle with illegal immigration. First started from the rushed National Origins Act, lack of foresight inadvertently brought waves of Mexican immigrants, solidifying their racial category even further. Both the social and legal implications of this act has affected America in a multitude of ways, even today. Learning from the mistakes of the act is imperative for the reversal of past transgressions. By avoiding the missteps of generations before us, we have the opportunity to improve the living conditions of generations after us.
- Eckerson, H. (1966). Immigration and national origins. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 367(1), 4-14.
- Fairchild, H. (1924). The Immigration Law of 1924. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 38(4), 653-665.
Hanihara, M. (1924). Japan and immigration exclusion. Advocate of Peace through Justice,
- Kenny, J. (2014). Immigration how we got here from there. New American, 30(17), 34–38.
- Ludmerer, K. (1972). Genetics, eugenics, and the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 46(1), 59-81.
- McVeigh, R. (2001). Power devaluation, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Democratic National Convention of 1924. Sociological Forum, 16(1), 1-30.
Ngai, M. (1999). The architecture of race in American immigration law: A
reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924. The Journal of American History, 86(1), 67-92.
- Parker, A. (1924). The quota provisions of the Immigration Act of 1924. The American Journal of International Law, 18(4), 737-754.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2017. FBI – Incidents and offenses)
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