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The main political and social challenges facing America

Why did immigration become such a major issue in American society?

Restricting entry

During 1907, 1.25 million people were processed on Ellis Island. As the number of immigrants increased, some Americans began to doubt the government's Open Door policy. Traditionally, the immigrants had tended to come from northern and western Europe – Britain, Ireland, Germany. Between 1900 and 1914 13 million arrived, mainly from southern and eastern Europe – Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia, Western Poland and Greece. People started feeling angry towards these 'new' immigrants because:

Jews on Ellis Island

Jews queueing to be processed on Ellis Island

  • they were often poor
  • many were illiterate
  • many were Roman Catholics or Jews, therefore from a different cultural and religious background
  • the trauma of the First World War and the fear of Communism during the Red Scare [Red Scare: Concern regarding the spread of communist and socialist ideas. ] in 1919, worried many Americans.

As a result, the US Congress passed three laws to restrict immigration and each law in turn was more severe than the previous one.

  1. Literacy Test, 1917 – Immigrants had to pass a series of reading and writing tests. Many of the poorer immigrants, especially those from eastern Europe, had received no education and therefore failed the tests and were refused entry.
  2. The Emergency Quota Act, 1921 – A law which restricted the number of immigrants to 357,000 per year, and also set down a quota - only 3 per cent of the total population of any overseas group already in the USA in 1910 could come in after 1921.
  3. The National Origins Act, 1924 – This law reduced the maximum number of immigrants to 150,000 per year and cut the quota to 2 per cent, based on the population of the USA in 1890. The act was aimed at restricting southern and eastern Europeans immigrants. It also prohibited immigration from Asia and this angered the Chinese and Japanese communities that were already in the USA.

The Open Door was now closed to many. The government did not believe that the new immigrants enriched the life and culture of the USA. As a result, there was more fear of immigrants, xenophobia and racial persecution.


At the end of this section it is important that you know the following.

  • The reasons for immigrating to the USA
  • The problems faced by the immigrants
  • Closure of the Open Door

Back to The USA, A nation of contrasts, 1910-1929 index

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