Changing attitudes towards immigration during the 1920s

Why did attitudes change after 1918?

During World War One, there was growing public concern about the increasing number of immigrants, as millions came to America to escape war and the economic depression that followed.

Old Immigrants were concerned that foreign culture and religion would threaten the American way of life. What they really meant was that it would threaten the WASP way of life.

Many Americans feared that as immigration increased, jobs and housing would become harder to obtain for a number of reasons:

  • There was high unemployment in America after World War One.
  • New immigrants were used to break strikes and were blamed for the deterioration in wages and working conditions.
  • Immigrants also increased the demand for already scarce housing, increasing rent prices.

There was also a general suspicion of new immigrants as many were poorly educated. They were blamed for spreading disease and slum housing, as well as rising crime rates, alcoholism and gambling.

The government began to limit immigration in several ways:

  • An Act of Congress brought in the first immigration controls in 1892. They stated that convicts, polygamists (men with more than one wife), prostitutes, people suffering from serious diseases and those who could not financially support themselves would not be granted entry to the USA.
  • Further controls were introduced in 1917 which widened the list of conditions placed on immigrants.
  • Literacy tests and an almost complete ban on Asian immigration were also introduced.

Despite this it continued to cause concern for many Americans, who began to reject the idea of America as a ‘melting pot’ where immigrants would quickly integrate and adopt the way of life.

They felt American cities were more of a ‘salad bowl’ as immigrants retained their own languages and customs.

World War One also caused divisions as many immigrants took different sides, for example.

The language barrier increased tension, especially between old immigrants, who spoke English, and the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Asia, who often did not.

Similarly, religious beliefs caused division as old immigrants were mostly Protestant (with the exception of the Irish), while many new immigrants were Catholics or Jewish.