The evolution of terrorism and spread of the Islamic state is forcing the United States to reexamine our immigration practices. Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim immigration while others consider less draconian approaches.
This is not the first time our nation has reevaluated immigration intake in response to international factors. The 1924 Immigration Act was the first bill to meaningfully limit immigration in our nation’s history. Two factors—both foreign and domestic—coalesced for Congress to pass this Act.
First, the country was experiencing unprecedented waves of immigration following WWI, doubling previous annual immigration admissions. Labor organizations worried that they would lose the important wage gains and improved labor conditions they had achieved as a result of increased competition.
Second, the Communist Revolution successfully (and violently) gained control of the Soviet Union and communism was spreading to other European countries. The American public feared the spread of communism at home and the government needed to act to prevent a revolution on U.S. soil.
Influenced by both of these issues, Congress passed the 1924 Immigration Act, which restricted immigration from nearly 900,000 immigrants a year to closer to 300,000. This level allowed immigrants to more quickly assimilate American values, including both commitment to democracy and equitable work place wages/standards.
However the 1924 Immigration Act was not entirely positive. It set a quota system that heavily favored certain European countries and discriminated against immigrants based on national origin—completely barring admissions from Asian countries.
The combination of today’s labor issues and national security threats are similar to what our nation faced almost a century ago. The United States admits over a million legal immigrants every year, though the middle class has not seen income growth for almost two decades. Now ISIS is spreading through Europe and has threatened to infiltrate the United States.
We can look to the 1924 Immigration Act as model for both what to emulate and avoid. History reflects that reducing the numbers was positive for both jobs and diminishing the spread of radicalism at home. As we look at the purpose of our immigration system and how it affects both labor market dynamics and national security, reducing admissions makes sense. What we need to consider is how to fairly set criteria for admissions and limits. In doing so, we should be careful not to repeat the same mistakes of discriminating against individuals based solely on their country of origin or religion.