There’s always been a concern about what the economic impact will be on Americans of foreign-born labor coming to the United States.
Alvarez: The Immigration Act of 1917 included a provision that banned immigrants from the Asiatic Barred Zone—which included most of Asia—from entering the United States. How restrictive were the policies implemented through this piece of legislation?
Kraut: They were quite restrictive. But that law lasted only from 1917 to 1921 and then they went to the first of several temporary laws that culminated in the 1924 legislation, the Johnson-Reed bill. And that was quite restrictive—it was a dramatic drop in migration from southern and eastern Europe.
It took between 1924 and 1929 to get all the percentages squared away of how many people from each country could come [under the quota system]. What the legislation said was that each country in the world would be allotted a quota of 2 percent of those of their nationality already in the United States according to the 1890 census. And the 1890 census was used because it reflected a time before the mass migration of eastern and southern Europeans to the United States that happened between 1890 and the 1920s.
Alvarez: What happened in the time span between the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 and the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which dropped the quota system?
Kraut: Between 1924 and 1965, a lot happens. [There is] of course World War II, when it’s very difficult for people to move around the globe and migrate. And then in the aftermath of the Second World War, there’s the issue of refugees and displaced persons [as a result of the war and Nazi persecution]. And there are a number of displaced-persons acts and these are very, very ungenerous. The numbers were way lower than needed. Where were they going to go? They were literally people without any place to go, they were displaced persons, and they couldn’t go back. In fact, when President Harry Truman signed one in 1948, he told Congress that he did so with great, great regret because it was so ungenerous.
By the 1950s, migration is also a Cold War issue, and the United States encourages migration but only from those areas of the world where people are escaping Communism. Other than that, we continue to observe the restrictions of the 1920s. There are Cold War exceptions: One is in 1956 because of the Hungarian uprising, then again in 1959 because of Fidel Castro’s ascent in Cuba.
It’s very clear to some policymakers, including John F. Kennedy, who was pushing for reform at the time of his assassination, that the American policies were too restrictive, unjust, and so on. By 1965, Lyndon Johnson, in addition to all the civil-rights acts, pushes through the 1965 law and … we begin to see the configuration of the modern immigration system, as we know it.