Anti-immigration backlash – 100 years ago

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Backlash against immigration. Concerns about America’s changing culture. Calls for legislation to keep foreigners out. Sound familiar?

Given today’s political debates, it feels fitting that this month marks the 100th anniversary of a law that sharply reduced immigration. The Immigration Act of 1924 was passed after decades of increasing arrivals, especially from southern and eastern Europe – which nativist groups were especially alarmed about.

But the law didn’t exactly slash immigration across the board. It pegged quotas for each country to the number of nationals who were in the U.S. in 1890, when immigration from outside western and northern Europe was much smaller.

Matthew Smith, a historian at Miami University, unpacks how immigration – and opinions about it – shifted over the course of the 19th century, from anti-Catholic bias to the closing of the Western frontier. His story is a reminder of how complex the national discussions around immigration, assimilation and race were – and continue to be.

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Molly Jackson

Religion and Ethics Editor

Immigrant children at Ellis Island in New York, 1908. National Archives/Wikimedia Commons

A century ago, anti-immigrant backlash almost closed America’s doors

Matthew Smith, Miami University

May 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1924, which sharply cut the number of people allowed into the US.

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