Power  /  Comment

The Racist Origins of America’s Broken Immigration System

How a little-known, century-old law perpetuated the odious notion that certain types of immigrants degrade our nation’s character.

Yet the fundamental template for how immigration policy is written, communicated about, and implemented, how it’s discussed in Congress and exists conceptually in the minds of lawmakers and voters alike, traces back to Johnson-Reed. “In a huge amount of the basic structure of immigration law and policy and the debate over it, you can see 1924 as a central inflection point for that,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, co-director of the Center for Immigration Law and Policy at the UCLA School of Law.

It was born out of the maturation of the openly racist eugenics movement, which emphasized now-debunked theories around increasing the quality of humans by ensuring the preservation of genetic desirability. Representative Albert Johnson, the legislation’s House sponsor, once appointed an “expert eugenics agent” to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, which he chaired. In justifying his legislation, he fretted that “our capacity to maintain our cherished institutions stands diluted by a stream of alien blood.” A hundred years later, Donald Trump would make headlines for doubling down on his assertion that immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country.”

Johnson-Reed updated a law from three years earlier that set similar quotas at 3 percent of any nation’s 1910 census population. The 20-year change in cutoff was debated extensively in the run-up to Johnson-Reed’s passage, and the 1890 adjustment won out for a simple reason. “The Emergency Quota Act was not strict enough from a nativist perspective,” said UC Berkeley historian and author Hidetaka Hirota. There was still too much room for “Italians, Jews, Greeks, Slavs, those European immigrants considered inferior, weaker stock.”

The quota system would eventually be repealed in 1965 with the passage of the second Immigration and Nationality Act, one of the final and less heralded triumphs of the civil rights movement. The act still forms the basis of our current immigration system. Yet Johnson-Reed left its residue, a lingering conviction that a bad stock of immigrants would be a cultural and political poison pill decaying the exceptional character of an ascendant United States.

“Legend has it that the way [Lyndon] Johnson, a pretty effective arm-twister, sold it to the liberal Democrats [was] that it was consistent with civil rights, eliminating discriminatory provisions,” said Paul Wickham Schmidt, a professor at Georgetown Law and a former chief appellate immigration judge who began working in the Immigration and Naturalization Service in the 1970s before becoming the agency’s acting general counsel. “Meanwhile, he told Southern and Western Democrats: Don’t worry, this really isn’t going to change anything. Who can apply for family-based [immigration] except people whose families are already here? And those are all our white, European, longtime ancestors.”