Immigration History

The Lasting Legacy of the Johnson-Reed Act


On May 26, 1924, the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act was enacted in the United States, essentially creating a new possible status for immigrants: “undocumented.” Passing in Congress with limited opposition, it was the most comprehensive immigration restriction to date, and the first to explicitly exclude Europeans. 

The law introduced a quota system, limiting overall the number of people allowed to immigrate per year to 165,00, and 80% reduction from prior years, and allotting a certain number of visas to people from each country outside of the Western Hemisphere. Despite the law passing in 1924, they decided to use the “national origin” statistics from the 1890 census as a benchmark for the quotas, a decision that deeply restricted Southern and Eastern European immigrants. In 1890, the majority of immigrants were coming from Northern and Western European countries like Britain, Germany, and Ireland, and the numbers of non-Western European immigrants were much lower than in later censuses. As an example of how this law affected people in non-Western Europe, in 1921 a recorded 222,260 Italians were able to immigrate to the United States. By 1925, there were only 6,203 Italians who obtained visas through the new system. 

President Calvin Coolidge signs the Immigration Act on the White House South Lawn along with appropriation bills for the Veterans Bureau, Library of Congress
President Calvin Coolidge signs the Immigration Act on the White House South Lawn along with appropriation bills for the Veterans Bureau, Library of Congress

The movement behind this legislation to limit and restrict specific groups of immigrants was fueled by dominant ideas about race. A coalition of scientists, labor leaders, and politicians used the pseudo-scientific theory of eugenics to build the case that massive numbers of immigrants would transform the demographics and culture of American cities in negative ways. U.S. policy from years earlier had already excluded immigrants from Asian countries, but supporters of eugenics theory pushed the notion that Northern and Western Europeans were superior to Eastern and Southern Europeans and were biologically better suited to become American.

Legislators Albert Johnson, US representative from Washington state, and David Reed, US Senator from Pennsylvania, designed the Act and lobbied heavily for its passage. They found little opposition from their fellow lawmakers, with the bill passing through the Senate with a vote of 62 to 6. A small cohort of politicians (and many immigrant-origin Americans) fiercely opposed the Act, including junior New York Representative Emanuel Celler, who would continue fighting against the law for the next four decades, and become the author of the Hart Celler Act of 1965, which eventually repealed the quota system. 

Black and white portrait of border patrol staff

The impact of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act had an immeasurable effect on countless European families, but also on the way the Federal Government interacted with immigrants. Another provision of the Act created the US Border Patrol, initiated by concerns that European immigrants would enter the United States unauthorized through the land border with Mexico. People in the Western Hemisphere were not included in the new quota system, so people from Mexico were able to continue arriving for work and immigration without issue. Yet, with the creation of the Border Patrol, officers deported thousands of European immigrants from places like Italy, Greece, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. 

One family affected by the 1924 Immigration Act was the Baldizzis. We tell the story of Adolfo and Rosaria Baldizzi when they lived at 97 Orchard Street in the 1930s with their two US-born children, Josephine and Johnny. But years before, Adolfo traveled to New York alone, departing in October of 1923. He found work as a cabinet maker and set aside money from his earnings to pay for Rosaria’s passage. Even before the Johnson-Reed Act was passed, the process of immigration was expensive. It was common practice for some family members to enter the U.S. first, find a job, and save money to pay for the rest of their family to immigrate. However, Adolfo arrived just before the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act, and as a result he and Rosaria were separated for two years before he was able to afford her trip to New York.

By the criteria established in this immigration law, Rosaria, as an Italian, was one of many thousands of Italians hoping for one of only 6,000 visas. National debates and legislation passed in faraway Washington DC about who could/should become an American directly influenced and complicated the immigration story of Rosaria Baldizzi, and her children Josephine and Johnny were only told parts of the story. Adolfo and Rosaria would eventually become U.S. citizens, and Josephine’s memories shared with the museum recall her mother and father’s love of voting and pride in becoming citizens. 


Rosaria Baldizzi's citizenship papers
Rosaria Baldizzi's citizenship papers

The impact of the Johnson-Reed Act is incalculable, as discussion of wider topics like national policy throughout history can often obscure the individual stories of the people most affected by them. To learn more about the United States’ anti-immigrant ideas and policies past and present, watch our past Tenement Talk with Define American and the Immigration History Research Center on our YouTube channel!