For generations, the rhetoric surrounding immigrants has been the same. White, native born men especially worry that immigrants are going to push them out and take their jobs. It was no different in the Progressive Era. Through the early and mid 1800s there was not much regulation on immigration and the United States welcomed newcomers. However, animosity started to grow among native born whites and they started pushing for legislation that would hinder the number of immigrants.
The first major piece of legislation was the Chinese Exclusion Act that was passed in 1882. Nativist whites blamed the Chinese for taking jobs; they were willing to work for lower wages and would cross union picket lines which greatly angered white workers. As a result, this piece of legislation banned Chinese laborers from immigrating for ten years and would set the stage for more comprehensive immigration reform bills that would be passed in the Progressive Era.
An Immigration Literacy Act was passed in 1917 as non English speaking southern and Eastern Europeans started coming into the country. Many people believed that this influx would damage the fabric of American society and harm the economy. Much like literacy tests in the south administered to African Americans, this act stated that anyone over the age of sixteen wanting to come to the United States from a foreign country had to pass a literacy test. This act also barred people who were deemed unfit from entering – generally this referred to those with disabilities that rendered someone unfit to work. It also barred all immigration from Asian countries.
Another major piece of legislation passed during this time was the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. This piece of legislation limited the number of immigrants that could come from certain countries to an annual three percent based on the number of residents from that country already living in the United States (Wikipedia) based on the 1910 census. They used this census because it showed lower numbers of people from certain countries and so less people from those places were allowed in. Congress went even further in 1924 when they passed a revised Immigration Act that lowered the census number to two percent and changed the census used for calculation to the one taken in 1890.
While this resentment was felt by many, the United States censuses from this time period can be used to show that, in fact, the United States was not in danger of being overtaken by immigrants as people believed. The reality is that while there was a large influx of immigrants, native born whites were still the overwhelming majority and growing at a much faster rate than the immigrant population. The charts above show the breakdown per state of native born vs. foreign born whites in the US in both 1880 and 1920. However, people are more likely to believe what they feel and use their own insights so with the media playing into stereotypes common during that time native born whites felt that they were at risk and were willing to do whatever it took to preserve what they deemed acceptable society. This type of legislation would continue on through the 1900s and we still see a lot of these sentiments alive today.