“Immigration” (April 21, 1921)
by Harold J Wahl (1900-1985)
17 x 19 in., ink on heavy paper
Wahl was the editorial cartoonist for the Sacramento Bee and was introduced to readers in 1920 in a front-page cartoon. Harold enjoyed drawing in his childhood and fondly remembered doing the artwork for Whatcom High School’s yearbook, Kulshan. After high school he attended the Chicago Academy of fine Arts.
His first job as an artist was for the McClatchy newspapers in Sacramento California doing cartoons during the Harding era. His pen sketched issues on the Alien Exclusion Act, Prohibition and Irish troubles. After five years with the newspapers, Harold was called home to Bellingham to help his father with Wahl’s Department store during the depression. During this time Mr. Wahl moonlighted as a magazine artist, drawing cartoons for Liberty, MacLean’s in Canada and the Rotarian. World War II began and Harold was sent to Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands. He moved towards painting during his tour.
His work evolved from early near photographic images to becoming purely abstract. After retiring as a business executive in 1948, he devoted his full time to painting, whose abstract compositions always recalled his past as an illustrator.
The Immigration Act of 1921 imposed a quota system from 1921-1924, and put an end to the ideal of the United States as a refuge for those escaping their home country in hope of a better life. Although intended as temporary legislation, it proved to be the most important turning point in American immigration policy by establishing quotas based on national origin.
Warren Harding signed the law during the first year of his administration. Wilson, who served after him, opposed the legislation and twice vetoed legislation to add literacy tests. Albert Johnson was a Republican representative from the state of Washington. He chaired the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization and strongly supported total restriction.
During most of the nineteenth century, people who wanted to immigrate to the United States were able to do so. By the 1880s, however, this freedom was starting to vanish with the first law that restricted immigration in 1882, when the Chinese were barred from entering the United States. Antipathy to Chinese workers in California triggered Congress to pass this legislation due to job fears and racial bigotry. Many people believed that Chinese workers would accept lower wages than whites, enticing employers to hire them instead of native-born Americans; in addition, there were people who felt the Chinese culture was inferior and that they would never be a credit to the United States. In 1907, under an informal agreement with the government of Japan, the Japanese were added to the undesirables list. Other groups forbidden from entering the United States were those suffering from mental illness, paupers, polygamists, prostitutes, and those with a “loathsome or contagious disease.”
Anti-immigrant groups, such as the American Protective Association (established in 1887) and the Immigration Restriction League (founded in Boston in 1894), cautioned of an “immigrant invasion” that could threaten the American dream. They opposed open immigration, arguing that the immigrants came from poorer and “backward” regions of Europe. They warned that these immigrants would bring ideas of anarchism, communism, radicalism, or socialism with them, and that due to their preference of living in cities, they would contribute to the power of crooked bosses. Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL, supported their opinion, adding that since the new immigrants would accept low wages, it would lead to lower wages for all workers.
President McKinley’s assassination in 1901 led to the banning of anarchists and people who agitated for the violent downfall of the US government. In 1907, the House and Senate set up the United States Immigration Commission, and three years later this commission issued a 42-volume report recommending a cutback in immigration, claiming that immigrants were “racially inferior.” The commission warned that immigrants from eastern and southern Europe lacked intelligence and were likely to turn to crime or end up poor and sick. It suggested a literacy test and although Congress passed literary test legislation in 1912, President Taft used his veto power, pointing out that illiteracy came from a dearth of education and was unrelated to inborn intelligence. Open immigration was part of America’s history and values, and many of America’s most energetic and wealthiest citizens were illiterate when they first arrived on American shores. Had the United States excluded such people, Taft contended, America would never have attained the greatness it did.
When America entered World War I two years later, however, Congress overruled Wilson’s second veto and a reading test was administered to prospective immigrants over the age of 16. In addition, the law excluded those from China, India, and Japan, despite any degree of literacy.
Immigration rose dramatically in 1920, with fears that millions of Europe’s war refugees were about to invade the United States. Racism influenced many opinions, with Warren G. Harding, later president of the United States, calling for legislation to allow only people whose racial background proved that they could embrace American values to immigrate. Attorney Madison Grant, who became an adviser to Albert Johnson’s Immigration Committee, authored the most influential book promoting this racist view, The Passing of the Great Race in America (1916), describing society as a huge snake, with the head consisting of Nordic races, while the “inferior races” made up the tail. This sort of pseudo scientific argument resulted in the establishment of the 1921 quota system to ensure that the tail would not rule over the head.
In 1921, the House passed Johnson’s bill demanding a two-year moratorium on all immigration. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 drastically limited immigration into the United States. In 1922, only 309,556 people legally came to America, compared with 805,228 the prior year. Quotas for Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East, and New Zealand generally filled rapidly, with the eastern and southern Europeans filling almost 99 percent of their quota. Emigration from Canada, Mexico, and other nations of the Western Hemisphere was not restricted, as Congress wanted to ensure a sufficient supply of cheap agricultural labor for farmers in California and Texas. China and Japan were the only countries possessing a quota of zero.
Under the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, ships filled with prospective immigrants were turned away and sent back to their place of origin. These procedures, however, were only the start, and the self-appointed guardians of American racial purity in Congress were already plotting even tighter controls.
Taken from: “Immigration Act of 1921 Imposes Quota System, 1921-1924.” Historic U.S. Events. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Gale U.S. History In Context. Web. 5 Feb. 2013.
The Act was not significantly revised until the national origins provision was removed in 1965 by LBJ, although members of the LBGT community could still excluded due to “constitutional psychopathic inferiority” until 1990.