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National Origins Act

National Origins Act


The National Origins Act of 1924 was a component of the Immigration Act of 1924 that established a quota system for determining how many immigrants could enter the United States, restricted by country of origin. Although the quota system established by this Act has been abolished and other provisions heavily modified by the Immigration Act of 1965, this Act represents a significant redesign of the American immigration system for several decades in the mid-20th century. The impetus to restrict immigration picked up steam in 1907 when the Dillingham Commission recommended restricting immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, noting that immigration from those countries was “undesirable.”

National Origins Formula

The most important provision of the National Origins Act was the restrictive immigration quota system. The first quotas were established three years earlier, through provisions in the Emergency Quota Act that limited immigration from any country to 3% the number of residents originating in that country living in the United States. This Act caused immigration to drop by almost 500,000 persons between 1920 and 1922, primarily Southern and Eastern European immigrants. Nominal Latin American and African immigration, and the immigration of professionals however, were not restricted. The policy was renewed in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, over presidential veto, before finally coming to an end in 1965.

Other provisions

The National Origins Act established a system of consular based immigration, which required immigrants to have a visa issued by an American consular officer abroad before immigrating to the United States. This practice is still in use today.

No immigrant ineligible to for citizenship naturalization could immigrate to the US. Since Asian immigrants were ineligible for citizenship, this meant, in effect, that no Asians could immigrate to the US. Although provisions were made for family reunification, “picture brides,” which were the primary means for Asian women to immigrate to the US, was expressly disallowed. Distinctions between kinds of alien visitors, such as temporary visitors were also established by this legislation.

In practice

Although there were no racial restrictions in the National Origins Act of 1924, the nature of the quotas ensured that limited numbers of certain Europeans and almost no Asians could enter the United States. The addition of the Asian Exclusion Act, which barred Asians from becoming naturalized citizens, shut the door on meaningful Asian immigration until 1965. If populations of those immigrants from undesirable nations were already small, then only a minuscule amount of additional immigrants from that country could join them. For example:

There are 1,000 immigrants from China living in the US. In reality, further Chinese would not be eligible for immigration due to naturalization laws, but if they were;

The National Origins Act limits additional immigration from all nations, including China to 2% of the number of Chinese Americans living in the US

2% of 1,000 equals 20, which means that only twenty more persons from China could immigrate to the US. If there were additional restrictions on new immigrants, such as literacy tests, that number may be lower.

Conversely, if there were 150,000 Americans of British descent, 3,000 more immigrants could join them.

This process effectively skewed the immigration system with the intention of keeping America’s ethnic distribution consistent. The provisions were calculated and amended several times with the quota percentage reduced to 2% and the population numbers from 1890 to be used as a benchmark, restricting undesirable immigration even further.


1907 – Dillingham Commission determines that immigration should be restricted to avoid undesirable elements from entering the United States, leading to the drive to establish limitation on Southern and Eastern European immigration.

1921 – The Emergency Quota Act is the first to establish discriminatory quotas aimed at preserving the ethnic and racial composition of the United States. Limitations prevented newcomers from each country to 3% of that population in the United States according to numbers in the previous census.

1924 – Immigration Act/National Origins Act lowered the quota percentage to 2% and added provisions to limit total immigration to 150,000 yearly by 1927. Other provisions included using an earlier census to restrict new immigration by ethnicity even further, allow family reunifications and reducing the number of unskilled workers. The United Sates also switched to a consular-based immigration system that requires immigrants to obtain an immigration visa from the US Consulate. Due to these changes, immigration from Italy fell almost 90% and some “undesirable” immigrant populations actually decreased.

1927 – Percentage quotas end in favor of a proportional system based on the United States population that allowed 150,000 immigrants into the US yearly. This took effect in 1929. This was just as restrictive as the previous system as “undesirable” immigrants were still subject to smaller numbers that Western and Northern European Immigrants.

1952 – Revised Immigration and Nationality Act continues National Origins Formula with proportional quotas but removes racial restrictions. Veto by President Truman overridden by Congress.

1965 – The immigration system, as defined by the National Origins Act, ends and discriminatory quotas are abolished. Immigration to the United States opened too all persons from all countries.

NEXT: Immigration Act of 1990

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