Who supported restricting immigration in the 1920s and why? Why were they successful in gaining federal legislation to limit immigration in these years?
The Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, attempted to limit the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe through a quota system. It completely excluded immigrants from Asia, despite a previous deal with the Japanese government that would allow a certain number of Japanese immigrants into the United States.
The exclusion of Asians was due to the "yellow peril," or the notion that Asians were dangerous to the Western world, a notion which developed in the mid to late nineteenth century when Asians first immigrated to the United States, particularly Chinese immigrants who helped to build the Union Pacific Railroad.
A number of different people and groups supported limiting immigration, including the Ku Klux Klan, which saw a revival in the late 1910s and 1920s after the popularity of the film The Birth of a Nation, as well as Republican legislators such as Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham, an "immigration expert," who set up a quota system that allowed immigrants in at a rate of "three percent of the total population of the foreign-born of each nationality in the United States as recorded in the 1910 census." This quota system "included large numbers of people of British descent." Many of them were descendants of original settlers. Thus, the system was designed to increase the proportion of western Europeans, particularly those of the Protestant faith.
The 1920s, despite its modernity in the arts and increased mechanization in industry, was a rather backward-looking era, fearful of advances made by women—the Nineteenth Amendment was passed in 1920—and by black Americans. Fears of change and fears that the dominant group would lose social prestige, economic power, and cultural influence were major reasons for resistance to immigration in the 1920s, just as these fears motivate nativist sentiments today.