First Quota Law - 1921

The immense influx of aliens flooding most American cities was creating social, cultural and economic tensions in a country which, although it claimed to be a haven for "the homeless and tempest-tost", was not prepared to accommodate so many immigrants in so short a time. Those who had been born in the USA considered themselves as "all-American" and many of these did not appreciate the coming of the so-called "new Americans". The new arrivals gravitated towards the cities, thus aggravating the problem of over-crowding with the consequent problem of un-employment and lack of acceptable hygienic standards because no decent accommodation was available.

A spokesman for the Maltese Government had warned that the economic situation in North America was in a state of flux and he advised intending emigrants to avoid settling in the big cities where hostility to new arrivals was coming out in the open. That same source warned of impending legislation on the part of the American Government as Washington was under steady pressure to stem the tide of uncontrolled immigration.

That impending legislation became law on May 19, 1921. President Warren G. Harding approved what was then commonly called the First Quota Law or the Provisional Immigration Measure. The application of the Bill seriously affected large scale immigration. It was to bring Maltese emigration to the USA to a virtual standstill for some years.

After the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, the USA emerged as the most powerful nation on earth. Most Americans willingly acknowledged their indebtedness to the millions of immigrants -who had built the nation. Since the Declaration of Independence in 1776, immigration had been a normal aspect of the American way of life and any restrictions on the admission of immigrants were meant not to control their numbers but to safeguard the health and character of an emerging nation.

It was in 1875 that Congress decided that some categories of immigrants had better not be allowed into the country. These categories included communists, prostitutes and those showing mental and serious physical defects. In 1876, the policy governing immigration was declared to be one of national interest falling within the exclusive responsibility of the Government.

Pressure from Californian interests resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which banned the future immigration of Chinese into the USA This Exclusion Act remained in force till 1943. Ten years after the passing of the first anti-Chinese legislation an amendment was made which required the registration of Chinese labourers already in the country. This amendment authorised the expulsion of any Chinese if after one year no certificate of registration was produced.

The enactments against the Chinese were passed because Americans on the Pacific Coast complained that the Chinese were prepared to work under inferior conditions for minimal wages and were therefore a threat to the accepted living standards of the time. Another undeclared motive was racial prejudice against Orientals who were considered as being too different from the rest and therefore unable to become full American citizens. Eventually such discrimination based on racial bias was to be extended to immigrants coming from certain regions of Europe. Their presence on American soil was not particularly cherished by those who felt their position and privilege threatened by the new arrivals.

In 1907 the USA had received the staggering total of 1,285,349 immigrants. In that same year an Immigration Act was passed which prohibited the entry of aliens who were over sixteen years of age'and were illiterate. The Literacy Test was aimed at non-European immigrants as it was then becoming fashionable to welcome certain races and bar others. Americans and Imperialist Europeans spoke menacingly about the Yellow Peril threatening to swamp the world with millions of hungry Orientals. Theodore Roosevelt, President of the USA, urged japan not to issue passports to those Japanese who intended to emigrate to California.

Since 1894 opponents of unrestricted and non-selective immigration had banded themselves together in an influential Immigration Restriction league which clamoured for a policy based on racial selection. According to the people behind the League, the only acceptable types of immigrants were those originating from Great Britain, Scandinavia, Germany and North-Western Europe. European Latins and others were a threat the American nation because of their physical appearance, their language, culture and manners. Such foreigners were a potential danger to American democracy because they were unable to become respectable citizens. It was hard for such inferior people to respect private business and industry because many of them had been tainted with radical ideas. Particular antipathy was expressed towards immigrants from the Southern parts of Catholic Europe who were supposed to tain true Americanism with Romanism and Revolution.

The First Quota Law of May 19, 1921, was a capitulation to such bigotry. President Warren G. Harding gave in to pressure from the Immigration Restriction League when he limited the annual number of immigrants to 3% of the number of foreign-born persons of most nationalities living in the USA in 1910.

Eventually the League pressed for even stricter controls and in 1924 the Johnson-Reed Act was passed with the approval of President Calvin Coolidge. This Act drastically limited the intake of aliens. The Act also showed that America now sanctioned racial discrimination as it officially accepted the principle that not all nationalities were equal.

According to the Johnson-Reed Act only 150,000 were to be allowed in one year. A nationality was permitted to send 2% of the number of immigrants present in the USA in 1890. This was planned to allow most of the quota to go to nationalities from North and Western Europe. The South and the East of Europe were only allowed to send 20,000 immigrants per year. Only 4,000 non-Europeans were to he allowed entry. Naturalisation was denied to Orientals.

It was obvious that the Act had pushed the key census year from 1910 to 1890 because up to 1890 America still had a largely homogenous population, but after that year up to 1914 some 15,000,000 immigrants had entered the USA from the Middle East and from the South and the East of Europe. The Johnson-Reed Act deliberately chose 1890 as the key year in order to exclude the undesirable types of inferior immigrants.

Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution by natural selection had been warmly welcomed by racists in Washington and elsewhere. According to Darwin higher forms of life had developed from the lower ones and man was the highest form of all. Mankind was made of various races and not all races had progressed equally. Proponents of the Immigration Restriction League considered themselves as the acme of human perfection and they felt that America was destined to be the special reserve of superior human development.

The National Origins Law established for the first time permanent numerical restrictions upon immigration to the USA National quotas were to be based on the ethnic composition of the USA Prospective immigrants were required to obtain a sponsor living in the country and they needed a visa from an American consulate abroad before being allowed in. Aliens considered as ineligible for American citizenship were denied a visa and anybody caught contravening such requirements was to be deported.

The authorities in Malta were following such developments with intense interest. It became obvious that the Act of 1924 was to reduce Maltese emigration to the USA to a mere trickle.

Mr. Henry Casolani had been trying to obtain some concessions for Malta since 1922. The First Quota Law of 1921 had seriously hindered the flow of Maltese migration to the shores of America, and consequent legislation had reduced that flow to a mere trickle. Mr. Skinner, the American Consul General in London, had told Mr. Henry Casolani that the Maltese could not avail themselves of the generous quota allowed to emigrants from the United Kingdom. Instead, Mr. Skinner said, Malta had been placed with a group of miniscule countries known as "Other Europe" which was made up of Andorra, Iceland, Monaco and Liechtenstein. Under the Provisional Immigration Measure of 1921 those countries were allowed 86 emigrants to be shared between them.

The Superintendent of Emigration told Mr. Skinner that over 4,000 adult males and 900 women had emigrated from Malta to the USA during the two and a half years which had preceded the First Quota Law. Mr. Casolani also said that many other Maltese had entered the USA from other countries and the Emigration Department in Malta was unable to state exactly the numbers of such emigrants. However, although the Maltese presence in the USA was insignificant prior to 1910, the number of permanent Maltese resident in that country in 1921 was probably close to 6,000. The legislation signed by President Warren G. Harding ignored this fact.

In stark language the Maltese authorities were told that the supposed number of Maltese residing in the USA when the census of 1910 was taken up was calculated as being less than five hundred. This meant that Malta could only send fourteen emigrants each year. There was no guarantee that the fourteen emigrants which were allowed to procede to the USA would not be rejected by Immigration officers once they were examined on Ellis Island.

A large number of Maltese married men living in Detroit, New York and San Francisco, were caught unawares by the new restrictions. The insignificant quota of fourteen emigrants per year would make the chance of such families to be reunited very remote. The quota also excluded the possibility of sending unrelated emigrants to America.

The human hardship involved by such separations must have been very painful and many families must have suffered accordingly. Between 1918 and 1921, 900 Maltese women had left their Island to join their husbands and fathers in the USA There were now a large number of wives and children, fathers and mothers, fiancees and brothers and sisters who had every right to join their loved ones who were legally living in the USA

Source: The Great Exodus by Fr Lawrence E. Attard. (C) P.E.G. Ltd - 1989.

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