Congressional Debate on Immigration Restriction

Excerpts from the Original Electronic Text.

Congress had imposed a literacy test and other restrictions on immigration during World War I.  By 1921, many were arguing for even more stringent restrictions as a way to maintain the purity of American culture as they understood it.  The result of the debate excerpted below was to reduce immigration from southern and eastern Europe (including countries like Italy and the Soviet Union).  In 1924 immigration from those areas was limited even further. -smv

December 10, 1920
House of Representatives

{1} MR. [FREDERICK W.] ROWE [R.-N.Y.]: Mr. Chairman, I am not so much afraid of the immigrant as some Members of this House appear to be. I have lived in the city of New York a great many years and have met and had business relations with a great many who came over as immigrants. Up to 1914 we received into this country a net of about a million a year. This year we will probably receive into this country 700,000 or 800,000. Of every two who come to this country one is going back. There is no great reason why we should take this up at this time. The people who come here are not of a poorer class than those who have come here during the last 20 years. I know considerable about the conditions. I was present at Ellis Island, went down on the ship that sent the 249 undesirables back to Europe, where they should have been sent long ago. I have been twice during the month of November to Ellis Island to see what the conditions were at that place. The last time I was over to Ellis Island I took with me a prominent citizen of the State of Iowa, because in the papers of Iowa he had read very often that undesirables were coming to this country, and wanted to see for himself the conditions at the island. That was about three weeks ago. The island was full of people and we had a splendid opportunity to examine the situation. We spent more than three hours there. When he came back on the boat and met several people at dinner that night I remember that the very first remark he made was to the effect that the immigrants whom he saw coming in at Ellis Island were of a much better class than one would believe from reading the newspapers of his own State or the papers of Chicago.

{2} The fact is that in this country we need laboring men and women of certain-classes. We are paying now in the city of New York for ordinary shovelers to dig trenches in which to lay a sewer or a water pipe from $4.50 to $6 a day. We are paying from $6 to $9 a-day for hod carriers. It is not because we have not plenty of men in this country. The fact is that our people of the second generation in this country will not carry a hod or dig a trench. We need the men on the farms. We have a great need in this country of competent women to do housework, and there are in Europe men who are willing to do this hard work in America and women who are capable and willing to do the housework. I believe in restrictions. I would have a very careful examination. I would not have it made under labor- union organizations. They represent only about one-ninth of the laboring men in this country. They should not have the power of saying who shall come and how the laws of this country shall be administered in respect to who is to be permitted to come into the Nation. I want to have restrictions. I think that for a limited time we might stop immigration in this country long enough so that Ellis Island may be made a proper place in which to receive all of the immigrants who desire to come into the country.

. . . .

{3} MR. [JAMES V.] MCCLINTIC [D.-Okla.]: Mr. Chairman and gentlemen of the committee, I feel that the Immigration Committee is entitled to the thanks of this body for bringing in a bill of this kind during the early part of this session. There is an old saying, "A stitch in times save nine," and this saying, in my opinion, is apropos of the condition that exists in the United States at the present moment with relation to the need of a law which will protect the citizens of this country from the foreign immigrants who are fleeing to our shores to escape the heavy taxation in the war-devastated regions of Europe.

{4} Some time ago it was my privilege to visit Ellis Island, not as a member of the committee but as a private citizen interested in obtaining information relative to the situation which exists at that place. I stood at the end of a hall with three physicians, and I saw them examine each immigrant as they came down the line, rolling back the upper eyelid in order to gain some information as to the individual's physical condition. I saw them place the chalk marks on their clothing which indicated that they were in a diseased condition, so that they could be separated when they reached the place where they were to undergo certain examinations. Afterwards I went to a large assembly hall where immigrants came before the examiners to take the literacy test, and the one fact that impressed me more than anything else was that practically every single immigrant examined that day had less than $50 to his credit. . . .

{5} Practically all of them were weak, small of stature, poorly clad, emaciated, and in a condition which showed that the environment surrounding them in their European homes were indeed very bad.

{6} It is for this reason that I say the class of immigrants coming to the shores of the United States at this time are not the kind of people we want as citizens in this country. It is a well-known fact that the majority of immigrants coming to this country at the present time are going into the large industrial centers instead of the agricultural centers of the United States, and when it is taken into consideration that the large centers are already crowded to the extent that there is hardly sufficient living quarters to take care of the people it can be readily seen that this class of people, instead of becoming of service to the communities where they go, they will become charges to be taken care of by charitable institutions. The week I visited Ellis Island I was told that 25,000 immigrants had been unloaded at that port. From their personal appearance they seemed to be the off casts of the countries from which they came. . . .

{7} MR. [WILLIAM E.] MASON [R.-III.]:  Mr. Chairman, I am not in condition to do this subject justice, but I cannot be silent - - I think from a sense of duty -- while this bill is so hurriedly passed through the House of Representatives. I want to say for my fellow immigrants [laughter] in the House -- you are all immigrants; what have you got big heads about, every one of you. If this bill had been passed 50 or 100 years ago hardly any of the House would have been here. It would have kept the Pilgrim Fathers out. They had no passports. The meanest thing about this bill -- and I say that with all respect to my good friends who framed it -- is that the whole theory that this was to be the land of the free and the home of the brave and an asylum for the oppressed is destroyed by it. . . .

{8} The people have given you a new administration; we will have a new Attorney General; we will have a new administration of the department. Let us see what they can do. Let us see whether they cannot protect the American people from the things you are talking about. But to me the most unsentimental, the most selfish, un-American, unpatriotic thing is the ungodly desire to crowd every man off the earth because we do not want to compete with him. We get a prejudice; and you know that largely the basis of this is the prejudice against the Jews. Tell the truth about it. We are not afraid to speak the truth, are we? There is a prejudice against the Poles; there is a prejudice against the Germans; there is a prejudice against the Irish.

* * * * *

April 20, 1921
House of Representatives

{9} MR. [LUCIAN WALTON] PARRISH [D-Tex.]: We should stop immigration entirely until such a time as we can amend our immigration laws and so write them that hereafter no one shall be admitted except he be in full sympathy with our Constitution and laws, willing to declare himself obedient to our flag, and willing to release himself form any obligations he may owe to the flag of the country from which he came.

{10} It is time that we act now, because within a few short years the damage will have been done. The endless tide of immigration will have filled our country with a foreign and unsympathetic element. Those who are out of sympathy with our Constitution and the spirit of our Government will be here in large numbers, and the true spirit of Americanism left us by our fathers will gradually become poisoned by this uncertain element.

{11} The time once was when we welcomed to our shores the oppressed and downtrodden people from all the world, but they came to us because of oppression at home and with the sincere purpose of making true and loyal American citizens, and in truth and in fact they did adapt themselves to our ways of thinking and contributed in a substantial sense to the progress and development that our civilization has made. But that time has passed now; new and strange conditions have arisen in the countries over there; new and strange doctrines are being taught. The Governments of the orient are being overturned and destroyed, and anarchy and bolshevism are threatening the very foundation of many of them and no one can foretell what the future will bring to many of those countries of the Old World now struggling with these problems.

. . . .

{12} MR. ROSSDALE: Now why this hysteria? The gentleman also assumes that all of these people over there are antagonistic to American ideals and interests. Has the gentleman ever come in contact with a lot of these immigrants and does he really know that they are of that type? I come from the Bronx, where there are a great deal of these so-called foreigners, and I have an intimate knowledge of their political opinions and ideals, and I can say to the gentleman from Texas that if he had even a speaking acquaintance with them he would quickly learn that they breathe purer and higher ideals than he had any previous knowledge of. I invite the gentleman from Texas to come to the Bronx and find out for himself what splendid American citizens they make. [Applause]

. . . .

{13} MR. [MEYER] LONDON [Socialist-N.Y.]: . . . . While purporting to be a temporary measure, just for a year or so, this bill is really intended to pave the way to permanent exclusion.

{14} To prevent immigration means to cripple the United States. Our most developed industrial States are those which have the largest immigration. Our most backward States industrially and in the point of literacy are those which have no immigration to speak of..

{15} The extraordinary and unprecedented growth of the United States is as much a cause as the effect of immigration.

{16} Defenders of this bill thoughtlessly repeat the exploded theory that there have been two periods of immigration, the good period, which the chairman of the committee fixes up to the year 1900, and the bad period since. The strange thing about it is that at no time in history has any country made such rapid progress in industry, in science, and in the sphere of local legislation as this country has shown since 1900.

{17} The new immigration is neither different nor worse, and besides that, identically the same arguments were used against the old immigration.

* * * * *

May 2, 1921

{18} MR. HEFLIN: I do not intend to vote for any such proposition. I would like to shut for a time the immigration door. Thousands come here who never take the oath to support our Constitution and to become citizens of the United States. They pay allegiance to some other country while they live upon the substance of our own. They fill places that belong to the loyal wage-earning citizens of America. They preach a doctrine that is dangerous and deadly to our institutions. They are no of service whatever to our people. The y constitute a menace and danger to us every day, and I can not understand the seeming indifference that some national lawmakers exhibit upon this serious subject. This very question of immigration is the most vital question that affects us to-day.

{19} Senators, if we permit this thing to go on the day is coming when you can draw a line through the United States and ask the native stock to get on one side and the foreign born on the other and they will outnumber us. They will be in the majority.

. . . .

{20} MR. WILLIAMS: The Senator speaks about the day coming when they will outnumber us. The day has already come, has it not, when they hold the balance of power and can decide a national election?

{21} MR. HEFLIN: That is true, absolutely true. They can get us divided on any great issue and get their forces in compact, concrete form and hold the balance of power and decide issues that affect the conduct and the life of the United States Government.

. . . .

{22} Mr. President, I want to suggest to the Senator from Rhode Island and to others on the other side that I hear a great deal said about protecting American labor against the cheap labor of Europe; that the standard of living is so much higher here,

{23} American labor can not compete with cheap labor of Europe. I could never understand why you would build a tariff wall between the products of the cheap labor of Europe and the United States and then throw the doors to America open to thousands of cheap European laborers to come here and compete with American labor. Yes, come here and compete with the loyal American citizen who has a wife and children to support. If you want to protect these men, protect them by keeping out those who work for starvation wages and spread their dangerous doctrines around the industrial establishments of our country, and take the places of our men, and get money that ought to be going into the pockets of the loyal wage earners of America.

{24} You are permitting people to come over here who never become citizens of this country. They go into our industrial establishments and take the places that should be filled by American workingmen. They get the places and American workingmen are walking the streets idle and hungry. Senators, the time has come to stop this thing. We are seeking to keep these people out.

Return to the Hanover College History Department.

Return to Hanover College Visitor's Page