Stories from the Archives
Jewish Immigration to America

The Door Slams Shut

Her 35th Birthday

Leaning toward a distant ship marked “Three percent” (a reference to the immigration quota), the Statue of Liberty says, “So few people are coming to greet me on my birthday.” The statue had been raised 35 years earlier that same week. (Cartoon from Der Groyser Kundes)

The current brouhaha over immigration policy is nothing new. While nativist animus today falls upon Mexican, Central American, and Muslim migrants, about 100 years ago, it was  Jews who were targeted.

The first U.S. immigration restrictions began in the 1880s. Aimed at Chinese and Japanese immigrants, there was a clear racial component. Ethnicity played an important role in subsequent debates on immigration, both in Congress and in the public sphere, and Jews, Irish, and Italians were also cast as undesirables.

A low-paid migrant class was necessary for industrial growth, so immigration continued apace through WWI. However, by the 1920s, a powerful anti-immigrant and nationalist fervor began to grip the country.

Promoting a nationalistic platform called “Americanism” that involved trade tariffs, opposition to military alliances, and restrictions on immigration, Warren G. Harding was elected president in 1920. Shortly after taking office, he signed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which limited immigration to 3% of a particular US population according to its numbers in the 1910 census. This privileged Western European immigrants over Eastern and Southern European immigrants, or more obviously, Jews and Italians.

Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge, signed the Comprehensive Immigration Act of 1924, which further reduced the quota. This act reduced Jewish immigration to the United States by 90% and essentially put an end to mass Jewish migration to the United States.

Jewish immigrants, who made up the majority of Jews in the country, were virulently opposed to these new immigration restrictions. They responded angrily in the Yiddish press, penning furious editorials and articles. The artists of of one satirical weekly, Der groyser kundes, crafted numerous cartoons that considered the situation from the perspective of a Jewish immigrant community for whom the issue was of critical importance.