Guest Editorial

Roy Beck

1924 immigration act helped Blacks

Exactly 100 years ago this past May, Congress passed a bill that allowed millions of Black Americans to lift themselves out of poverty and to greatly increase their political power.
But the legislation had nothing to do with civil rights or social safety net programs, at least not directly. Instead, the bill sharply reduced annual immigration levels.
By reducing the torrent of foreign labor arriving on U.S. shores, the Immigration Act of 1924 gave still-racist employers little choice but to recruit descendants of American slavery instead of waiting for the next wave of immigrants. Millions of Black southerners moved north in a “Great Migration” to higher-paying jobs.
Congress today has much to learn from the history of the 1924 Immigration Act. The law, and the decades that followed, show how tightening the labor market by restricting immigration can lift the fortunes of America’s most vulnerable workers.
Between 1880 and 1924, labor competition with immigrants had severely depressed economic opportunities for freedmen. Ellis Island-era immigration gave northern industrialists the excuse they needed to avoid hiring freed slaves and their descendents.
Such blatant discrimination and its role in reducing bargaining power and pay for African Americans was clear to the nation’s Black publishers and other leaders.
“This country is suffering from immigrant indigestion,” wrote A. Philip Randolph, the great Black union leader, not long before passage of the 1924 immigration-reduction act. “It is time to call a halt on this grand rush for American gold, which over-floods the labor market, resulting in lowering the standard of living, race-riots, and general social degradation.”
Randolph and other Black leaders got much of what they wanted when President Coolidge signed the 1924 legislation. Immigration immediately plunged from 707,000 in 1924 to 294,000 in 1925. The number of new arrivals averaged less than 200,000 annually over the next 45 years.
Northern employers finally needed African-American workers. As a result, roughly six million Black southerners moved to better jobs in other regions.
Black workers’ status soared nearly twice as fast once expanding industrial opportunities allowed them to prove their productivity. Between 1940 and 1980, the real incomes of Black men rose four-fold. More than 70 percent of Black Americans were found to belong in the middle class by 1980, up from 22 percent in 1940.
The 1924 law wasn’t perfect. Its system of national quotas favoring northern Europeans and excluding many countries on other continents came to be seen as at odds with the nation’s move toward a race-blind society.
The desire to correct this racial discrimination inspired Congress to pass new immigration legislation in 1965 that inadvertently re-started the mass immigration of today -- which none of the 1965 law’s sponsors said they intended. And now, a disproportionate percentage of the descendants of American slavery have suffered stagnation in real incomes -- or been driven from the labor market altogether -- after our own generation’s four-decade tide of historically high immigration.
The Immigration Act of 1924 fumbled on who should immigrate. But in deciding how many should, the law enabled descendants of American slavery to prove that -- despite racist domestic laws and social mores -- they could prosper in tight labor markets even faster than white workers.
Congress would do well to study this history before choosing immigration policy in 2024.

Roy Beck is author of Back of the Hiring Line: A 200-Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias, and Depression of Black Wealth and founder of the NumbersUSA Education and Research Foundation. This piece originally appeared in the Detroit News.


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