The 1920s unfolded at the tail end of the greatest wave of immigration in American history. Between 1880 and 1920, more than 25 million foreigners arrived on American shores, transforming the country. The immigrant surge of the late 19th and early 20th century was distinctive in its size, its demographics, and its impact upon American culture and society.
More than 80% of the arrivals after 1890 were so-called "New Immigrants," natives of Southern and Eastern Europe, culturally and ethnically perceived to be quite different from the Germans and Britons who had embodied the bulk of the immigration into the United States in earlier periods. Italians, Poles, Jews, and Slavs—ethnic groups rarely encountered en masse earlier in American history—arrived in large numbers.
They also departed in large numbers. The New Immigrants were distinctive from earlier migrants in that most didn't want to stay. These immigrants, mostly male and mostly young, hoped to earn enough money during a temporary stay in America to be able to afford an increased standard of living upon returning to their homeland. Something between 50% and 80% of the New Immigrants are believed to have eventually returned to their countries of origin. The exceptions were Jews (who mostly came from Russia, and only 4% of whom repatriated) and Irish (9%), two groups that tended to stay in America permanently because they faced religious persecution, political oppression, and economic privation back home.
Despite high rates of repatriation among the New Immigrants as a whole, enough migrants put down roots in America to boost the foreign-born population of the country to record levels—just under 15% in the Censuses of 1920 and 1930. While the vast majority of the population of the United States—always more than 85%—remained native-born citizens, an especially heavy concentration of immigrants in major cities created the feeling of a foreign takeover. By 1920, 42% of New Yorkers were foreign-born; 41% of Chicagoans; 42% of San Franciscans.
Immigrants in these bustling cities tended to congregate together with their countrymen; the 1920s were the heyday of the urban ethnic enclave. Immigrants, many speaking little or no English, settled together with their compatriots and forged close-knit communities, often boasting ethnic shops, ethnic markets, ethnic banks, ethnic clubs, ethnic cinemas, even ethnic radio stations, broadcasting in the mother tongue. These invaluable, if insular, community institutions only lost their grip on ethnic populations when overwhelmed by the spread of American mass culture during the 1920s—the chain store, the bank branch, the national radio broadcast, and the Hollywood motion picture created, in some cases for the first time, a real common ground that crossed ethnic boundaries in America's cities.
The patterns of migration and settlement common to the New Immigrants were in some ways mirrored by those of American blacks. Employment opportunities created by World War I spurred the "Great Migration," the mass movement of African-Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North. In the cities of the North, blacks built their own ethnic communities, not unlike those of their immigrant counterparts. New York's Harlem became the center of African American cultural life in the United States, with a literary, artistic, musical, and political scene so vibrant it became known as the Harlem Renaissance. African-Americans rallied around Marcus Garvey—himself an immigrant from Jamaica—to create the Universal Negro Improvement Association, the most assertive black political movement seen to date in the United States. Musical geniuses like Louis Armstrong developed a new form of popular music—jazz—that many consider, to this day, to be America's greatest contribution to human culture. And a cadre of talented writers—Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston prominent among them—forever changed American literature.
The development of large, thriving communities of immigrants and minorities generated a considerable backlash among native-born Americans who feared they were losing their cities to "undesirable" newcomers. Prior to the coming of the New Immigrants, a large majority of the American population—more than 60%—could trace their ancestry back to either the British Isles or to Germany. These old-line Americans, mostly fair-skinned and Protestant, tended to view the darker-complected, mostly Catholic or Jewish New Immigrants as not just different but "inferior"—members of lesser races, likely lacking the Anglo-Saxon temperament many believed necessary to maintain a free society. The New Immigrants, in the prejudiced imagination of many native-born Americans, lacked self-discipline and work ethic, lived immoral lifestyles, and could not be trusted not to throw their votes (should they attain citizenship) to corrupt machine politicians or radical troublemakers. The New Immigrants generated a renewed nativism in hostile reaction to their arrival on American shores.
The most benign strain of that nativist sentiment came in the form of aggressive "Americanization" campaigns, efforts to remake the immigrants into good Americans through work, education, and social reform. Henry Ford was a leading exponent of the movement, declaring that "these men of many nations must be taught American ways, the English language, and the right way to live." Ford forced immigrant workers at his automotive factories to attend lengthy Americanization courses, in which they were schooled in the English language and Ford's conservative ideology. At the end of each course, Ford even organized an ornate pageant in which workers clad in outlandish versions of their countries' native costume descended into a giant melting pot, only to climb out the other side wearing suits and waving American flags. Ford's Americanization program was backed by coercion, as the company's Sociological Department investigated the home lives of its workers; any Ford employee who failed to maintain a middle-class American lifestyle that met Ford's standards could lose his job.
Other nativists lacked Ford's hope that the New Immigrants could be remade into good Americans, and focused their efforts on blocking immigration altogether. Prior to 1921, with one exception—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—immigration into the United States had never been systematically restricted by federal law. That changed with the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and the 1924 Immigration Act, which imposed for the first time a limit on the number of immigrants allowed to enter the United States. The two laws were targeted squarely at the New Immigrants; they established a new National Origins system that created different quotas for immigrants from each country, pegged to those countries' representation in the population of the United States in either 1910 (the 1921 law) or 1890 (the 1924 law). Because countries like Italy and Poland had contributed a tiny proportion of America's population before 1890, they received miniscule quotas. The effect was startling: Prior to the quota, immigrants were arriving at a rate of more than 850,000 per year, with just under 700,000 of those coming from Southern and Eastern Europe and only 175,000 coming from Northern and Western Europe. The strict 1924 act imposed a very mild restriction on immigration from Northern and Western Europe, still allowing 140,000 arrivals per year from those countries. But immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was limited to just 22,000 per year—a 97% reduction from pre-restriction levels.
While the immigration restriction acts of 1921 and 1924 well reflect the nativist, anti-immigrant attitudes of many Americans during the Roaring Twenties, it is important to note that the laws' practical effects were not as great as one might expect. Because of difficulties in determining the precise proportions of the 1890 population that belonged to each country, the law did not take effect until 1929, at which point the economic collapse brought about by the onset of the Great Depression naturally reduced the immigrant flow to a trickle.