Yugoslavians and the Immigration Act of 1924

By Zhaoyang Liu

Tension between immigration and labor has a long history in the United States. When Irish immigrants came in the 1840s looking for work, many were greeted with signs making it clear that “No Irish Need Apply.” In the early twentieth century, especially during the post World War I economic recession, there was a rising amount of xenophobia, which was in part fueled by the belief that immigrants were driving up unemployment. Behind the concerns about jobs were prejudices about newcomers that linked them to crime, poverty and immoral behavior, along with questions about their loyalty. These ideas were furthered by the then-new science of Eugenics. Eugenicists believed that almost all behavior was tied to race. In other words, people were poor not because of the situation that they found themselves in, but because of their genes. While scientists today have rejected Eugenics, these sentiments contributed to the Immigration Act of 1924, whose supporters sought to reinforce a racialized American identity that favored white northern Europeans over more recent immigrants. Among the immigrants impacted by quotas at the heart of the legislation were Eastern Europeans, Jews, and Asians.

Many Americans, especially immigrants themselves, spoke out against this act. Among these immigrants were Croatian-Americans. The first significant wave of Croatian immigration to the United States occurred in the 1890s and 1900s; some were political refugees while the majority moved for economic reasons. Most of them were Roman Catholics. They initially found industrial jobs in northeastern cities or settled in the Midwest, although they later expanded to other parts of the country. A large portion of these migrants were unskilled male laborers who returned to Croatia after earning enough money; however, many others stayed to reside permanently.

On March 15, 1924, the Croatian League of Illinois compiled a resolution which protested the proposed restriction on Yugoslavian immigration. The resolution highlights multiple ways in which Croatian and Yugoslavian immigrants have benefited the country. It was sent to the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization at Washington, to James W. Davis, the Secretary of Labor and to senators and representatives from Nebraska.

The proposal explains how Yugoslavians contributed to the American cause during World War I:

“WHEREAS, the provisions of this bill practically exclude from the United States Croatian and Jugo-Slav immigrants for the reason that nearly all of the present foreign born Jugo-Slavs and Croatians of the United States have come to this country since the year 1890, and WHEREAS, during the recent world war the Croatians and Jugo-Slavs of the United States loyally supported the United States, and through the Croatian League of Illinois and its subordinate lodges, and through other Jugo-Slav societies, purchased many million dollars worth of Liberty Bonds and War Saving Stamps.”

It also articulates how Yugoslavians provided adequate labor for the United States, along with the efforts they made to become the best citizens that they could:

“WHEREAS, it is well known that the Croatian and Jugo-Slav residents of this country are industrious, law respecting people, and are employed for the most part in the mines, mills, factories, railroads and other useful industries and have done much to build up the wealth and prosperity of the country, and WHEREAS, it can be clearly shown that a large part of those of Jugo-Slav nationality who came to this country during the past twenty-five or thirty years have become permanent residents of the United States, and useful citizens, responding at every opportunity to every duty of good citizenship.”

The document concludes by stating:

“We especially protest against the unreasonable and illogical principles of the ‘Selective Immigration Act’ for the reason, among others, that the method of selecting immigrants as provided by this Act would give consular agents too vast a power in deciding who should be the future citizens of our Republic, and for the further reason that the quota provision would substantially prohibit all future immigration to the United States from Jugo-Slavia.”

The entirety of the resolution can be found at the link below:


Reflection Questions:

1. What arguments does the Croatian League make against the law? Based on what you know about the context of the period, which of them were most likely to resonate with people at the time?

2. The resolution outlines the direct contributions that Croatian and Yugoslavian immigrants have made towards the United States. Make a list of immigrant groups and their respective contributions to America, whether it be through culture or work. Why are the contributions of some immigrants more recognized than those of others? How can we make sure that all immigrant groups are properly recognized for their contributions?

3. Why do you think the resolution was so concerned with detailing the social and economic effects of Yugoslavians on American society? Based on your understanding of xenophobia, what seems to be the larger fear— that immigrants cause social problems, or that they cause economic problems? How are the two related? How would you counter those biases?

5. How can people work towards understanding immigrants as individuals, not just members of a particular group? What role do stereotypes and generalizations play in the processes of developing prejudiced thought?

6. What methods can be used to shed light on the contributions of immigrants? Are there any means that would be particularly effective in accomplishing this goal? How much of a role does education play in this?