Today’s New York City sets population records in at least two ways: We have more total residents than ever before — 8.2 million — and of the total, the greatest number of foreign-born residents ever — just over 3 million, according to 2011 figures in The Newest New Yorkers report from the Department of City Planning. (The percentage of foreign-born residents has been higher, however, as you’ll see below.)
Nearly ninety years after passage of the federal Immigration Act of 1924 (enacted on May 26, 1924), this is not what Congress at the time had in mind. After waves of immigration into America, and particularly into New York, brought thousands of Irish, German, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Italian, Russian and other nationals to our shores, U.S. leaders decided it was time to limit the numbers of incomers perceived as being too poor, sick, radical, or of “inferior stock.”
The legislation, also called the Johnson-Reed Act (after sponsors Congressman Albert Johnson and Senator David Reed), sought more homogeneity in the populace by limiting the annual number of immigrants admitted from certain countries to 2% of the number from that country who were already living in the United States in 1890.
The Act enshrined and adapted the earlier provisions of the Emergency Quota Act, enacted 87 years ago this month, on May 19, 1921. This was intended as temporary legislation, but proved to have lasting effects because it instituted new kinds of limits on who could immigrate.
In 1890, 42% of New York City’s population of 1.5 million was foreign-born. After the 1924 Act took hold, the percentage fell steadily from 36% in 1920, to 34% in 1930, to 29% in 1940, on down to a low of 18% in 1970.
But policies change, and by the year 2000, immigrants came back strong, making up 36% of the city’s population again, and 37% in 2011.
The 1921 and 1924 laws “both changed NYC forever,” said Dr. Suzanne Wasserman, director of the Gotham Center for NYC History at CUNY Graduate Center. “They set limitations on immigration from eastern and southern Europe. NYC was deeply impacted until the immigration law of 1965 altered the situation, allowing immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean to enter the state in record numbers.”
Indeed, those pieces of legislation from nine decades ago cinched the flow of, among others, Italians into the South Village, and Jews into the Lower East Side — a tragedy for Jews seeking refuge as Hitler came to power in Europe. In the East and West Village, one effect over time was that there was more room for other populations untouched by the laws, such as Puerto Ricans — who became U.S. citizens in 1917, but would have been unaffected anyway, as Latin American immigration was not restricted — and relocating New Yorkers, who were often drawn to these neighborhoods for their affordability or bohemian character.
Reflecting the new patterns, today the neighborhoods with the highest immigrant population include Washington Heights, where 60% (or 48,371) of foreign-born residents are from the Dominican Republic, and Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where 41% (or 31,658) of foreign-born residents are Chinese.