Cold War Spurs Immigration Restrictions, Repeals Race-Based Exclusions


United States

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Enacted at the onset of the Cold War as a national security tool, the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act limited migration from communist states and former enemy nations during World War II.

Also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, this legislation continued the controversial national origins system put in place by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 (see also: Country of Origin Quotas cut Immigration, 1921-1924). The 1952 act established quotas based upon country of birth to limit migration from non-western European countries and by extension to block the perceived threat of the spread of communism to the U.S. Of the 154,277 visas available annually, 85 percent were reserved for individuals from northern and western European backgrounds.

The 1952 act included provisions to repeal exclusion of Asian immigration and naturalization; however, they were largely symbolic, as low quota numbers and a racial construction for how to apply them ensured that Asian immigration to the U.S remained minimal. Moreover, the legislation worked to deny immigration access to Japan, as they were an enemy during World War II.

One positive change to come out of the legislation was the implementation of a system of preferences to help prioritize visas based upon skills and family reunification. President Truman vetoed the legislation, however, because he disagreed with the continuation of the national origins quota system and believed that the low quotas for Asian immigrants were discriminatory. The law passed nonetheless in congress over Truman’s veto. This legislation solidified the link between immigration policy and national security decision-making.