THE BLOG

Rick Santorum and Your Grandparents

03/10/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Rick Santorum, a potential Republican presidential candidate, recently commented on immigration policy, providing examples from our history. "I'm not saying shut [unskilled immigration] down, but I will tell you, the last time we had this kind of surge in immigration was the Great Wave between 1880 and 1920, and after that Great Wave, there were two bills that were passed, 1921 and 1924, and they both passed almost unanimously in the House and Senate," Santorum explained on CNN's "State of the Union." The candidate defended those who voted for these bills, "because they put politics aside. They did what was best for the American worker."

Santorum was referring to the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924. What did these bills actually legislate, and for what purpose?

The 1921 measure set a total cap on the number of immigrants allowed in each year at roughly 350,000. It also set a quota for each country, derived from their percentage of the population.

But the bill set up a rigged system. Each country's quota was based, not only on their percentage of the then current population, but also on how many Americans were descended from that group's original settlers.

Thus, some nations received unusually large quotas, despite minimal immigration in the past few years before the bill's enactment. If ten people had arrived in 1750 from Great Britain, the number of that original cluster's descendants would be huge by the twentieth century. And the base year was 1910, set back a decade to exclude from the figures all those who had recently arrived from war-torn Europe after the sea lanes were safe again in 1918. This was designed to keep out, not immigrants in general, but certain nationalities.

These restrictions were not sufficient to Congress. In 1924 they revised this with another immigration act, even tougher. This one cut the overall yearly figure in half, to 165,000.

Even more important, it moved the base year to 1890. By doing so, they totally excluded from quota calculations not just recent arrivals, but the entire generation of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. The quotas for some nations dropped substantially under this revision, went way up for others. Thus, these bills were specifically designed to keep out, not immigrants in general, but immigrants from specific places, places that were undesirable. Places like Italy and Poland and Russia and Greece. Places that were Catholic or Jewish or Eastern Orthodox.

Rick Santorum just endorsed measures created, not to save jobs, but to block the arrival of people the framers did not want in this country. People like many of our grandparents.