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Penn State 'Moments of Change' initiative reflects on U.S. immigration, past and present

A woman speaks at a lectern as an image of downtown Johnstown is projected next to her.
Penn State College of the Liberal Arts
A screenshot of the recorded event on Jan. 24 at Penn State University Park's Foster Auditorium, titled "Johnstown, PA, and the Invention of America’s 'Immigration Problem.'" The speaker was Katherine Benton-Cohen from Georgetown University. She's the author of "Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy."

Penn State’s College of Liberal Arts is marking the 100th anniversary of a restrictive U.S. immigration law with a new theme of its "Moments of Change" initiative. It explores issues through classes and public speaking events.

Organizers hope to educate students and the public on U.S. immigration history and modern day issues as part of the theme, "Immigration, Identity and Citizenship." This year is the 100th anniversary of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, a federal law that greatly restricted immigration.

Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz is one of the chairs of the initiative. He’s also a history professor and the director of Latina/Latino studies at Penn State.

“After the 1924 Act, 75% of the legal entry visas were given to people from just three countries, the United Kingdom, Germany and Ireland. And they very specifically excluded Africa. They had already excluded all of Asia," Sandoval-Strausz said.

Sandoval-Strausz said the 1924 act set quotas limiting the entry of Eastern and Southern European immigrants to preserve the homogeneity of the United States.

Sandoval-Strausz said Pennsylvania played a pivotal role in shaping immigration policy in the 20th century. Johnstown was the first site of an influential immigration study called “The Dillingham Report.”

A map of "Community A," representing Johnstown.
U.S. Immigration Commission
Map of "Community A," representing Johnstown. It was the first place studied for the Dillingham Report, which influenced decades of immigration policy in the U.S.

“Johnstown was one of the communities that it specifically studied because there were so many people who had emigrated there, especially from Europe. The Dillingham Report essentially recommended, when it was issued in 1911, that the United States dramatically restrict immigration from most of the world," Sandoval-Strausz said.

Congress created the Dillingham Commission to study the consequences and origins of migration to the U.S. The commission recommended several policies, almost all of which were later enacted, including a required literacy test for immigrants and quota limits.

Sandoval-Strausz said the researchers saw immigrants in Johnstown living in poor conditions, and decided they were a threat to the “well-being of the U.S.,” even though the immigrants were living in poor conditions because of low pay – not their ethnicity.

Sandoval-Strausz said the Moments of Change talks will give attendees the actual facts of immigration.

“What is the history? What is the current state of immigration policy? What are some of the ways that we think about evaluating how best to change immigration policy? That's pretty useful knowledge for a citizen who wants to, for example, cast an informed vote in 2024," Sandoval-Strausz said.

The Johnson-Reed Act was in effect for more than four decades until it was repealed by the 1965 Immigration Act. Sandoval-Strausz said the U.S. is due for another major immigration policy revision, considering the rise in immigrants and refugees at the southern border.

Last month’s event about Johnstown was the first of this “Moments of Change” initiative. There will be another one in April, when Daniel Greene from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will talk at Penn State University Park's Foster Auditorium. That event will be April 4 at 6:30 p.m.

You can see a full list of upcoming events on Penn State's College of Liberal Arts' website.

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