February 5, 1917: US Acts to Racially Limit Immigration (Sound Familiar?)

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A Brief History

On February 5, 1917, the Congress of the United States overrode a veto by President Woodrow Wilson and enacted the Immigration Act of 1917, a law that targeted Asians to prevent their immigration to the US. Today, while immigration reform remains a hotly debated and racially charged topic, we are reminded that the subject of immigration policies based on race or national origin is not unique to this particular point in time.

Digging Deeper

Sometimes referred to as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, or even the Literacy Act, the point of the Immigration Act of 1917 (we will call it IA 17 for brevity) was to eliminate people from the Asia-Pacific zone from immigrating to the US. Another provision of the Act was to require a literacy test in English (even though English was not then and is not now our “official” language). The IA 17 was the first time immigration law was amended to exclude people rather than just regulate immigration.

To contain the so called “Yellow Peril,” the Immigration Act of 1917 established the Asiatic Barred Zone, from which the U.S. admitted no immigrants.

The idea of requiring a literacy test for immigrants had been brought up previously, even decades before 1917, but in each case the attempt failed, defeated by presidential veto 3 times (in 1915 by Wilson, 1912 by Taft, and 1897 by Cleveland). In December of 1916 President Wilson vetoed such legislation, but on February 5, 1917, both houses of Congress overrode his veto and the Immigration Act of 1917 became law.

Previously, laws had been successfully enacted to deny criminals, lunatics, idiots (the legal definition kind, not the current politician kind), indigent people and even prostitutes. (Apparently Americans like only the domestic variety of prostitute…) Foreign contract laborers (except from Canada or Mexico) were excluded from immigration by other legislation, and at different times other categories of undesirables were added to the banned list, including anarchists, epileptics, various mental and physical disabilities, and those with infectious diseases. The Naturalization Act of 1870 targeted Chinese immigrants and prejudice against Chinese immigrants as part of the “Yellow Peril” craze of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries continued to hamper Chinese immigration as Caucasian Americans feared the “yellowing” of America by hordes of Chinese and other Asian immigrants. (Hmm, sounds similar to 2017!)

The Immigration Act of 1917 not only targeted Asians but expanded on the list of people forbidden from immigrating to the US to include those illiterates, those with psychopathic inferiority, polygamists, political radicals, vagrants and paupers. Even Europeans over the age of 16 were barred from immigration if they were illiterate, but European immigrants were permitted to demonstrate literacy in their own language. The exclusion zone was not limited to East Asian Orientals and Pacific Islanders, but also included people from the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian sub-continent, and Central Asia. A tax of $8 per immigrant was also levied.

As soon as the US entered World War I an exception was demanded by farmers in the Southwest, and Mexican agricultural labor was again permitted to come to the US. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was finally repealed in 1943 when it became an embarrassment that the US would treat an ally in World War II as undesirable. The Immigration Act of 1917 was finally repealed in 1952, by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which revised virtually the entire immigration law. One group that did not benefit were homosexuals, which remained forbidden immigrants until 1990!

Over the past year President Trump has attempted to ban immigrants from certain countries he deems as risky because of Islamic extremist terrorism, though he has had mixed results in court battles over his proposals. The President and Congress continue to debate immigration reform, a subject so contentious that the government of the United States was shut down for 2 days in January of 2018 because of disagreement on this subject.

What do you think? Should the US have unlimited immigration by numbers or national origin? Should any of those other previous criteria (literacy, health, etc.) still be a factor? Should number of immigrants be pro-rated by country or nationality or ethnicity? Should knowledge of the English language be a requirement?  Should people with AIDS or other such diseases be allowed to immigrate to the US?  Should there be a religious requirement?

Please share your thoughts on the various aspects of immigration, and try to justify each idea if possible.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see..

Powell, John.  Encyclopedia of North American Immigration. InfoBase Publishing, 2009.

Van Nuys, Frank.  Americanizing the West: Race, Immigrants and Citizenship, 1890-1930. University Press of Kansas, 2002.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.