Immigration Act of 1917
The Immigration Act of 1917 (also known as the Literacy Act and less often as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act) was the most sweeping immigration act the United States had passed until that time. It was the second act, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, aimed at restricting immigrants, and marked a turn toward nativism. The law imposed literacy tests on immigrants, created new categories of inadmissible persons, and barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific zone. It governed immigration policy until being amended by the Immigration Act of 1924; both were revised by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952.
Various groups, including the Immigration Restriction League had supported literacy as a prerequisite for immigration from its formation in 1894. In 1895, Henry Cabot Lodge had introduced a bill to the United States Senate to impose a mandate for literacy for immigrants, using a test requiring them to read five lines from the Constitution. Though the bill passed, it was vetoed by President Grover Cleveland in 1897. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt lent support for the idea in his first address but the resulting proposal was defeated in 1903. Literacy was introduced again in 1912 and though it passed, it was vetoed by President William Howard Taft. By 1915, yet another bill with a literacy requirement was passed. It was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson because he felt that literacy tests denied equal opportunity to those who had not been educated.
As early as 1882, previous immigration acts had levied head taxes on aliens entering the country to offset the cost of their care if they became indigent. These acts excluded immigrants from Canada or Mexico, as did subsequent amendments to the amount of the head tax. The Immigration Act of 1882 prohibited entry to the U.S. for convicts, indigent people who could not provide for their own care, prostitutes, and lunatics or idiots. The Alien Contract Labor Law of 1885 prohibited employers from contracting with foreign laborers and bringing them into the U.S., though U.S. employers continued to recruit Mexican contract laborers assuming they would just return home. After the assassination of President William McKinley by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901, several immigration Acts were passed which broadened the defined categories of "undesireables". The Immigration Act of 1903 expanded barred categories to include anarchists, epileptics and those who had had episodes of insanity. Those who had infectious diseases and those who had physical or mental disabilities which would hamper their ability to work were added to the list of excluded immigrants in the Immigration Act of 1907
Anxiety over the fragmentation of American cultural identity led to many laws aimed at stemming the "Yellow Peril", or perceived threat of Asian societies replacing the American identity. Laws restricting Asian immigration to the United States had first appeared in California as state laws. With the enactment of the Naturalization Act of 1870, which denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants and forbade all Chinese women, exclusionary policies moved into the federal sphere. Exclusion of women aimed to cement a bachelor society, making Chinese men unable to form families and thus, transient, temporary immigrants. Barred categories expanded with the Page Act of 1875, which established that Chinese, Japanese and Oriental bonded labor, convicts, and prostitutes were forbidden entry to the U.S. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese people from entering the U.S. and the Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 was made with Japan to cease Japanese immigration to the US.
On February 5, 1917, the Immigration Act of 1917 was passed by the 64th United States Congress with an overwhelming majority, overriding President Woodrow Wilson's December 14, 1916, veto. This act added to and consolidated the list of undesirables banned from entering the country, including: alcoholics, anarchists, contract laborers, criminals, convicts, epileptics, "feebleminded persons", "idiots", "illiterates", "imbeciles", "insane persons", "paupers", "persons afflicted with contagious disease", "persons being mentally or physically defective", "persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority", "political radicals", polygamists, prostitutes, and vagrants.
For the first time, an immigration law of the U.S. affected European immigration, with the provision barring all immigrants over the age of sixteen who were illiterate. Literacy was defined as the ability to read 30–40 words of their own language from an ordinary text. The act reaffirmed the ban on contracted labor, but made a provision for temporary labor. This allowed laborers to obtain temporary permits because they were inadmissible as immigrants. The waiver program allowed continued recruitment of Mexican agricultural and railroad workers. Legal interpretation on the terms "mentally defective" and "persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority" effectively included a ban on homosexual immigrants who admitted their orientation. One section of the law designated an "Asiatic barred zone" from which people could not immigrate, including much of Asia and the Pacific Islands. The zone, defined through longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, excluded immigrants from China, British India, Afghanistan, Arabia, Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), the Malay States, the Dutch East Indies, the Soviet Union east of the Ural Mountains, and most Polynesian islands. Neither Japan nor the Philippines were included in the banned zone. The law also increased the head tax to $8 per person, and ended the exclusion of Mexican workers from the head tax.
Almost immediately, the provisions of the law were challenged by southwestern businesses. U.S. entry into World War I, a few months after the law's passage, prompted a waiver of the Act's provisions on Mexican agricultural workers. It was soon extended to include Mexicans working in the mining and railroad industries; these exemptions continued through 1921. The act was modified by the Immigration Act of 1924, which imposed general quotas on the Eastern Hemisphere and extended the Asiatic barred zone to Japan and the Philippines. During World War II, the U.S. modified the immigration acts with quotas for their allies in China and the Philippines. The Luce-Celler Act of 1946 ended discrimination against Asian Indians and Filipinos, who were accorded the right to naturalization, and allowed a quota of 100 immigrants per year.
The Immigration Act of 1917 was later altered formally by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, known as the McCarran-Walter Act. McCarren-Walter extended the privilege of naturalization to Japanese, Koreans, and other Asians, revised all previous laws and regulations regarding immigration, naturalization, and nationality, and collected them into one comprehensive statute. Legislation barring homosexuals as immigrants remained part of the immigration code until passage of the Immigration Act of 1990.
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- The Text of the Act (PDF)
- UDayton.edu Timeline of Asian Pacific Americans and Immigration Law
- AILF.org Closed Borders and Mass Deportations: The Lessons of the Barred Zone Act
- PBS.org Text of the Act describing the limits of the Asiatic Barred Zone
- Helen F. Eckerson, "Immigration and National Origins"