Immigration Restriction League

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The Immigration Restriction League, was founded in 1894 by lawyer Charles Warren, climatologist Robert DeCourcy Ward, and attorney Prescott F. Hall, three Harvard alumni who believed that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were ethnically inferior to Anglo-Saxons, threatening what they saw as the American way of life and the high wage scale. They worried about immigrants bringing in poverty and organized crime at a time of high unemployment.[1]

The League was founded in Boston, and had branches in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. It attracted prominent scholars and philanthropists, mostly from the New England social and academic elite. An umbrella group, the National Association of Immigration Restriction Leagues was created in 1896, and one of the founders of the original League, Prescott F. Hall, served as its general secretary from 1896 to 1921.

The League used books, pamphlets, meetings, and numerous newspaper and journal articles to disseminate information and sound the alarm about the dangers of the new immigration. The League also started to employ lobbyists in Washington after the turn of the century and build a broad anti-immigrant coalition consisting of patriotic societies, farmers' associations, Southern and New England legislators, and eugenicists who supported the League's goals.

The league disbanded after Hall's 1921 death.


Numerical limitation[edit]

On April 8, 1918 the League introduced a bill into the Congress to increase the restriction of immigration by means of numerical limitation. The goal of this bill, called "An Act to regulate the immigration of aliens to, and the residence in, the United States," was to reduce as much as possible the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe while increasing the number of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe who the League thought were people with kindred values.

The bill provided for these reductions:[2]

Actually admitted Admissible under bill
Northern and Western Europe 189,177 1,090,500
Southern and Eastern Europe 945,288 279,288

Increase of the duty on alien passengers[edit]

The bill asked for an increase of the duty paid by alien passengers to enter the United States from two to five dollars.[3] It excluded the citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba. The League demanded an increase in duty in order to properly support and maintain the inspection and deportation of immigrants. Among other things, the funds obtained from the increase in duty would be used for:

  • Enlargement of immigrant stations
  • The development and perfecting of the service along the Mexico–US and Canada–US borders.
  • More immigration inspectors
  • Enlarged immigration office facilities

With this bill, the League also hoped to diminish the immigration of people from the poorer countries, who were considered less beneficial for the United States.

Additions to the excluded classes[edit]

The National Conference on Immigration, held in New York, proposed to add imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, and epileptics to the excluded classes.[4] Persons of poor physique were more susceptible to diseases because of the unsanitary places where they lived. The Bill also demanded an extension of fines to steamship companies for bringing imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, insane persons or epileptics into the U.S.

Prevention of unlawful landing[edit]

Previously, transportation companies were only asked to exercise care not to transport illegal immigrants into the United States when returning home from Europe. This bill ordered transportation companies to prevent the landing of "undesirable aliens".

Deportation of public charges[edit]

It was a law that would allow deportation of immigrants who entered the United States in violation of law and those becoming public charges from causes arising prior to their landing. Furthermore, it stated that the company that provided the transportation of such individuals would pay half the cost of their removal to the port of deportation.

Literacy test[edit]

The IRL made common cause with blue collar workers in labor unions[5] in advocating a literacy requirement as a means to limit poorly-educated immigrants who would lower the wage scale.[6] Potential immigrants had to be able to read their own language. Congress passed the literacy bill for the first time in 1896, which set the ability to read at least 40 words in any language as a requirement for admission to the United States. President Grover Cleveland vetoed that bill in 1897.[7]

President William Taft also vetoed a literacy test in 1913. Again in 1915, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed such a bill. But in 1917 Congress overrode Wilson's veto and instituted the first literacy requirement for naturalization as part of the Immigration Act of 1917.[8] The law stated that immigrants over 16 years of age should read 30 to 80 words in ordinary use in any language. After World War I, the number of immigrants, including those from Eastern and Southern Europe, remained high despite the literacy test.

The influence of the Immigration Restriction League declined, but it remained active for twenty years. After the death of Prescott Farnsworth Hall, the League disbanded.

Notable members and officers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harvard University Library: Constitution of the Immigration Restriction League, accessed Jan. 3, 2010
  2. ^ Harvard University Library: The League's numerical limitation bill, accessed Jan. 3, 2010
  3. ^ Harvard University Library: Brief in favor of Senate bill 4403 , accessed Jan. 3, 2010
  4. ^ University of Wisconsin: Henry Cabot Lodge, "The Restriction of Immigration" Archived 2012-03-06 at the Wayback Machine from Speeches and Addresses, 1884–1909 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1909), 245–66, accessed Jan. 3, 2010
  5. ^ A. T. Lane, "American Trade Unions, Mass Immigration and the Literacy Test: 1900–1917," Labor History, Winter 1984, Vol. 25#1 pp 5–25
  6. ^ Harvard University Library: The Case for the Literacy Test, accessed Jan. 3, 2010
  7. ^ History Central: Immigration Quota, accessed Jan. 3, 2010, accessed January 3, 2010
  8. ^ U.S. Department of State: The Immigration Act of 1924 Archived April 17, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, accessed Jan. 3, 2010


  • Elliott Robert Barkan, And Still They Come: Immigrants and American Society, 1920 to the 1990s (Harlan Davidson, 1996), ISBN 978-0-88295-928-3
  • Julio Decker, "Citizenship and its Duties: The Immigration Restriction League as Progressive Movement", in Immigrants & Minorities, v. 32, 2 (2014), 162–182
  • Julio Decker, "The Transnational Biopolitics of Whiteness and Immigration Restriction in the United States, 1894–1924", in Norbert Finzsch, Ursula Lehmkuhl, Eva Bischoff (eds.): Provincializing the United States: Colonialism, Decolonization and (Post)Colonial Governance in Transnational Perspective, (2014) 121–153 ISBN 9783825363604
  • John Higham, "Origins of Immigration Restriction, 1882–1897: A Social Analysis," in Notes and Documents, v. 39 (1952), 77–88
  • John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860–1925 (Rutgers University Press, 1955), p. 447, ISBN 978-0-8135-3123-6
  • Samuel McSeveney, "Immigrants, the Literacy Test, and Quotas: Selected American History College Textbooks' Coverage of the Congressional Restriction of European Immigration, 1917–1929," in The History Teacher, v. 21 (1987), 41–51
  • Barbara Miller Solomon, Ancestors and Immigrants: A Changing New England Tradition (1956), the standard history of the League
  • Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America (2002)
  • Hans P. Vought, The Bully Pulpit and the Melting Pot (Mercer University Press, 2004), ISBN 978-0-86554-887-9

External links:

Primary sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]