Literacy Tests and Asian Exclusion Were the Hallmarks of the 1917 Immigration Act

One hundred years ago, the U.S. Congress decided that there needed to be severe limits on who was coming into the country

Immigrants outside a building on Ellis Island, circa 1900. (U.S. National Archives)
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“There is an old immigrant saying translated into many languages that goes, ‘America beckons, but Americans repel,’” says Alan Kraut, a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. The political debate today over the flow of immigrants through U.S. borders merits a look back to 100 years ago, when Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass the Immigration Act of 1917, the most sweeping version of that type of legislation the country had ever created.

The United States has always grappled with how to promote pluralism and protect its citizens at the same time—and the fight from a century ago was no different.

In the years leading up to the act, millions of immigrants from Europe poured into the U.S., with 1.3 million passing through Ellis Island in 1907 alone. During that period, the immigrants filled gaps in the nascent industrial economy, making up the majority of workers in Pennsylvania coal fields, Chicago stockyards and New York garment factories. But Congress, acting upon decades of xenophobic and economic concerns and the emergent “science” of eugenics, saw the matter differently. It had attempted to pass laws curbing the flow from Europe numerous times; an English literacy test component actually passed in the House on five occasions and the Senate on four, but was twice vetoed by Presidents Cleveland and Taft. The test was a part of the 1917 act, as was the expansion of an “undesireable” list that included epileptics and political radicals. The act also levied an $8 tax on every adult immigrant (about $160 today) and barred all immigrants from the “Asiatic zone.”

Congress voted to override President Wilson's veto of the act in 1916. Wilson himself was ambivalent on immigration, having earlier said, “We are going to keep our doors wide open so that those who seek this thing from the ends of the earth may come and enjoy it.” But he also agreed with some provisions of the act, and found fault mainly in one aspect of the bill, “I cannot rid myself of the conviction that the literacy test constitutes a radical change in the policy of the Nation which is not justified in principle.”

Alabama congressman John L. Burnett, who was chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, reintroduced the literacy component of the bill multiple times. Burnett also made up part of the Dillingham Commission, a four-year investigation of immigration that ended in 1911 and concluded immigrants from southern and eastern Europe posed a serious threat to American society.

The 1917 act built on previous legislation, including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which was an informal system for regulating immigration from Japan. Much of the justification for this targeted exclusion—particularly of Asians—was based on racism and the dubious pseudoscience of eugenics researchers like Madison Grant, who wrote The Passing of the Great Race in 1916.

“To admit the unchangeable differentiation of race in its modern scientific meaning is to admit inevitably the existence of superiority in one race and of inferiority in another,” Grant wrote. “The Anglo-Saxon branch of the Nordic race is again showing itself to be that upon which the nation must chiefly depend for leadership, for courage, for loyalty, for unity and harmony of action.”

It was such a widespread belief that the U.S. Surgeon General and senior members of the Public Health Services (whose duties included medical inspections of passengers disembarking at Ellis Island) were publicly aligned with eugenics in 1914.

“Eugenics was something that very bright, intelligent people talked about in the same way that we talk [today] about genetic engineering,” says Kraut. Proponents of eugenics advocated “marriage patterns and sterilization so the best people, as they defined it, prospered and had many children, and that would make society better.”

The literacy test, while not as direct a ban as the Asiatic barred zone, also had its roots in eugenics and the desire for a “superior stock.” The original version of the literacy test required reading and writing a short passage of the U.S. Constitution. But it was remarkably unsuccessful in weeding out newcomers. As actually implemented, the test required reading only short passages in any language, and if a man was literate and his wife and children weren’t, they all still earned access to the country.  Supporters believed it would’ve reduced the number of new arrivals (mainly from eastern and southern Europe) by more than 40 percent. In reality, only 1,450 people of 800,000 immigrants between 1920 and 1921 were excluded on the basis of literacy.

Due in part to the act’s failure to cull greater numbers from the flow of immigrants, a new system was put into place in 1921 and then revised in 1924. The act relied on quota systems for each country of origin. The countries could only provide immigration visas to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the U.S. as of the 1890 census, and the law continued to completely exclude East Asia. The quota system meant more than 50,000 Germans could come to the country annually, but less than 4,000 Italians were allowed, compared to the peak of over 2 million immigrants from Italy between 1910 and 1920.

This ambivalence about immigration is almost as American as immigration itself, Kraut says. Americans recognize the contributions immigrants make, but there’s also a sense of economic and moral competitiveness.

“We’re constantly changing, expanding and contracting,” Kraut says. “Right now Mr. Trump has us in a period where we seem to be looking inward and contracting.” But he sees the recent airport protests as a sign that the issue is as contentious as ever. 

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