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Feature: United States introduces Immigration Act
Cartoon from Puck magazine showing the 'Americanize' wall as Congressman Burnett wanted it built. Uncle Sam, behind high wall marked "Literacy Test" which is spiked with pen points, says to immigrant family below: "You're welcome, if you can climb it". Photo: Puck Magazine via Library of Congress

Feature: United States introduces Immigration Act

On 5 February 1917, the United States Congress passed an Immigration Act with a large majority. The Act had been vetoed in December 1916 by President Wilson, but Congress overruled that veto after a short debate. At the time, the Act was the largest move made by the United States to restrict the number of immigrants who could enter the country.

A group of migrants waiting to be processed at Ellis Island (Image: Library of Congress, USA)

In practice the Immigration Act meant that anyone from the Asiatic Barred Zone could not enter the United States. The Asiatic Barred Zone was vast, and stretched from the lands of the Ottoman Empire in the west, through the Middle East, India and South East Asia, and encompassing Indonesia in the East. In addition to the wholesale exclusion of the Asiatic Area, the Immigration Act also increased the threshold requirements for any potential immigrants who landed on US soil. Under the Act, all individuals seeking entry into the United States could not be illiterate, and had to be able to read either English or their own language. In its entirety the Act prevented any of the following people from entering the United States:

• People from the Asiatic Barred Zone
• People over the age of 16 considered illiterate
• People suffering from a contagious disease
• People considered mentally or physically defective (including feebleminded persons, idiots, illiterates, imbeciles and insane persons)
• Anyone with a criminal record (including prostitutes, polygamists, alcoholics and vagrants)
• Political Radicals

The Act was framed in such a way that its interpretation was the work of those judging potential immigrants at the United States border. In addition to the exclusions, the Act also raised the tax payable for entry to the United States to $8.

Cartoon from Puck magazine showing the attitude of Congress to President Wilson's decision to vetoing the Immigration Bill in December 1916. (Image: Puck Magazine, January 1917 via University of Michigan)

The 1917 Immigration Act was the culmination of a campaign that had begun in Boston in 1894 under the banner of the Immigration Restriction League. Founded by three Harvard graduates, the Immigration Restriction League argued that the United States was being harmed by uncontrolled levels of immigration. In a long campaign and by lobbying politicians, the League eventually created a groundswell of support for the idea of immigration restrictions that would couple fears of immigration with the idea that the cultural identity of the United States was being diluted and fragmented.

The passage of the Act by Congress was a clear victory for nativist, pro-American sentiment within the country, and which inevitably excluded many tens of thousands of people from entry to the United States.


Century Ireland

The Century Ireland project is an online historical newspaper that tells the story of the events of Irish life a century ago.