Published: 14-02-2012, 11:12

Immigration Act of 1917

The Law: Federal law imposing major new restrictions on categories of people allowed to immigrate

Date: Went into effect on May 1, 1917

Significance: The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed “undesirable” and provided tough enforcement provisions.

Through the first century of American independence, immigration into the United States was largely unrestricted. This open-door policy began to change during the 1870’s and 1880’s, with the introduction of federal legislation aimed at barring two classes of immigrants: Asian laborers to California and immigrants deemed physically and mentally “undesirable.” In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar the immigration of Chinese workers and a general immigration act to bar the immigration of persons judged likely to become “public charges.”

The general Immigration Act of 1882 also imposed a “head tax” of fifty cents on each immigrant. The U.S. Congress, which was constitutionally empowered to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over immigration, continued to increase restrictions through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The head tax was increased to four dollars by the Immigration Act of 1907. The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended and tightened in legislation enacted in 1884, 1888, 1892, and 1902. In the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, Japan agreed to bar its citizens from emigrating to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 added more categories of people to the list of “undesirable aliens,” including persons with contagious diseases and polygamists. The Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910 added rules to exclude persons with mental and physical defects, persons with tuberculosis, and anarchists. However, congressional provisions to add a literacy requirement to the immigration laws were vetoed by Presidents Grover Cleveland in 1896, William Howard Taft in 1913, and Woodrow Wilson in 1915.

President Woodrow Wilson
President Woodrow Wilson, with his wife, Edith, at his second inauguration in 1917. Wilson twice vetoed the Immigration Act of 1917, only to see Congress pass it over his objections. (Library of Congress)

Provisions of the 1917 Law

The Immigration Act of 1917 updated and codified much of the previous immigration legislation, thereby effectively repealing the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910. President Wilson vetoed the law, but Congress overrode his veto and the act went into effect on May 1, 1917. A long and comprehensive piece of legislation, the act contained thirty-eight subsections and took up twenty-five pages in the Congressional Session Laws.

The law was significant in five major areas; it

  • increased the head tax 
  • expanded categories of “undesirable aliens” 
  • excluded South Asian immigrants 
  • added a literacy requirement 
  • contained new enforcement provisions 

The new law increased the head tax levied on every adult immigrant to eight dollars and required liens to be was placed on passenger ships for nonpayment. The law’s expansion of categories of “undesirables” who would be barred fromentry reflected new theories of comparative psychology. The act excluded so-called “idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded persons;” persons of “constitutional psychopathic inferiority;” “mentally or physically defective” persons; the insane; alcoholics; persons with epilepsy, tuberculosis; or contagious diseases; paupers and vagrants; criminals; prostitutes; anarchists; polygamists; political radicals; and contract laborers.

The Immigration Act of 1917 also barred most immigration from Asia. Chinese immigrants were already barred by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Japanese by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In addition, the act created the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which encompassed India, Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, parts of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Asian-Pacific islands.

Reflecting public hostility to southern and eastern European immigrants, the act required all adult immigrants to demonstrate an ability to read. Any language sufficed. Finally, the act contained extensive provisions for enforcement. Penalties were imposed on any persons or corporations who encouraged or assisted the immigration of persons barred by the act or contract laborers. The act required all ships carrying immigrants to provide detailed information about each passenger’s name, age, sex, physical description, literacy, nationality, destination, occupation, mental and physical health, and criminal record. Immigration inspectors, medical examiners, and Boards of Special Inquiry were authorized to carry out these regulations and decide on the admissibility of immigrants.

Impact of the Law

The act of 1917 represented a further tightening of the immigrant restrictions begun by Congress during the 1870’s. Although the 1880’s witnessed the exclusion of “undesirables” and Chinese and the imposition of a head tax, the 1917 act greatly expanded these restrictions. The list of undesirables was couched in vague terms of mental and physical health, and could thus be interpreted in almost unlimited ways. The eight-dollar head tax was a significant levy on impoverished immigrants. The literacy requirement, which had been vetoed by three presidents, appeared to be a significant impediment to many immigrants. Heavy penalties and fines were imposed on any persons who seemingly assisted immigration in violation of the law. This expansion of restrictions can be explained, in part, by the rise of psychological and eugenics theories categorizing inferior individuals and races and nativist sentiments exacerbated by World War I.

The restrictions culminating in the 1917 act ultimately proved to be more qualitative than quantitative. In fact, the first two decades of the twentieth century saw the greatest numbers of immigrants up to that time: 8,795,386 people entered the United States between 1901 and 1910, and another 5,735,811 entered between 1911 and 1920. In the fiscal year between July, 1920, and June, 1921, more than 800,000 immigrants entered the country. Only about 1,450 persons were actually excluded by the literacy test. The 1917 act prefigured but differed from the immigration quotas that would be imposed by new immigration laws during the 1920’s. These quotas greatly restricted immigration for the first time in American history and did so in an attempt to preserve the ethnic heritage of the United States as it was perceived at the turn of the century.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill&Wang, 2004. General history of immigration restrictions. Notes that the 1917 law represented the first major categorical restriction of immigration in American history. 
  • Hing, Bill Ong. Defining America Through Immigration Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Chapter 3, on the 1917 literacy test, sees its origins in American animosity toward Italian and Jewish immigrants. 
  • King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Scholarly study of the history of immigration that describes the 1917 act as replacing the tenet of individual selection for admission with group criteria. 
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Highlights the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone as a milestone in restricting Asian immigration. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Historical study of the relationship between immigration law and policy and notions of American sovereignty. Portrays the Asiatic Barred Zone as the predecessor of the quota laws of the 1920’s and the literacy test as motivated by exclusionary rather than educational sentiments. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Asiatic Barred Zone; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1882; Immigration Act of 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration law; Literacy tests.