1917 Immigration Act

1917 Immigration Act

The 1917 Immigration Act increased the entry head tax to $8. People who were now excluded from the United States included: "all idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease; persons not comprehended within any of the foregoing excluded classes who are found to be and are certified by the examining surgeon as being mentally or physically defective, such physical defect being of a nature which may affect the ability of such alien to earn a living; persons who have been convicted of or admit having committed a felony or other crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude; polygamists, or persons who practice polygamy or believe in or advocate the practice of polygamy; anarchists, or persons who believe in or advocate the overthrow by force or violence of the Government of the United States".

The most controversial aspect to the act was the proposal to exclude all "aliens over sixteen years of age, physically capable of reading, who cannot read the English language, or some other language or dialect, including Hebrew or Yiddish." Attempts at introducing literacy tests had been vetoed by Grover Cleveland in 1891 and William Taft in 1913. President Woodrow Wilson also objected to this clause in the 1917 Immigration Act but it was still passed by Congress.

The 1924 Immigration Act was even more restrictive. Under this act only around 150,000 were permitted to enter the United States. As one of its critics, Emanuel Celler, pointed out: "We were afraid of foreigners; we distrusted them; we didn't like them. Under this act only some one hundred and fifty odd thousands would be permitted to enter the United States. If you were of Anglo-Saxon origin, you could have over two-thirds of the quota numbers allotted to your people. If you were Japanese, you could not come in at all. That, of course, had been true of the Chinese since 1880. If you were southern or eastern European, you could dribble in and remain on sufferance."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) President Grover Cleveland, explaining why he objected to the literacy clause in the proposed Immigration Act (2nd March, 1897)

A radical departure from our national policy relating to immigrants is here presented. Heretofore we have welcomed all who come to us from other lands except those whose moral or physical condition or history threatened danger to our national welfare and safety. We have encouraged those coming from foreign countries to cast their lot with us and join in the development of our vast domain, securing in return a share in the blessings of American citizenship.

A century's stupendous growth, largely due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens, attests the success of this generous and free-handed policy which, while guarding the people's interests, exacts from our immigrants only physical and moral soundness and a willingness and ability to work.

(2) Henry Cabot Lodge, speech on the need for a new Immigration Act that included a literacy test (20th March, 1910)

Within the last twenty years there has been a great change in the proportion of the various nationalities immigrating from Europe to the United States. The immigrants from Great Britain and Ireland, and from Germany and Scandinavia have gone down in numbers as compared with immigrants from countries which, until very recent years, sent no immigrants to America. The great growth in recent years in our immigration has been from Italy, from Poland, Hungary, and Russia and from Eastern Europe.

There is a growing and constantly active demand for more restrictive legislation. This demand rests on two grounds, both equally important. One is the effect upon the quality of our citizenship caused by the rapid introduction of this vast and practically unrestricted immigration, and the other, the effect of this immigration upon rates of wages and the standard of living among our working people.

I shall not attempt to argue the question with you, but will merely point out the number of persons who would have been excluded since 1886 if the illiterates over fourteen years of age had been thrown out. During that period the number of illiterates who, by their own admission, could neither read nor writer in any language, numbered 1,829,320.

(3) President William Taft, explaining why he objected to the literacy clause in the proposed Immigration Act (14th February, 1913)

The bill contains many valuable amendments to the present immigration law which will insure greater certainty in excluding undesirable immigrants. But I cannot make up my mind to sign a bill which in its chief provision violates a principle that ought, in my opinion, to be upheld in dealing with our immigration. I refer to the literacy test. I cannot approve that test.

(4) President Woodrow Wilson, explaining why he objected to the political and literacy clauses in the proposed Immigration Act (28th January, 1915)

Restrictions like these, adopted earlier in our history as a Nation, would very materially have altered the course and cooled the humane ardors of our politics. The right of political asylum has brought to this country many a man of noble character and elevated purpose who was marked as an outlaw in his own less fortunate land.

The literacy test and the tests and restrictions which accompany it constitute an even more radical change in the policy of the Nation. Hitherto we have generously kept our doors open to all who were not unfitted by reason of disease or incapacity for self-support or such personal records and antecedents as were likely to make them a menace to our peace and order or to the wholesome and essential relationships of life. In this bill it is proposed to turn away from tests of character and of quality and impose tests which exclude and restrict, the the new tests here embodied are not tests of quality or of character or of personal fitness, but tests of opportunity. Those who come seeking opportunity are not to be admitted unless they have already had one of the chief of the opportunities they seek, the opportunity of education. The object of such restriction, not selection.

(5) Emanuel Celler, wrote about the 1924 Immigration Act in his autobiography, You Never Leave Brooklyn (1953)

The passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 resulted from a mixture of passion and emotion; a mixture of fears and hates, tempered by idealism and by vision, which lie behind the complex motivations of Congressional action. We were afraid of foreigners; we distrusted them; we didn't like them. Under this act only some one hundred and fifty odd thousands would be permitted to enter the United States. If you were of Anglo-Saxon origin, you could have over two-thirds of the quota numbers allotted to your people. If you were Japanese, you could not come in at all. That, of course, had been true of the Chinese since 1880. If you were southern or eastern European, you could dribble in and remain on sufferance.