US Immigration Act of 1917

A Product of Isolationism, Law Drastically Reduced US Immigration

A 1900s immigrant family viewing the Statue of Liberty
Immigrant Family Views Statue Of Liberty From Ellis Island. FPG / Getty Images

The Immigration Act of 1917 drastically reduced US immigration by expanding the prohibitions of the Chinese exclusion laws of the late 1800s. The law created an “Asiatic barred zone” provision prohibiting immigration from British India, most of Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the Middle East. In addition, the law required a basic literacy test for all immigrants and barred homosexuals, “idiots,” the “insane,” alcoholics, “anarchists,” and several other categories from immigrating.

Details and Effects of the Immigration Act of 1917

From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, no nation welcomed more immigrants into its borders than the United States. In 1907 alone, a record 1.3 million immigrants entered the U.S. through New York’s Ellis Island. However, the Immigration Act of 1917, a product of the pre-World War I isolationism movement, would drastically change that.

Also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, the Immigration Act of 1917, barred immigrants from a large part of the world loosely defined as “Any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia.” In practice the barred zone provision excluded immigrants from Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Asiatic Russia, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Polynesian Islands. However, both Japan and the Philippines were excluded from the barred zone. The law also allowed exceptions for students, certain professionals, such as teachers and doctors, and their wives and children.

Other provisions of the law increase the “head tax” immigrants were required to pay on entry to $8.00 per person and eliminated a provision in an earlier law that had excused Mexican farm and railroad workers from paying the head tax.

The law also barred all immigrants over the age of 16 who were illiterate or deemed to be “mentally defective” or physically handicapped.

The term “mentally defective” was interpreted to effectively exclude homosexual immigrants who admitted their sexual orientation. U.S. immigration laws continued to ban homosexuals until passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, sponsored by Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy. 

The law defined literacy as being able to read a simple 30 to 40 word passage written in the immigrant’s native language. Persons who claimed they were entering the U.S. to avoid religious persecution in their country of origin were not required to take the literacy test.

Perhaps considered most politically incorrect by today’s standards, the law include specific language barring the immigration of “idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those who have any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States..., polygamists and anarchists,” as well as “those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault of killing of any officer.”

Effect of the Immigration Act of 1917

To say the least, the Immigration Act of 1917 had the impact desired by its supporters. According to the Migration Policy Institute, only about 110,000 new immigrants were allowed to enter the United States in 1918, compared to more than 1.2 million in 1913.

Further limiting immigration, Congress passed the National Origins Act of 1924, which for the first time established an immigration-limiting quota system and required all immigrants to be screened while still in their countries of origin. The law resulted in virtual closure of Ellis Island as an immigrant processing center. After 1924, the only immigrants still being screened at Ellis Island were those who had problems with their paperwork, war refugees, and displaced persons.

Isolationism Drove the Immigration Act of 1917

As an outgrowth of the American isolationism movement that dominated the 19th century, the Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston in 1894.

Seeking mainly to slow the entry of “lower-class” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, the group lobbied Congress to pass legislation requiring immigrants to prove their literacy.

In 1897, Congress passed an immigrant literacy bill sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, but President Grover Cleveland vetoed the law.  

Be early 1917, with America’s participation in World War I appearing inevitable, demands for isolationism hit an all-time high. In that growing atmosphere of xenophobia, Congress easily passed the Immigration Act of 1917, and then overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the law by a supermajority vote.

Amendments Restore US Immigration

The negative effects of drastically reduced immigration and the general inequity of laws like the Immigration Act of 1917 soon become apparent and Congress reacted.

With World War I reducing the American workforce, Congress amended the Immigration Act of 1917 to reinstate a provision exempting Mexican farm and ranch workers from the entry tax requirement. The exemption was soon extended to Mexican mining and railroad industry workers.

Shortly after the end of World War II, the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, sponsored by Republican Representative Clare Boothe Luce and Democrat Emanuel Celler eased immigration and naturalization restrictions against Asian Indian and Filipino immigrants. The law allowed the immigration of up to 100 Filipinos and 100 Indians per year and again allowed Filipino and Indian immigrants to become United States citizens. The law also allowed naturalized Indian Americans and Filipino
Americans to own homes and farms and to petition for their family members to be allowed to immigrate to the United States.

In the final year of the presidency of Harry S. Truman, Congress further amended the Immigration Act of 1917 with its passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, known as the McCarran-Walter Act. The law allowed Japanese, Korean and other Asian immigrants to seek naturalization and established an immigration system that placed emphasis on skill sets and reuniting families.

Concerned by the fact that the law maintained a quota system drastically limiting immigration from Asian nations, President Wilson vetoed the McCarran-Walter Act, but Congress garnered the votes needed to override the veto.

Between 1860 and 1920, the immigrant share of the total U.S. population varied between 13% and nearly 15%, peaking at 14.8% in 1890, mainly due to high levels of immigrants from Europe.

As of the end of 1994, the U.S. immigrant population stood at more than 42.4 million, or 13.3%, of the total U.S. population, according to Census Bureau data. Between 2013 and 2014, the foreign-born population of the U.S. increased by 1 million, or 2.5 percent.

Immigrants to the United States and their children born in the U.S. now number approximately 81 million people, or 26% of the overall U.S. population.