Immigration Act (Literacy Act) (United States) (1917)


The Immigration Act of 1917, popularly known as the Literacy Act, marked a turning point in American immigration legislation. Prohibiting entry to aliens over 16 years of age who could not read 30–40 words in their own language, it was the first legislation aimed at restricting, rather than regulating, European immigration. It further extended the tendency toward a "white” immigration policy, creating an "Asiatic barred zone” that prohibited entry of most Asians.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was seen by most policy makers as an exceptional case, but attitudes gradually shifted with the influx of poorly educated southern and eastern Europeans who arrived in the hundreds of thousands in the 1880s. The idea of imposing a literacy test to restrict the tide of "undesirable” Europeans was first widely proposed by progressive economist Edward W. Bemis in 1887. It found relatively little political support until the cause was taken up by the Immigration Restriction League, founded and supported by members of a number of prominent Boston families. Measures incorporating a literacy test came near success in 1895, 1903, 1912, and 1915, only to be vetoed by Presidents Grover Cleveland, Howard Taft, and Woodrow Wilson. With the United States moving ever closer to joining the war in Europe, however, hostility increased toward Germany, Ireland, and Austria-Hungary, leading to increasing support for policies supporting "one hundred percent Americanism.” Representative John L. Burnett of Alabama, a Democrat, revived his bill first introduced in 1913 and vetoed byWilson in 1915. During debate, Senator William Paul Dillingham of Vermont, a Republican and chairman of the earlier Dillingham Commission on immigration reform, spoke in favor of the literacy test as more practical than a percentage plan as a means of limiting immigration. Wilson vetoed the bill but was overridden by both the House (287 to 106) and the Senate (62 to 19), and the Immigration Act was formally passed on February 5, 1917.

The main provisions of the act were heavily restrictive:

1. The head tax on immigrants was raised from $4 to $8

2. The list of excludable aliens was consolidated and broadened to include an Asiatic barred zone keeping out all Asians except Japanese and Filipinos

3. Exclusion of any alien 16 or older who, if physically capable of reading, was unable to read 30–40 words "in ordinary use, printed in plainly legible type in some one of the various languages or dialects” of the immigrant’s choice

The measure was less restrictive than some had hoped but was clear evidence of a rising nativist (see nativism) sentiment and continued to reduce the number of immigrants, which had already declined dramatically since the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

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