Immigration Restriction League (IRL)


Founded by Charles Warren in Boston in 1894, the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) proposed a literacy test for the purpose of restricting immigration. With the support of prominent Boston families and a large number of academics, the IRL came near success in 1895, 1903, 1912, and 1915. Finally, with passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, a literacy test was adopted, with both houses of Congress overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. This marked a turning point in American immigrant legislation, moving away from regulation toward restriction.
As more and more Americans began to question the wisdom of an open-door policy toward immigrants, the most radical proposal for keeping out immigrants generally was the literacy test, an idea first introduced by the economist Edward W. Bemis in 1887. Bemis proposed that all male adults who could not read or write their own language should be prohibited from entering the United States. The literacy test gained little support until a cholera epidemic brought by immigrant ships in 1892 and the depression of the following year led to broader support for extreme measures. The IRL adopted the test as their political goal. Leading the organization’s lobbying efforts were two Harvard classmates, Prescott Farnsworth Hall and Robert De Courcy Ward. Despite antipathies toward the Irish, the organization was prepared to accept their presence in American life at the expense of eastern and southern Europeans. As Hall put it, the question was whether the United States would be “peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic races, historically downtrodden, atavistic, and stagnant.” Although literacy legislation was vetoed on four occasions, Hall and Ward were persistent, continuing to revive the issue at every favorable opportunity, appealing to business and labor leaders as well as members of Congress. Active U.S. involvement in the European war from 1917 led to a rapid increase in xenophobia and thus to conditions favorable to passage of the restrictive legislation, which outlawed “all aliens over sixteen years of age . . . who cannot read the English language, or some other language or dialect.”
See also nativism.

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