Wednesday, February 5, 2020
February 5, 2020: Immigration Laws: The Immigration Act of 1917
[On February 5, 1917 Congress passed the influential and exclusionary Immigration Act of 1917. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Act and other stages across the history of immigration laws, leading up to a weekend post on where our laws and narratives stand in 2020.]
On how the 1917 law built upon the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how it went far beyond it.
I’ll admit that when I’ve written and talked about the Immigration Act of 1917, it’s largely been to note that it greatly extended and amplified the era’s exclusion of immigrants from Asian nations. That had begun with the Chinese Exclusion Act of course, and then Japanese immigrants had likewise been the subject of their own exclusionary policy, the so-called “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907 (Teddy Roosevelt apparently didn’t like the sound of “exclusion act,” so went with a softer name for a very similar, xenophobic principle and policy). But the 1917 Act went much further still, creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone” comprised of “any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia” (ie, basically every East and Southeast Asian nation other than the Philippines, which were occupied at the time by the US but would soon be subject to their own exclusionary laws, as I’ll discuss in tomorrow’s post). For the last 50 years of the pre-1965 period, then, the Chinese Exclusion era was really the Asian Exclusion era, and the 1917 law was the pivot from more specific to more comprehensive xenophobia and discrimination.
That’s all true and was a central focus of the 1917 law, but it also went much further in a number of important ways. For one thing, it identified a wide range of other categories of arrivals who were similarly excluded, such as: “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, [and] aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States, polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault or killing of any officer.” While each item on that list has a particular set of contexts, in sum this collection made the 1917 law far closer to a national immigration law than the prior laws (which had focused on excluding those particular nationalities, with very little reference to any other communities or categories). Indeed, while the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and 1924 Quota Act (or Johnson-Reed Act) made exclusion based on nationality the defining national immigration policy for the next forty years, in overall ways you could say that they simply expanded the exclusionary frame created by the Immigration Act of 1917.
Moreover, while those national quotas were eliminated by the 1965 Immigration Act, the 1917 law also included other exclusionary details that have remained much more consistently present throughout the next century of American immigration law. It linked immigration to financial status in very overt ways, imposing an $8 per head (roughly $160 in 2019 terms) tax for all arrivals over 16 and making it illegal for any adult who had not paid their own tax to enter the US; to this day our immigration system continues to favor the wealthy, as illustrated by the “Million Dollar Visa” policy which remains in effect. The 1917 law also imposed a literacy test for all arrivals over 16, requiring them to prove that they could read 30-40 words in some language before they were allowed to enter; the 1965 Immigration Act’s preferences for particular levels of education and forms of employment reflects the continued presence of these kinds of educational and professional emphases. In creating these kinds of preferences—and doing so through excluding those who could not meet them—the Immigration Act of 1917 likewise set the stage not just for the 1920s Quota Acts, but for much of the next century of American immigration law.
Next law and stage tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?