Immigration Act of 1917

With passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, immigration into the United States was significantly restricted through the imposition of a literacy test, among other measures.

Summary of Event

During the early 1600’s, the Massachusetts Puritans prohibited newcomers from settling in their communities without their permission. As the colonial population grew from 275,000 in 1700 to 3,929,000 in 1790, each colony made and enforced its own rules: Massachusetts was restrictive, Rhode Island was more lenient, and Pennsylvania was a sanctuary from religious persecution. After ratification of the U.S. Constitution, Congress passed the first Naturalization Act in March, 1790. The act required individuals seeking to become U.S. citizens to have two years of residency and limited naturalization to “free white persons.” The residency requirement was increased to five years in 1795. The first federal legislation that dealt with the expulsion of aliens from the United States was the Alien Act of June 25, 1798. It allowed the president to deport any alien he considered dangerous, but it expired two years after it was enacted. Immigration Act (1917)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)
[kw]Immigration Act of 1917 (Feb. 5, 1917)
[kw]Act of 1917, Immigration (Feb. 5, 1917)
[kw]Immigration Act of 1917 (Feb. 5, 1917)
Immigration Act (1917)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)
[g]United States;Feb. 5, 1917: Immigration Act of 1917[04200]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Feb. 5, 1917: Immigration Act of 1917[04200]
[c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Feb. 5, 1917: Immigration Act of 1917[04200]
Cleveland, Grover
Taft, William Howard
Wilson, Woodrow
[p]Wilson, Woodrow;Immigration Act (1917)
Dillingham, William Paul

From 1800 to 1875, no federal legislation restricted admission into, or enabled deportation from, the United States. Congress enacted other laws related to immigration issues during the period, however. In 1819, concerns about conditions for immigrants on inbound ships prompted a number of steerage acts to safeguard the passage of people en route to the United States. Limits were placed on the numbers of passengers that ships of various sizes could carry, and requirements were established for ships to stock sufficient supplies of food and water before sailing. Customs officials were authorized to count the people debarking from vessels, thus providing a record of arrivals. In 1837, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that individual states could pass their own laws regarding immigrant arrivals.

In the early part of the twentieth century, large numbers of immigrants to the United States crowded big-city neighborhoods like this one in New York City. Hester Street, shown in 1903, was home to many European Jewish immigrants.


Throughout the first great wave of immigration, from 1820 to 1880, more than ten million immigrants arrived on American shores. Originating mostly from northwestern Europe, they were predominantly Irish and German. As the number of Roman Catholics coming from Ireland and other countries increased, anti-Catholic sentiment began to assert itself through nativist organizations such as the Know-Nothings. As members of these organizations were elected to seats in Congress and state legislatures, they called for extensive limitations on immigration, but they were unable to effect changes in national policy.

The states passed laws to protect themselves against the expense of caring for sick, destitute, or otherwise dependent immigrants. In 1848, the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;immigration legislation ruled against the power of individual states when it found that taxes levied on immigrants by the states of New York and Massachusetts were unconstitutional. An outcome of this Supreme Court decision was that government exercised no control over the movement of immigrants. In response to the Court ruling and the enormous influx of immigrants, in 1875 Congress voted to exclude from entry into the United States people who had been convicted of nonpolitical crimes and prostitutes. In 1882, a general immigration act barred the entry of paupers, criminals, the insane, and others likely to become public charges. The Supreme Court also ruled that year that only Congress, not individual states, had the power to make laws restricting immigration (Henderson v. New York). All inspection and regulation of immigration that previously had been held by the states was restored to the federal authorities by an 1891 immigration act.

The California gold rush in 1848 and 1849 drew settlers not only from the eastern United States and Europe but also from South America and China. At first the Chinese were welcomed, but as their numbers increased and the need for their labor as miners and railroad workers decreased, they became targets of hostility. When the California State Assembly concluded that the Chinese were a threat to white immigrants, California’s governor introduced measures to impede the “tide of Asiatic immigrants.” On May 9, 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) —the first U.S. law to prohibit immigration based on race or nationality—was enacted. It barred Chinese from naturalization and suspended Chinese immigration into the United States for ten years. The act was extended for another ten years in 1892, and on April 17, 1904, it was extended for an indefinite time. This suspension remained in effect until passage of the Magnuson Act on December 17, 1943.

From 1880 to 1920, more than 23.5 million people arrived in the United States from other countries, mostly from southern and eastern Europe. In 1894, a group of New England Brahmins founded the Immigration Restriction League. Immigration Restriction League The league’s members had been pleased with the Forant Act of 1885, which had outlawed European contract labor. They perceived the increasing numbers of immigrants arriving from outside northern Europe as a threat to the United States, and the league became a leading advocate of restrictive immigration laws. The U.S. Congress passed laws in 1903 to exclude from entry polygamists, anarchists, epileptics, and people who had been insane during the previous two years or who had had two or more attacks of insanity at any time previously. Immigration peaked at 1.3 million in 1907, and added to the prior list of unauthorized aliens were “feeble minded persons, those with tuberculosis and those whose physical or mental defects hindered their earning a living.”

The first Japanese arrived in California in 1871. Rising tensions between Asians and Californians had resulted in a movement to exclude Asians. By 1906, it was apparent to President Theodore Roosevelt Roosevelt, Theodore
[p]Roosevelt, Theodore;Gentlemen’s Agreement[Gentlemens Agreement] that the only way to stem the overt hostility toward the Japanese would be to prohibit the entry of Japanese labor into the country. Negotiations to redress the situation between Japan and the United States began in December, 1906. The result was the Gentlemen’s Agreement Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907)[Gentlemens Agreement] of 1907, which limited immigration from Japan to nonlaborers and to those laborers already resident in the United States and their families.

The public concern over European immigration in 1907 prompted Congress to establish the Joint Commission on Immigration, which comprised three members of the Senate, three members of the House of Representatives, and three others. In 1911, this body, known also as the Dillingham Commission Dillingham Commission (for the legislation’s author and the commission’s chairman, Senator William Paul Dillingham of Vermont) issued a forty-one-volume report that advocated the restriction of immigration. It stated that recent immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were more likely to be unskilled, unsettled, and generally less desirable than the northern and western European immigrants who had arrived previously. Experts later disputed these conclusions, but the report was used to justify the new restrictions that Congress continued to write into law in the comprehensive Immigration Act of 1917.

The Dillingham Commission suggested a number of different ways to restrict immigration, including the institution of a literacy test, Literacy testing of immigrants the exclusion of unskilled laborers, an increase in the amount of money immigrants were required to have in their possession, and an increase in the head tax. The commission also advocated the establishment of racial quotas.

The literacy test proposal received a significant amount of attention. Congress had introduced prior bills requiring literacy tests for immigrants. In 1897, President Grover Cleveland had vetoed such a bill, saying that immigration restrictions were unnecessary. The House voted (195 to 37) to override the president’s veto on March 3, and the Senate referred the veto message and bill to the Committee on Immigration. When the bill resurfaced at the Sixty-second Congress, it was the Senate that voted to override President William Howard Taft’s veto on February 18, 1913, whereas the House voted to sustain it on February 19. During the Sixty-third Congress (1914-1917), the House voted to sustain President Woodrow Wilson’s veto of the latest version of the bill.

At the second session of the Sixty-fourth Congress, a bill was introduced “to regulate the immigrating of aliens to, and the residence of aliens in, the United States.” Wilson vetoed the bill. On February 1, 1917, the House voted to override the president’s veto, 287 to 106, and the Senate voted similarly on February 5, 1917, 62 to 19. The veto was overridden, and the bill became Public Law 301, the Immigration Act of 1917. The act excluded from entry “all aliens over sixteen years of age, physically capable of reading, who can not read the English language, or some other language or dialect, including Hebrew or Yiddish.”

The act also incorporated other major recommendations the Dillingham Commission had made six years earlier. The head tax was increased, and vagrants, alcoholics, advocates of violent revolutions, and “psychopathic inferiors” all were barred. A further provision created an Asiatic Barred Zone in the southwest Pacific, which succeeded in excluding most Asian immigrants who were not already excluded by the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Gentlemen’s Agreement.


Despite the literacy test and its other provisions, the Immigration Act of 1917 failed to reduce immigration into the United States; in fact, immigration increased in the four fiscal years following enactment of the law, much of it from southern and eastern Europe. During that time, only a tiny fraction of aliens were deported for having failed the literacy test.

Case studies of aliens who were unable to pass the literacy test indicate that some immigration authorities tried to ensure that the 1917 law was not enforced inhumanely. Applicants were sometimes granted admission, under bond, for a limited period, so that they could have the chance to take classes in reading and writing in a language of their choice. Also, applicants who appeared capable of supporting themselves were sometimes given more than one opportunity to pass the literacy test.

The racist attitudes that led to much of the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States in the early twentieth century dominated immigration policy for many years. Negative attitudes toward many immigrant groups did not begin to change until after the United States had participated in two world wars and researchers had refuted the findings of earlier studies that attributed superior intellect and character to people of northern European descent. Immigration Act (1917)
Immigration;legislation (U.S.)

Further Reading

  • Abbott, Edith. Immigration: Select Documents and Case Records. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Contains extracts of immigration acts and relevant court decisions as well as social case histories from the files of Illinois immigration officials. Includes index.
  • Bernard, William S., ed. American Immigration Policy. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1969. Discusses growth and its effect on immigration policy; includes the text of the 1917 Immigration Act.
  • Cose, Ellis. A Nation of Strangers: Prejudice, Politics, and the Populating of America. New York: William Morrow, 1992. Chapters 1 through 4 present an overview of American immigration from colonial settlement to World War I.
  • Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. 2d ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. Part 2 discusses immigration from 1820 to 1924. Includes tables, maps, and charts.
  • Fairchild, H. P. “The Literacy Test and Its Making.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 31 (1916): 447-456. Describes the events preceding and the attitudes surrounding Congress’s several attempts to require a literacy test. According to the author, President Cleveland changed his mind after his veto of the 1896 bill and stated that, had he been better informed, he would have signed it into law.
  • Harper, Elizabeth J. Immigration Laws of the United States. 3d ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1975. Discusses immigration history and trends, explains immigration law terminology, and describes classes of inadmissible aliens.
  • Nugent, Walter. Crossings: The Great Transatlantic Migrations, 1870-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. A thorough treatise on U.S. immigration accompanied by maps, tables, and photographs.
  • Orth, Samuel Peter. Our Foreigners: A Chronicle of Americans in the Making. 1921. Reprint. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2003. Originally published shortly after the enactment of the 1917 law, when not a great deal had been written about the subject, this book provides insight into the language and thinking of the period. Includes an index and an annotated bibliography that groups immigrant subject material according to race and country of origin. Chapter titled “The Guarded Door” provides background on the 1917 act.
  • Tichenor, Daniel J. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002. Examines the history of immigration policy in the United States since the nation’s founding, focusing on the factors that have influenced attitudes toward immigration and immigrants. Includes tables, figures, and index.
  • U.S. Immigration Commission. Reports of the Immigration Commission. 41 vols. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1911. The report of the Dillingham Commission’s investigation of U.S. immigration policy.

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Passage of the First Alien Land Law

Emergency Quota Act

Immigration Act of 1924

U.S. Congress Establishes the Border Patrol

Mass Deportations of Mexicans