World War I

American entry into World War I brought about major changes in the U.S. government’s immigration policy that infringed on the civil liberties of many people during and after the war and led to new immigration restrictions.

Beginning in the 1880’s, new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and Japan arrived at American ports of call in great numbers. Fleeing from poverty, religious persecution, and disease, they poured into the East and West coasts searching for employment and a better life. The America they encountered, however, was less than welcoming. Fearful that the immigrants, largely uneducated, would not assimilate, vocal citizens advocated immigration restriction.Germany;in World War I[World War 01]World War I[World War 01]Germany;in World War I[World War 01]World War I[World War 01][cat]WARS;World War I[cat]PUSH-PULL FACTORS;World War I[cat]EVENTS AND MOVEMENTS;World War I[cat]NATIVISM;World War I[cat]REFUGEES AND DISPLACED PERSONS;World War I

Growing Nativism

Nativism–an Nativism;and World War I[World War 01]attitude that favored the interests of native inhabitants over those of immigrants, often accompanied by hostility toward foreigners–had always been present in American history. Following the second great wave of immigration of the 1880’s, however, nativism assumed a new posture. In the large cities, industrialists welcomed the newcomers, who became the major source of unskilled, cheap labor. Native-born workers, fearing competition, and New England patricians railing against the degradation of America formed an unlikely alliance to restrict immigration. By imposing a literacy test, they hoped to eliminate any future influx of illiterate peoples to their shores.

First introduced in 1887 by economist Bemis, Edward W.Edward W. Bemis, the literacy test gained ground after the newly formed Immigration Restriction LeagueImmigration Restriction League began, in 1897, to lobby for a bill that would require immigrants to take such a test. The bill failed passage several times, since presidents from Grover Cleveland to Wilson, Woodrow[p]Wilson, Woodrow;and World War I[World War I]Woodrow Wilson, eyeing reelection, considered the literacy test too controversial. Nonetheless, the intellectual climate of the country began to change with the outbreak of World War I in Europe in August, 1914. The test was added to the Immigration Act of 1917.

Government Action

Progressive Era reform efforts encouraged the humanitarian work of reformers such as Frances Kellor and Addams, JaneJane Addams, who fought for the education of the foreign-born. Novelist Wharton, EdithEdith Wharton also kept the reform spirit alive by founding the American Hostels for Refugees, which assisted French and Belgian refugees in Paris, in 1914. However, the U.S. government, as a neutral power during the war, offered little assistance to overseas refugees on the whole, despite individual petitions from Armenian immigrantsArmenian deportees Turkey;Armenian genocideGenocide;Armenianduring the Armenian genocide perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government from 1915 to 1923. America’s declaration of war in April, 1917, offered only one concession to the refugees–a provision in the [a]Immigration Act of 1917;literacy testImmigration Act of 1917 exempting from the literacy test those fleeing religious persecution.

With American shipping threatened, President Wilson demanded uncompromising Americanism, considering it essential for the survival of the republic. By 1915,Nativism;and World War I[World War 01]nativist sentiment had shifted from the anti-Roman Catholism and anti-Semitism of the Progressive Era to anti-German hysteria. Innumerable hardships were inflicted on the once-lauded German Americans, now regarded as potentially treacherous. As a result, approximately three thousand Germans and Austro-Hungarian nationals were held in military camps. In 1918, near St. Louis, Missouri[Saint Louis, Missouri];German immigrantsSt. Louis, a German immigrant was lynched.

Ironically, despite the repressive atmosphere of the period, the war Americanized some immigrants. After Wilson called for a World War I[World War 01];conscription[a]Selective Service Act of 1917Selective Service Act in 1917, immigrants, exempt from service since they were not officially citizens, volunteered and were placed in select battalions where they could learn English. However, the plan was short-lived, and many were eventually placed in segregated units. For Slavic refugees fleeing from the Austro-Hungarian Empire[AustroHungarian Empire];and World War I[World War 01]Austro-Hungarian Empire, Congress sanctioned the formation of a Slavic Legion in July, 1918. The war’s conclusion four months later, however, abruptly ended the arrangement.

Despite the patriotism of many newcomers who served their adopted country, a resistant America supported the passage of the [a]Immigration Act of 1917;literacy testImmigration Act of 1917 or the Asiatic Barred ZoneAsiatic Barred Zone Act, which required all newcomers over the age of sixteen to submit to a literacy test in English or their native tongue. The act further restricted admission of other Asian peoples not previously excluded, such as Indians and Southeast Asians. Passed over President Wilson, Woodrow[p]Wilson, Woodrow;and World War I[World War I]Wilson’s veto, the act set the stage for further limits on immigration. Ironically, however, the bill did not succeed in restricting the desired number, since only 1,450 of the 800,000 immigrants who arrived that year failed the test.


Following the war, millions of German immigrants;and World War I[World War 01]Germans and Jewish immigrants;and World War I[World War 01]Jews sought refuge in the United States. Anticipating the strain on America’s resources, Congress passed the [a]Immigration Act of 1921Immigration Act of 1921, followed by the [a]Immigration Act of 1924;and European immigrants[European immigrants]Immigration Act of 1924 (or the Johnson-Reed Act), the latter setting a 2 percent quota on incoming foreigners. The resulting decline in immigrants from southern and eastern Europe produced a shortage of workers in America’s factories, causing Immigration Commissioner Anthony Caminetti to fill vacancies with Mexicans.

Wary of the dislocation that war had brought, the United States turned inward, especially against radical ideas from abroad, and strove to divorce itself from foreign influence. The country rejected internationalism, especially the League of NationsLeague of Nations–and Attorney General Palmer, A. MitchellA. Mitchell Palmer conducted raids aimed at purging the United States of foreign socialist influence. Thus, under the Alien Act of 1918, foreign-born members of the Socialist PartySocialist Party could be deported without trial.

On a positive note for native-born and immigrant women, the war resulted in the ratification of the [a]Nineteenth AmendmentNineteenth Amendment, which granted suffrage to all women. The [a]Cable Act of 1922Cable Act of 1922 (also known as the Married Woman’s Act) granted women outright citizenship regardless of the status of their husbands but denied citizenship to women married to Asians. While immigrant women had finally received recognition as individuals, immigrants as a whole continued their arduous journey to equality.Germany;in World War I[World War 01]World War I[World War 01]

Further Reading

  • Barkan, Elliott Robert. From All Points: America’s Immigrant West, 1870’s-1952. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Scholarly study detailing American immigration history in the West and its peculiar set of problems.
  • Bennett, Marion T. American Immigration Policies: A History. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1963. Invaluable narrative that focuses on how immigration legislation affected America.
  • Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1963. Preeminent historian’s groundbreaking study of immigration, labeling the height of nativism “the tribal twenties.”
  • Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. 1980. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. History of the World War I home front. Important evaluation of how immigration affected America during and following the war.
  • LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Compilation of major documents relating to immigration history. Includes a handy chronology and a brief introduction.

Dillingham Commission

Ellis Island

Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917-1918

European immigrants

History of immigration after 1891

Immigration Act of 1917

Immigration Act of 1921

Literacy tests

Military conscription


Red Scare

World War II