Immigration Act of 1917


On February 5, 1917, the US Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 overriding the veto of President Wilson. The act was the first legislation to limit immigrants from Europe. Its central provision required new immigrants to pass a literacy test. It also halted all immigration of Asia.

Nativism had begun early in the US history, with Nativist parties on the 19th century opposing the Irish immigration, which was primarily Catholic. However, the majority of Americans were initially reluctant to support bans limiting immigration. The idea of requiring immigrants to be literate slowly gained support. Henry Cabot Lodge introduced a bill to require literacy, but President Cleveland vetoed that bill in 1897. President Teddy Roosevelt voiced his support for some sort of literacy requirement, but no bill emerged. The Congress did pass a law in 1912 requiring literacy for immigrants, but President Taft vetoed it. At the end of 1916, Congress passed a new bill requiring literacy but was vetoed by President Wilson on December 14, 1916. The Congress overrode that veto on February 5, 1917.

The bill which was the first to place any restrictions on immigration from Europe, beyond an earlier ban on convicts or the indigent. The required all immigrants to be able to read 30-40 word in their native language. The bill also restricted a long list of people defined as undesirable. They include :"alcoholics", "anarchists", "contract laborers", "criminals and convicts", "epileptics", "feebleminded persons", "idiots", "illiterates", "imbeciles", "insane persons", "paupers", "persons afflicted with contagious disease", "persons being mentally or physically defective", "persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority", "political radicals", "polygamists", "prostitutes" and “vagrants”.

In addition, the bill bared immigration from much of the Pacific and Asia.