Immigration Act of 1917

In 1917, a new piece of immigration legislation was passed by Congress that expanded the list of reasons why individuals could be excluded from entry to the United States, a literacy test was added, and what became known as the Asiatic Barred Zone was created. This act is also known as the "Asiatic Barred Zone Act" (Act of February 5, 1917, 39 Stat. 874, 8 U.S.C.0.).

The Asiatic Barred Zone was a region encompassing much of the continent of Asia, excluding Japan and Eastern China, and the islands adjacent to the continent of Asia for total exclusion from immigration. Japanese laborers and Chinese laborers were already excluded under the Gentleman's Agreement and the Chinese Exclusion Act. Migrants from the Philippines were exempt from this exclusion law since they lived under the jurisdiction of the U.S., given that the Philippines was a U.S. insular territory and they were thus classified as U.S. nationals.

Also added to the immigration process was a literacy test. Wives, fathers or grandfathers over the age of fifty-five, mothers and grandmothers regardless of age, and unmarried or widowed daughters of the presumptively male immigrant or citizen were exempt from the literacy test. The Immigration Restriction League, founded in 1894, was one of the most outspoken advocates for the creation of a literacy test for immigration. Despite their efforts to see this method of restriction imposed earlier, it was not included in immigration law until 1917.

The act passed by an overwhelming majority over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson, demonstrating a growing anti-Asian sentiment in the United States and a legal prelude to further restrictions to come with the Immigration Act of 1924. The Asiatic Barred Zone was in effect until passage of the Immigration Act of 1952.

Authored by Cherstin M. Lyon, California State University, San Bernardino

For More Information

Immigration Restriction League (digital documents collection).

Lee, Erika. At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Era of Exclusion, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Ngai, Mae M. "The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924." Journal of American History 86.1 (1999): 67-92.

Tichenor, Daniel. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.