The Immigration Act of 1917 (also known as the Literacy Act and less often as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act) was the most sweeping immigration act the United States had passed until that time. It was the first bill aimed at restricting, as opposed to regulating, immigrants and marked a turn toward nativism. The law imposed literacy tests on immigrants, created new categories of inadmissible persons and barred immigration from the Asia-Pacific Zone. It governed immigration policy until amended by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 also known as the McCarran–Walter Act.
On February 5, 1917, the United States Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917 with an overwhelming majority, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s December 14, 1916, veto.
This act added to and consolidated the list of undesirables banned from entering the country, including: “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”.
For the first time, an immigration law of the U.S. impacted European immigration with the provision barring all immigrants over the age of sixteen who were illiterate. Literacy was defined by being able to read 30-40 words of their own language from an ordinary text.
The Act reaffirmed the ban on contracted labor, but made a provision for temporary labor, which allowed laborers to obtain temporary permits, because they were inadmissible as immigrants. The waiver program, enabled continued recruitment of Mexican agricultural and railroad workers.Legal interpretation on the terms “mentally defective” and “persons with constitutional psychopathic inferiority” effectively included a ban on homosexual immigrants who admitted their orientation.One section of the law designated an “Asiatic Barred Zone”, from which people could not immigrate, and included much of Asia and the Pacific Islands. The zone was described on longitudinal and latitudinal lines, excluding immigrants from Afghanistan, the Arabian Peninsula, Asiatic Russia, India, Malaysia, Myanmar(Burma), and the Polynesian Islands. Neither Japan nor the Philippines were included in the banned zone. The law also increased the head tax to $8 per person and eliminated the exclusion of paying the head tax from Mexican workers.
Almost immediately, the provisions of the law were challenged by Southwestern businesses. US entry into World War I, a few months after the law’s passage, prompted a waiver of the Act’s provisions on Mexican agricultural workers. It was soon extended to include Mexicans working in the mining and railroad industries and the exemptions continued through 1921. The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943. The Luce-Celler Act of 1946 ended discrimination against Asian Indians and Filipinos, who were accorded the right to naturalization, and allowed a quota of 100 immigrants per year. The Immigration Act of 1917 was later altered formally by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, known as the McCarran-Walter Act. It extended the privilege of naturalization to Japanese, Koreans, and other Asians.The McCarran-Walter Act revised all previous laws and regulations regarding immigration, naturalization, and nationality, and collected into one comprehensive statute.Legislation barring homosexuals as immigrants remained part of the immigration code until passage of the Immigration Act of 1990.