It's the 100th Anniversary of Another Discriminatory Immigration Ban

Officers of a Chinese American Association in San Francisco/Image via Library of Congress.
Officers of a Chinese American Association in San Francisco/Image via Library of Congress.

In 1917, President CoolidgeWilson signed the Johnson-Reed Act, an immigration law that prevented anyone from entering who was born in a geographical area called the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” with the exception of Japanese and Filipino people, as the Philippines were a U.S. colony. At that time, Chinese people were already being kept out of the United States by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but this new Act expanded the definition of who could be kept out considerably.

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Time reports that the Johnson-Reed Act is sometimes known as the Literacy Act, because in addition to its restrictions on Asian immigrants, the act also excluded “convicted criminals, chronic alcoholics, and people with contagious diseases, but also people with epilepsy, anarchists, most people who couldn’t read,” and anyone deemed likely to “become a public charge.”

Jewish immigrants on Ellis Island/Image via Getty.
Jewish immigrants on Ellis Island/Image via Getty.
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According to the Office of the Historian, the literacy component didn’t keep enough people out to satisfy Congress. In the 1920s, a quota system for immigrants of each nationality based on the census from 1910 set a limit of 350,000 visas for newcomers each year. Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere were not included in this number—for them, visas had no limit.

In 1924, another Immigration Act (called the Immigration Act) included a provision that excluded “any alien who by virtue of race or nationality was ineligible for citizenship,” which, based on laws from the previous century, meant that the Japanese were now added to the list. Many in Japan were offended, as the Japanese government had been voluntarily limiting emigration under the Gentleman’s Agreement for a decade.

Woodrow Wilson/Image via Getty.
Woodrow Wilson/Image via Getty.

A version of the Johnson-Reed Act was vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1915. In his veto message to Congress, he wrote:

Restrictions like these, adopted earlier in our history as a Nation, would very materially have altered the course and cooled the humane ardors of our politics. The right of political asylum has brought to this country many a man of noble character and elevated purpose who was marked as an outlaw in his own less fortunate land, and who has yet become an ornament to our citizenship and to our public councils. The children and the compatriots of these illustrious Americans must stand amazed to see the representatives of their Nation now resolved, in the fullness of our national strength and at the maturity of our great institutions, to risk turning such men back from our shores without test of quality or purpose.

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Despite these words, the Chinese Exclusion Act remained a law throughout Wilson’s tenure and was not officially taken off the books until December 17, 1943 with the Magnuson Act, and the Immigration Act was not revised until 1952. Policies around immigration still reflect the exclusionary, racist politics of these early laws and how they are, at their very core, about keeping the United States homogenous and white.

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin

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DISCUSSION

thenoblerenard
The Noble Renard

in addition to its restrictions on Asian immigrants, the act also excluded “convicted criminals, chronic alcoholics, and people with contagious diseases, but also people with epilepsy, anarchists, most people who couldn’t read,” and anyone deemed likely to “become a public charge.”

Important note; the highlighted provisions are still in the Immigration and National Act, where they have remained since 1917.

8 U.S.C. 1182 lists grounds of “inadmissibility” into the United States. There are a huge swath of crime-related grounds of inadmissibility, all immigrants must be screened for certain illnesses and cannot enter unless they’ve shown they have been vaccinated, those with “physical or mental disorders ... that may pose, or has posed, a threat to the property, safety, or welfare of the alien or others” are still inadmissible (fun fact! Being gay was actually an official reason you would not be allowed to enter the United States... until 1990), as is anyone who is a “drug abuser or drug addict,” and under the law, being a “habitual drunkard” is still statutorily grounds to bar you from any benefit which requires a showing of “good moral character.”

As for the “public charge” ground of inadmissibility, not only is that still on the books, but there’s a draft Executive Order circulating right now that would strictly enforce both the ground of inadmissibility and the ground of deportability (reasons people with green cards can be deported), meaning in essence that Trump would make it the policy of the federal government to deport anyone immigrant who had to use, for example, food stamps in their first five years of being in the country.

The racist origins of our immigration laws are still deeply present, unfortunately.