An Eclectic Journal of Opinion, History, Poetry and General Bloviating
On February 5, 1917 Congress overrode President Woodrow Wilson’s veto making the Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, the law of the land. It was the most restrictive legislation yet enacted and banned immigration from most of Asia and the Pacific Islands.
China was not included only because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 already barred entry from that country and the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan in 1907 restricted immigration from there. The act was aimed at potential new reservoirs of immigrants like Korea and especially India which was then exporting cheap labor to every corner of the British Empire and which was beginning to trickle into the States.
Wilson, not known for his racial enlightenment, had vetoed the measure not over its sweeping anti-oriental provisions, but because it also required immigrants to be literate. He feared that would choke the supply of cheap labor to American industry.
Besides illiterates, the act banned a laundry list of other undesirables including “idiots, feeble-minded persons, criminals, epileptics, insane persons, alcoholics, professional beggars, the mentally or physically defective, polygamists, and anarchists.
Widely derided as racist by most historians, today the Act is held up as model legislation by those few Trump supporters literate in history.
Of course American xenophobia and anti-immigration zeal did not end there. Decades of American industrial strife—virtual open class warfare—in which waves of Old World immigrants including Jews, Italians and other Mediterranean peoples, Poles, Slavs, and other Eastern Europeans—played prominent parts—contributed to a rise in nativism. The Russian Revolution and the post-World War I Red Scare threw American oligarchs into a panic. Anti-Semitism in particular was on the rise because many leading labor militants, Socialists, and anarchists were Jews.
The inevitable result was the Immigration Act of 1924 which limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the United States through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to just two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the United States as of the 1890 Census. The effect was to suddenly lop off the stream of mostly “swarthy” European immigration which had flooded American shores since the Civil War.
The Act was working exactly as intended when most Jews fleeing Nazism and the Holocaust were turned away. Tens of thousands of those who were refused visas and entry permits or who were actually turned away including the famous case of a ship carrying 937 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution turned away from Havana, Cuba and denied entry to the US in 1939 eventually died in Nazi death camps.
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