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US immigration legislation online


1917 Immigration Act (An act to regulate the immigration of aliens to, and the residence of aliens in, the United States)

H.R. 10384; Pub.L. 301; 39 Stat. 874.

64th Congress; February 5th, 1917.

You can find the full text of this law as a PDF here.



The 1917 Immigration Act, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, was a law passed by Congress on February 5, 1917 that restricted the immigration of 'undesirables' from other countries, including "idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those who have any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States..., polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault of killing of any officer." Prostitutes and anyone involved in or with prostitution were also barred from entering the United States.

A tax of $8 a head was imposed on immigrants, except children under sixteen accompanying a parent, and those over 16 who had not paid for their own ticket were prohibited from entering the country.

One of the key aspects of the 1917 Act was that people from what was called the Asiatic Barred Zone were restricted from entering the country. “Any country not owned by the U.S. adjacent to the continent of Asia” along specified longitudes and latitudes were restricted from immigrating.

Another important provision of the Immigration Act was the literacy test imposed on immigrants entering the country. Those who were over the age of 16 and could read some language must read 30 to 40 words to show they are capable of reading. Those who were entering the US to avoid religious persecution from their country of origin did not have to pass this test.

Under the Act immigrants were documented according to destinations in the U.S., physical descriptions, and country of origin among other things. Captains of the vessels the immigrants came over on were responsible for gathering this information. Medical examinations were also required by the ship’s doctor and port authorities before entering the country.

Described throughout the Immigration Act are many penalties and fines for violating the laws written within. Overall the Immigration Act of 1917 was intended to tighten the restrictions on those entering the country, especially from the area of Asia and surrounding countries and those with mental and physical handicaps.

(Summary by Davis Tucker and Jessi Creller)



1917 Immigration Act - This is a brief summary of the legislation and also has excerpts from President’s speech about the Act.

European Immigration and Defining Whiteness - This site relates to race, the history of it in the US, human variation and the lived experience of race in reference to the how America’s foundation was built around racism as displayed in the Immigration Act of 1917.

The Immigration Act of 1924 - This essay shows how the 1917 Immigration Act acted as a precursor to the restrictive quotas of the 1920s (the 1921 Emergency Quota Law and the 1924 Immigration Act).

Closed Borders and Mass Deportations: The Lessons of the Barred Zone Act - An essay by Alicia J. Campi of the Immigration Policy Center (IPC).

Immigration Restriction League - Harvard's Open Collections Program contains documents pertaining to the Immigration Restriction League, the most vocal proponent of literacy testing for immigrants.

Eugenics Laws Restricting Immigration - An essay linking immigration laws in the first quarter of the twentieth century with the eugenics movement.


Many thanks to Hein Online for document provision, and The University of Washington-Bothell Library, for arranging web hosting. If you have any questions about this site, please contact the course instructor, Sarah Starkweather, at sarah [dot] starkweather [at] gmail [dot] com.