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100 years ago, the US banned a long and bizarre list of foreigners in a sweeping immigration bill

Reuters/Robert Galbraith
By Neha Thirani Bagri
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Over one century ago, on Feb. 5, 1917 Congress passed a bill that placed a ban on immigrants from almost the entire Asian continent from entering the United States.

At the time, the US was a couple of months away from entering World War I and xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments were running high. American legislators had expressed concern about the “yellow peril” and the “Tide of Turbans” coming from China, Japan, and India. In this context, the country passed one of the most restrictive immigration bills ever, overriding the veto of president Woodrow Wilson.

The bill created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” that restricted the entry of people from “any country not owned by the US adjacent to the continent of Asia.” According to the commissioner general of immigration who headed the Bureau of Immigration, a pre-cursor to the Department of Homeland Security, the zone included “India, Siam, Indo-China, parts of Siberia, Afghanistan, and Arabia, the islands of Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, Borneo, New Guinea, Celebes, and various lesser groups with an estimated population of 500,000,000.” The Barred Zone, demarcated by specific latitudes and longitudes, excluded parts of China and all of all Japan, but immigrants from those countries were already limited through previous legislation including the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, which restricted immigration from Japan.

South Asian American Digital Archive

The bill also imposed a native language literacy test, an English language test, and a head tax of $8 on adult immigrants, about $160 today.

But the bill did not stop there. It also denied US admission to an extensive and sometimes bizarre list of “classes of aliens” regardless of their country of origin. Here are all the types of people banned by the Immigration Act of 1917:

  • People over the age of 16 who were illiterate
  • “Undesirables” from other countries
  • Idiots
  • “Feeble-minded” people
  • Imbeciles
  • Epileptics
  • People with chronic alcoholism
  • Persons of “constitutional psychopathic inferiority”
  • Paupers
  • Criminals or those with any criminal record
  • Insane persons and people who regularly suffer attacks of insanity
  • People with tuberculosis
  • Beggars
  • People who have a physical disability that would restrict them from earning a living in the US
  • Polygamists
  • People with any form of dangerous contagious diseases
  • Anarchists and those opposed to “organized government”
  • Prostitutes and anyone involved in or with prostitution
  • People who advocated the unlawful destruction of property
  • People who advocated the unlawful assault or killing of public officials
  • Laborers who were “induced, assisted, encouraged, or solicited to migrate to this country by offers or promises of employment, whether such offers or promises are true or false”
  • People “likely to become a public charge”

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