Health inspector examines an immigrant at Angel Island, c. 1917.
Between 1910 and 1940, inspectors at the “Ellis Island of the West” detained, examined, and processed around a million immigrants, mostly from Asia (many of these immigrants were from China).
February 5, 1917: Congress passes the Immigration Act of 1917.
Also called the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act”, this piece of immigration legislation was passed over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto and added to a list of “undesirable” people, who would henceforth be banned from immigrating to the United States, “all idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, epileptics, insane persons; persons who have had one or more attacks of insanity at any time previously; persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority; persons with chronic alcoholism; paupers; professional beggars; vagrants; persons afflicted with tuberculosis in any form or with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease…” as well as polygamists, anarchists, and anyone inclined to commit treason against the government. The act also provided for literacy tests for any prospective immigrants over sixteen. This clause stated that if any foreigner could not “read the English language, or some other language or dialect, including Hebrew or Yiddish”, they would also be excluded.
Even more controversially, the act created an “Asiatic Barred Zone”. In 1882, the landmark Chinese Exclusion Act restricted Chinese immigration to the United States, eventually becoming permanent in 1902; the 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” was an informal accord between both countries that nevertheless did stop immigration from Japan; the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone spelled further restrictions against immigration from the continent as a whole, continuing the general trend of isolationism, nativism, and xenophobia that manifested itself in legislation and public sentiment. As a result of this act, immigrants living in areas “adjacent to the continent of Asia” (besides any American territorial possessions) and within certain coordinates were denied entry to the country.
The Immigration Act of 1924, which set nationality quotas and further restricted the immigration of non-Western Europeans, finally stopped Asian immigration to the United States altogether.
May 6, 1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act is signed into law.
In 1880, the Burlingame Treaty (which had established formal friendly relations between the United States and China) was amended in order to suspend Chinese immigration. Growing anti-Chinese sentiment, mostly resulting from low wages and unemployment, finally led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. It excluded “skilled and unskilled laborers employed in mining” from entering the country for a ten-year period, and it also prohibited Chinese immigrants from attaining citizenship. The act was controversial, even at the time. Many businesspeople opposed it, resenting the restrictions on their supply of cheap labor; in contrast, most labor unions supported it, with the notable exception being the IWW. And, of course, many Americans supported it for simple race-related reasons.
For years, the Chinese-American population remained stagnant, unassimilated, and largely male. The 1943 Magnuson Act finally repealed the Exclusion Act, and it also allowed for the naturalization of some Chinese-Americans already living in the country; at the same time, it restricted the national quota of Chinese immigrants to the negligible amount of 105 per year. Not until 1965 was the outdated national-origins quota system abolished altogether.