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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.