The Immigration Act of 1917

This year, we are taking a look at the history of the Texas-Mexico border and what events shaped it to where it is today. Join us for this series as we explore the key moments that built the foundation for the relationship between Texas and Mexico.

The Immigration Act of 1917 was the second law, after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, aimed at significantly restricting immigration to the United States. The Act increased the restrictions already in place following the Chinese Inclusion Act and added additional, new restrictions. These restrictions, both regional and general, formed the broadest and most prohibitive immigration legislation in the country so far.

The main provisions of the act were an increase in the “head tax” that must be paid to enter the US, the expansion of categories of individuals who were restricted or barred from immigration, the addition of enforcement and funding mechanisms, and the implementation of a literacy test as a condition for entry. The restrictions were aimed at immigrants from locations around the world, but many of them focused on immigrants from Europe and Asia. The head tax and literacy test were the two major provisions that directly impacted hopeful immigrants from Mexico. Congress had attempted to implement such a literacy test for two decades, yet was repeatedly blocked by vetoes from Presidents Cleveland, Taft, and Wilson. Amid increased fears of radicalism and immigration surrounding World War I, however, Congress successfully voted to override President Wilson’s second veto and passed the 1917 Immigration Act. The original version of the new literacy test involved reading and writing a short passage of the US Constitution, yet it was amended to require the reading of passages in any language. The head tax imposed by the 1917 Immigration Act was a significant increase from the tax originally implemented by the Chinese Exclusion Act. Instead of the original tax of fifty cents, immigrants now had to pay a tax of $8 which is a modern value of approximately $160.

In 1918, the head tax, contract, and literacy requirements were waived for Mexican laborers by the Commissioner of Immigration and Secretary of Labor. This waiver established a precedent in the US of relaxing immigration restrictions when Mexican labor was desired and enforcing the restrictions when demand for labor was limited. Despite the general increases in restrictions, this precedent yielded an overall increase in Mexican immigration to the United States in the 1910s: compared to the previous decade, there was an approximate 350% increase in Mexican immigration.

To learn more about the History of the Texas-Mexico border, go here.

This post was written by Katherine Rossmiller ’21. She is a Meadows Scholar studying Public Policy and Music with minors in American Politics and Statistical Science. She is on the Pre-Law track and is also involved with SMU’s Symphony Orchestra and the Belle Tones.

Information cited from the following sources:

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