“The Danger of Incoming Hordes,” 1870 – 1960: Facts and Fiction in US Congressional Debates surrounding the 1917 and 1924 Immigration Acts


On August 17th, 1916, Congressman William Borah of Idaho explained, “we ought to have our fences up and be thoroughly prepared to protect those in this country who will be brought into competition with the hordes of people who will come here” (Statements of Borah et. al, 8/17/16, 9). Borah was launching arguments in support of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1917, which enforced a literacy test on incoming immigrants. Borah’s arguments for exclusion and closed borders closely mirror present-day arguments about immigration restriction. Indeed, immigration policies have long been the subject of intense debate in the United States. This blog post will take an in-depth look at the arguments used in defense of increased border restriction in the Immigration Restriction Acts of 1917 and 1924. An analysis of fact versus fiction in Congressional debates in 1917 and 1924 will serve as a reminder that xenophobia and fears of the “other” are a driving force behind immigration policy in the Untied States.

The 1917 and 1924 laws were not the first laws to limit immigration to the United States. Various acts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries signaled the beginnings of restrictive policies. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, had declared the Chinese ineligible for citizenship. The 1917 law was unique in that it introduced a literacy test which barred illiterate immigrants from entering the United States. The 1924 Immigration Act established the first numerical limits on immigration, which had a direct effect on future levels of immigration.

Data visualizations created with US Census Data from Integrated Public Use Microdata Series provide the basis for analyzing the accuracy of claims of congressmen who debated the laws in Congress. I will judge the veracity of various of claims about the evolving literacy levels of various immigrant groups made in 1917 congressional hearings and debates. I will also analyze the claims about future differences in the population in response to 1924 Immigration Act which excluded immigrants from the United States based on quotas.

Congressmen were concerned about the future of American racial composition. The questions that my visualizations will address, include: which immigrant groups had the highest levels of literacy, and why? How did immigrants compare to native-born Americans in terms of education and literacy levels? How did the 1917 and 1924 laws select out  individually “desirable” and “undesirable” immigrants? How did immigrant populations change from 1920 to 1960 in response to these two restrictive laws?

The early 20th century was a time of intense racial discrimination and xenophobia. In Strangers in the Land, John Higham calls the period surrounding the 1917 and 1924 Immigration laws “the Tribal Twenties” (1955, 264). He argues that the First World War created an urgent demand for national unity and homogeneity, which led to higher levels of nativism. He discusses how scientists fused racism with eugenics to justify calls for increased restriction of immigration. His analysis of the scientific arguments that proponents of immigration restriction used will help me to understand the scientific race theory employed in congressional debates. Ultimately, immigration restriction in 1924 marked the “climax and the conclusion of an era of nationalistic legislation,” Higham notes (1955, 300).

It seems unimaginable now that Congress could ever pass an immigration law based on literacy. Jeanne Petit gives extensive context and analysis of the debates surrounding the 1917 Immigration Restriction Act in The Men and Women We Want. She explains that literacy tests were designed to target “new immigrants” from southern and eastern Europe. Even though the Census classified these “undesirable” southeastern Europeans as white, the literacy test was one of the best ways to limit their immigration to the United States (2010, 6). Louis Hammerling and Prescott Hall were key proponents of literacy tests, while Grace Abbott advocated against the adoption of this law.

The 1924 Immigration Restriction Act led to dramatic changes in the racial composition of the United States. In Impossible Subjects, Ngai discusses how the 1924 Immigration Act led to the emergence of the classification of “illegal alien.” She is also concerned with how this restrictive immigration law produced new categorizations of racial difference. The quotas of the 1924 act served to create a hierarchy of desirability among Europeans: the most “desirable” were allowed into the United States in higher numbers. Jacobson’s Whiteness of a Different Color looks at the construction of racial categories in America through political processes and cultural changes. He studies how the construction of “race” has been core to assimilation as immigrants are re-racialized to become Caucasian.


All data for this analysis were drawn from IPUMS 1% samples. In 1940 and 1950, mother’s birthplace and father’s birthplace were sample line variables, and only a fraction of the population responded. Therefore, in 1940 and 1950, the Sample Line Weight is used for figures 4 – 6. All other data are weighted by PERWT. In figures 1 -3, children under the age of eighteen are excluded from the analysis, since children are disproportionately likely to be illiterate. The immigrant group Asian includes: China, Japan, Korea, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal. The immigrant group Northern & Western European includes: Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Lapland, Norway, Sweden, England, Scotland, Wales, United Kingdom, Ireland, Belgium, France, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Netherlands, Swizterland. The immigrant group Southern & Eastern European includes: Albania, Andorra, Gibraltar, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal, San Marino, Spain, Vatican City, Austria, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia. Alaska and Hawaii are excluded from this analysis before 1960. The code to generate these figures can be accessed here.

Figures 1 and 2

These two line graphs represent the percentage of literate first and second generation immigrants in the United States from 1880 to 1930. The data were drawn from IPUMS 1% samples. First generation immigrants were born in a foreign country. Second Generation immigrants were born in the United States with one or two parents born in a foreign country.

Figure 3

This line graph represents the percentage of literate immigrants and native-born Americans in the United States. Immigrants were born in the regions Northern & Western Europe, Southern & Eastern Europe, and Asia, as defined above. Whites, blacks, and Native Americans were born in the United States and identified as a certain racial category on the Census.

Figures 4 – 6

These population pyramids represent the breakdown of immigrant populations by gender, age, and generation of immigration from 1920 to 1960. First generation immigrants were born in a foreign country. Second-generation immigrants were born in the United States with one or two parents born in a foreign country.



Figure 1 represents the percentage of literate first generation immigrants from 1880 to 1930.


Figure 2 represents the percentage of literate second generation immigrants from 1880 to 1930.

To analyze these figures, I will compare predictions made in Congress in legislative debates to actual data as recorded in the United States Census. The goal of this analysis is to separate fact from fiction in Congressional debates, which will raise larger questions about the accountability of government leaders.

The 1917 Immigration Law imposed the use of a literacy test and barred illiterate immigrants from entering the United States. Americans’ continued distrust of involvements in Europe, and the psychological letdown of the war, led to intense xenophobia and nationalism in the interwar period (Higham 1955, 277). Americans directed their nationalist and racist sentiments towards “new immigrants” (Higham 1955, 266).

It is important to remember that conceptions of “whiteness” were different in the United States in the 1920’s. Congressmen did not consider people from southern and eastern Europe to be white. As Congressman Bonoschi explained, “I suppose the meaning of it is that the people in the south of Italy have mixed their blood with the people across the Mediterranean and they are not entirely white” (Statements of Bonoschi et. al., 1/20/16,11 Statements of Bonoschi et. al., 1/20/16, 11). Since all immigrants from Europe fell within the categorization “white,” a racially discriminatory law would not shut out Southern and Eastern Europeans (Petit 2010, 6). Enforcing a literacy test was the best way to accomplish the goals of nativist congressmen. In The Men and Women We Want, Jeanne Petit explains that literacy tests were designed to target immigrant from southern Italy, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and other poverty-stricken and remote countries from southern and eastern Europe.

As Figure 1 shows, Southern and Eastern European immigrants were the least likely group to be literate, followed by Asian immigrants. These two groups were considered the least “desirable” of immigrants according to nativist congressmen, while Northern and Western European were the most welcome in the United States. Summarizing the views of her opponents, social worker Grace Abbott explained, “There are a very large number of people who feel that the Pole, the Russian, the Italian, the Slovak, etc., is racially inferior to the German, the Swede, the Norwegian, the Irish, or the English” (Statements of Abbott et. all, 1/20/16, 6). Racial prejudice was the underlying rationale behind the literacy test, as activist Jane Addams explained in her statement before Congress (Statements of Bonoschi et. al., 1/20/16, 59). Indeed, these figures demonstrate that the Literacy Test laws were an effective means of barring less desirable groups from entering the United States.

In their efforts to use literacy tests to restrict immigration, Congressmen used scientific arguments about the inferiority and superiority of certain groups. Speaking as an expert in Congressional hearings, Dr. Stewart Patton extolled the virtues of eugenics, explaining “the facts learned by the scientific study of heredity will doubtless make it possible in years to come to cut off defective strains” (Statements of Patton et. al., 1/20/16, 26 – 27). Congressmen Burnett explained that immigrants have “congenital defect[s] in the emotional or volitional fields of mental activity which results in inability to make proper adjustment to the environments” (64th Congress, 5045). “We do not want our families…subject to such contamination,” he also explained (64th Congress, 4855). As Matthew Jacobson explains, immigrants coming to America in the 19th century were in a contest of a political “fitness” among a fragmented, hierarchically arranged series of distinct “white races” (2010, 43). The idea of “fitness for self government” was dependent on race (2010, 87). Even when there were no physical differences between groups, people made them up in an effort to form hierarchies (2010, 44).

Finally, figure 1 demonstrates that literacy tests were not an effective means of filtering immigrants from entering the United States. For all three immigrant groups in 1917, literacy levels were above 80%. While congressmen spoke of literacy tests as a cure-all that would prevent “undesirable” immigrants for entering, enforcing a literacy test only had a moderate effect on filtering out immigrants from certain countries. If Congress had access to statistical information revealing the high literacy levels of foreign immigrants, they may not have fixated their attention upon the enforcement of a literacy test.

Figure 2 deals with perceptions and realities of the percentage of literate immigrants upon their entry into the United States. Some congressmen believed that immigrants were intellectually inferior and unable to learn to read and write. As Congressman Prescott Hall explained, “Education…can not supply what is not there” (Petit 2010, 1). A literacy test would bar immigrants from entering the United States who arguably had no chance of ever achieving literacy. On the other hand, progressive thinkers in opposition to the literacy test believed that immigrants were not unintelligent by nature, but rather, that “opportunities have been denied” (Statements of Osusky et. al., 1/20/16, 17). Lower literacy levels among immigrants were not a result of inherently lower intelligence levels, but rather, low levels of education (Petit 2010, 3). As activist Grace Abbott explained, immigrants needed access to education if they “were going to become the sort of men and women we want” (Petit 2010, 3).

Figure 2 demonstrates that literacy levels of every immigrant group increase over time within the second generation. This gradual increase in literacy is likely the result of progressive reformers who sought to grant immigrants access to education. The children of Southern and Eastern European and Asian immigrants did have lower levels of literacy than Western and Northern European children, but all three groups experienced upward trends in literacy levels. As Congressman Edlin explained, “It is these foreigners that have been excluded from that privilege that are compelled to seek an education” (Statements of Edlin et. al, 1/20/16, 48).

Figure 3 compares the percentage of literate first generation immigrants to literate native-born Americans.

Figure 3 compares the percentage of literate first generation immigrants to literate native-born Americans.

Figure 3 compares the percentage of literate immigrants to the percentage of literate native-born Americans from 1880 to 1930. This graph demonstrates that although immigrants had a slightly lower percentage of the population literate than white Americans, the margin of difference was not as large as predicted (<15%). Blacks and Native Americans had lower levels of literacy in this period because of educational segregation and lack of access to educational opportunities.

In congressional hearings surrounding the 1917 Immigration Act, congressmen compared the literacy levels of immigrants to those born in the United States. Those who advocated for the use of a literacy test argued for native-white supremacy and believed that white native-born Americans were the highest caliber racial stock. In congressional hearings, Waldemar Kaempffert, managing editor of Scientific American, a fierce advocate for the literacy test, explained,

“Our instruments and methods are rather crude, so crude that they reveal only the more conspicuously unfit. What we will soon need is some system of appraising the hordes that will descend upon us from Southern Europe – some means which will enable us to determine whether the terrors of war have not so far undermined a racial stock that it may not be permitted to contaminate the healthy human protoplasm out of which real American is made” (Statements of Burnett et. al., 1/20/16, 19).

Opponents of the literacy test laws argued that foreign-born immigrants learned English quickly after assimilating to the culture. Congressman Edlin noted that immigrants devote more time to gaining an education than native-born Americans (Statements of Edlin et. al., 1/20/16, 48). Edlin explained, “it is these foreigners that have been excluded from that privilege that are compelled to seek an education. After coming over here, and after making a living, they devote much more time to gaining an education than the native Americans do. I had, no intention of giving the impression that I believed that the foreigner is superior to the native American” (Statements of Edlin et. al., 1/20/16, 48). Congressmen on neither side of the issue took into account that many first generation immigrants were in fact literate upon entry into the United States.

This discussion of a “real American” versus an immigrant is revealing of the mindset of the legislators who enforced literacy tests upon the foreign born in 1917. This figure compares the literacy levels of immigrants to various populations within the United States. Literacy levels for native-born whites and immigrants were considerably higher than those of blacks and Native Americans, as congressmen on both sides of the issue accurately predicted. Ultimately, Figure 3 demonstrates that immigrants were highly likely to be literate upon entering the United States, and only slightly less likely than native-born Americans to achieve literacy. Native-born whites had only slightly higher levels of literacy than foreign-born immigrants.


Figure 4 is a population pyramid of first and second generation Northern and Western European immigrants.


Figure 5 is a population pyramid of first and second generation Southern and Eastern European immigrants.

The Johnson-Reed 1924 Immigration Restriction Act was one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history (Petit 2010, 135). Figures 4 – 6 demonstrate the changes to American racial composition that resulted from both the 1917 and 1924 Immigration Restriction Acts. Congressmen forecasted that significant change would result from these two laws – and in these predictions, they were correct. Congressman Burnett explained that “extremely rapid change in racial composition” would result from the 1917 law (Statements of Burnett et. al., 1/20/16, 9), while Congressman Addams argued that the 1917 law which enforced a literacy test would select out the “individually desirable from the undesirable immigrant” (Statements of Bonoschi et. al., 1/20/16, 59). As Ngai notes in Impossible Subjects, the Johnson-Reed 1924 Immigration Restriction Act was designed to target very specific populations of immigrants. Rather than using data from the 1920 Census, Congress opted to use data from the 1890 Census for their quotas. This meant that “new” immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe had much lower quotas than immigrants from Northern and Western Europe who had been immigrating to the United States in large numbers since well before 1890 (Ngai 2004, 20).

Figures 4 – 6 confirm that restrictive immigration laws successfully barred the arrival of all immigrant groups, as levels of immigration declined markedly between 1920 and 1940. Figures 4 and 5 represent the immigration of Europeans between 1880 and 1960 to the United States. The most important point of comparison between these graphs is the number of first generation immigrants aged 20 -29 in the 1920 and 1940 Censuses. Many immigrants who arrived from Europe to the United States at this time were between the ages of 20 and 29. Between 1920 and 1940, the number of Northern and Western Europeans ages 20 – 29 declined by approximately one-half as a result of newly imposed quotas from the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act. For Southern and Eastern Europeans, by contrast, there were more than five times fewer the number of immigrants ages 20 to 29 in 1940 as there were in 1920. Because more stringent quotas were placed on Southern and Eastern Europeans than Northern and Western Europeans, the decline in children born to second generation immigrants of Southern and Eastern Europe was more dramatic from 1920 to 1940 after the passage of the 1924 Immigration Act. From these observations, we can confirm that Congress successfully barred a higher percentage of Southern and Eastern immigrants than Northern and Western immigrants as a result of the 1924 Immigration Act.


Figure 6 is a population pyramid of first and second generation Asian immigrants.

Figure 6 represents Asian immigration to the United States from 1880 to 1960, a fruitful point of comparison for European immigration. Asians were considered the least desirable of all immigrant groups starting in 1880 (Ngai 1999, 70). It is interesting to note from this figure that there were virtually no Chinese women who came to America in the 19th century. As these population pyramids show, levels of Asian immigration were much lower than those of Europeans in 1920, as the 1882 Exclusion Acts had already barred most Asian immigration forty years earlier (Ngai 1999, 81). The 1924 Immigration Act “foredoomed Asians to permanent foreignness” and placed all Asians in the same category (Ngai 1999, 70). Even though the law was based on categories of nationality, the law led to the construction of the Asian race (Ngai 1999, 87). Asians now wear what Robert E. Park, a University of Chicago sociologist, calls “a racial uniform” (Takaki 1989, 8). The Magnuson Act and McCarran Walter Act of 1943 and 1952 respectively allowed Asian immigrants to enter the United States in greater numbers, which accounts for the surge in Asian immigration in the 1960 Census.


Racism and xenophobia were the driving force behind the restrictive laws of 1917 and 1924. This research has demonstrated the prejudice of American legislators and the changes that they catalyzed to the demographics of the American population. It is shocking to read the pseudo-scientific arguments used in support of immigration restriction. Congressmen were blind to their prejudice, enacting laws that indelibly altered the racial composition of the United States.Congressmen also feared the impact that unrestricted immigration had on job opportunities for native-born Americans. When immigrants came into America, they entered into various sectors of the economy. Their perceived capacity for production – and whether or not Americans viewed them as stealing their jobs – affected how various foreign people were viewed (Jacobson 1998, 73).

As Glazer notes, from the 1890’s to 1930s’s, “exclusivism was dominant,” but by the end of the 1930’s, the “dismantling…of discrimination in law and custom began” (Glazer 1987, 14, 16). To distance ourselves from the racial ideologies of Nazi Germany, the US redefined race as non-scientific, but rather, cultural and environmental (Jacobson 1998, 99). Nazi Germany made it clear that racial concepts needed to be studied and better understood (Jacobson 103).  Ultimately, this study of perceptions and realities will help to contextualize debates and fears surrounding contemporary immigration. Many Americans harbor similar bias towards “the other” and fear the loss of opportunities for native-born whites in face of unrestricted immigration.


Glazer, Nathan. “The Emergence of an American Ethnic Patern.” In Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Hearings and Debates in The Congressional Record surrounding the 1917 and 1924 Immigration Acts.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1955.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998.

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2004.

Ngai, Mae M. “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924.” The Journal of American History 86.1 (1999): 67.

Petit, Jeanne D. The Men and Women We Want: Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate. U of Rochester, 2010.

Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.