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Barred Zones

The Immigration Act of 1917 | One Hundred Years Later 

By Katie Duggan

Immigration is a foundation of the American experience, and an integral part of American life today. It has been frequent topic of discussion for politicians and social activists alike, especially in last year’s presidential election, leading to many divisive conversations on what the future holds for immigrants. But questions of who should be allowed entry into the United States are not unique to today’s political climate nor to the nation’s past. February 2017 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917, which was at the time the country’s most sweeping piece of immigration legislation. It was passed under President Woodrow Wilson, and required that immigrants entering the country first pass a literacy test.

The act also barred immigrants coming from most parts of Asia and the Pacific Islands. Beth Lew-Williams, a Princeton University professor specializing in race and migration in the United States and Asian American history, points out that the law was highly divisive in nature. “The act divides the world in some ways between Asia, or most of what we consider Asia today, which was seen as completely undesirable racially, and the rest of the world,” says Lew-Williams. In Asian American history, the law was typically referred to as the Barred Zone Act, since it barred immigrants from a specific region of Asia.


The Barred Zone Act aimed to exclude so-called “undesirables,” which included the insane, diseased, poor, or physically disabled, anarchists, prostitutes, or other groups deemed unworthy for entrance. Lew-Williams notes that since previous legislation had already restricted immigration from China and Japan, the new act effectively focused on South Asian immigrants, primarily from India. Prejudice toward Asian immigrants was rooted in stereotypical conceptions of Asian people, and anxieties that the foreign cultures would start replacing American culture. This ideology was reflected in other laws of the time, which further tightened immigration.

President Woodrow Wilson initially vetoed the 1917 act, for he felt that the introduction of a literacy requirement prevented the uneducated from receiving equal opportunities. Before becoming president, Wilson served as governor of New Jersey, and had voiced some of his concerns about rising nativist sentiments. In a 1912 speech on the campaign trail in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Wilson said: “Some people have expressed a fear that there is too much immigration. I have the least uneasiness as to the new arrivals,” adding that “the country should be divested of all prejudices.”

Wilson’s veto of the act was overridden by Congress, though, and the act became law on February 5, 1917. The Immigration Act illustrated the resurgence of nativism in the country, putting extensive restrictions on immigration in order to protect American culture from ethnic invasion.

The long-term implications persisted for decades: Asian immigrants were not granted the right to naturalization until new legislation was passed in the 1940s and 1950s, and until the Immigration Act of 1990, language barring homosexual immigrants remained in the immigration code. Though the 1917 act is no longer law, it is worth considering the historical background since Asians make up a sizeable proportion of immigrants in New Jersey today. Indians, for example, currently comprise the largest Asian group in the state, numbering nearly 300,000.


New Jersey is a diverse place today. More than 50,000 immigrants move to the state annually, and contribute a significant proportion of its continued population growth. Bergen County, New Jersey’s most populous county, is also one of the leaders in the number of people immigrating, with over 30,000 foreigners settling in the area in the last five years. In particular, the Korean community in Bergen County is growing rapidly.

Elisa Neira, the director of the Princeton Department of Human Services, says that most of Princeton’s immigrants hail from Central America or Mexico, and many are undocumented. Princeton joined Welcoming America, an organization dedicated to reduce barriers for immigrants and support inclusion in communities, last October.

“This has really helped us look at what other cities and towns across the country are doing, and think of how we can continue to be inclusive and welcoming. Just this year, we welcomed two refugee families into Princeton,” Neira notes.

Neira adds that Human Services aims to address the unique challenges facing the immigrant population, helping make Princeton inclusive for all immigrants regardless of legal status. The department has worked to build trust between the police department and the immigrant communities, as well as protect low-wage workers from wage theft.

Census data has also shown that immigrants from Asia are a flourishing demographic in New Jersey. More than a quarter of Mercer County’s population of 371,000 is of Asian or Latino descent, and Princeton has the highest proportion of immigrants, nearly a quarter, of any municipality in the county. In the more urbanized Essex County, nearly a third of the residents of some municipalities are foreign-born. Wealthy counties like Morris and Somerset have also seen similar trends: the number of foreign-born residents has risen by an estimated 40 percent in the last 15 years throughout much of Somerset.

The trend that emerged in the later part of the 20th century is dramatic: New Jersey’s Asian population has grown by more than 1,400 percent since 1970. Most Asian immigrants today come from India, China, the Philippines, Korea, Pakistan, Vietnam, and Japan. Despite the history of exclusion of immigrants in this nation, and some persisting prejudices toward foreigners, many New Jersey communities have embraced their new residents and celebrated diversity.


In the wake of the 2016 election, county divisions like the Department of Human Services, in conjunction with state and national bodies, have been tasked with aiding immigrants in preparing for any changes in administration. Donald Trump’s policies on immigration have been among of the most controversial aspects of his campaign.

In order to fully understand the nature of Trump’s proposals, they must be seen in relation to past legislation. Lew-Williams notes that a commonly voiced critique of strict immigration laws is that their spirit is “un-American,” since America is considered to be a nation of immigrants. She points out that an exclusionary attitude toward immigrants, and a desire to protect the nation’s residents, is actually not unique to today’s political environment, nor was it new at the time of the Barred Zone Act’s passage.

Today, rather than focusing on Asian immigrants, Trump’s proposals primarily affect immigrants from Mexico or Central American countries, and he has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants perceived as terrorism threats. His “10 Point Plan to Put America First” includes measures to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, end sanctuary cities, remove criminal aliens with the assistance of law enforcement, and reform legal immigration. Trump’s policies aim to protect the economic security of American citizens and legal immigrants, calling for more careful scrutiny of immigrants from Mexico and the Middle East. He has also stated his intentions to suspend issuing visas to those in countries that do not yet have sufficient screening and vetting processes in place.

The 1917 act illustrates that the United States has had quite a long history of discrimination toward foreigners, with the Supreme Court often upholding immigration laws that broadly characterize large groups of people. Though the United States Constitution guarantees equal protection to its citizens per the fourteenth amendment, this equal protection is not extended to immigrants who have yet to enter the country. These policies have prompted fears in many immigrant communities, especially for undocumented immigrants.

Some cities, like Newark, have declared intentions to become “sanctuary cities” and adopt other measures to stand by undocumented residents. Coupled with actions already taken in Princeton to inform residents and support their needs, these measures have helped quell some of the anxieties that come with the transition of power. Future changes to immigration legislation are still unclear; it remains to be seen which policies will actually be implemented, and how they will affect local groups.

One thing is certain: New Jersey communities have gathered together to protect all their residents, including immigrants, and make the area welcoming to a very diverse body of people.

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