“Brain drain”

Brain drain oftentimes pulls the best and the brightest from their homelands as workers seek more lucrative job opportunities abroad, where they believe their marketability will be rewarded.

Read the full story

Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992

The passage of this law indicated that U.S. immigration policies could be influenced by domestic political developments of other countries.


Read the full story


Schools are important sociopolitical entities within American communities. As such, they are a key arena where conflicting views about immigrants regarding identity, linguistic and cultural diversity, assimilation, accommodation, and other issues play themselves out.

Read the full story

English as a second language

As an instructional tool to help language-minority students develop English-language skills, the English as a second language program came into popular usage during the late 1950’s.

Read the full story

Foreign exchange students

Exchange students undertake formal studies at postsecondary institutions to increase their cultural exposure, expand their learning opportunities, and improve their language skills.

Read the full story

S. I. Hayakawa

S. I. HayakawaA notable scholar of semantics, Hayakawa also had a political career. He represented California in the U.S. Senate, where he launched a movement to establish English as the official language of the United States by introducing the English Language Amendment in 1981.

Read the full story

Higher education

Higher educationInternational scholars and students have made great contributions to the United States—economically, in helping to advance science and technology, and in increasing international understanding.

Read the full story


Hull-HouseHull-House provided numerous services for the poor, many of whom were immigrants, that helped immigrants to learn about American culture and life.

Read the full story

Immigration Act of 1917

The Law: Federal law imposing major new restrictions on categories of people allowed to immigrate

Date: Went into effect on May 1, 1917

Significance: The Immigration Act of 1917 was the first federal law to impose a general restriction on immigration in the form of a literacy test. It also broadened restrictions on the immigration of Asians and persons deemed "undesirable” and provided tough enforcement provisions.

President Woodrow Wilson

President Woodrow Wilson, with his wife, Edith, at his second inauguration in 1917. Wilson twice vetoed the Immigration Act of 1917, only to see Congress pass it over his objections. (Library of Congress)

Through the first century of American independence, immigration into the United States was largely unrestricted. This open-door policy began to change during the 1870’s and 1880’s, with the introduction of federal legislation aimed at barring two classes of immigrants: Asian laborers to California and immigrants deemed physically and mentally "undesirable.” In 1882, for example, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act to bar the immigration of Chinese workers and a general immigration act to bar the immigration of persons judged likely to become "public charges.”

The general Immigration Act of 1882 also imposed a "head tax” of fifty cents on each immigrant. The U.S. Congress, which was constitutionally empowered to exercise exclusive jurisdiction over immigration, continued to increase restrictions through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The head tax was increased to four dollars by the Immigration Act of 1907. The Chinese Exclusion Act was amended and tightened in legislation enacted in 1884, 1888, 1892, and 1902. In the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, Japan agreed to bar its citizens from emigrating to the United States. The Immigration Act of 1891 added more categories of people to the list of "undesirable aliens,” including persons with contagious diseases and polygamists. The Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910 added rules to exclude persons with mental and physical defects, persons with tuberculosis, and anarchists. However, congressional provisions to add a literacy requirement to the immigration laws were vetoed by Presidents Grover Cleveland in 1896, William Howard Taft in 1913, and Woodrow Wilson in 1915.

Provisions of the 1917 Law

The Immigration Act of 1917 updated and codified much of the previous immigration legislation, thereby effectively repealing the Immigration Acts of 1903, 1907, and 1910. President Wilson vetoed the law, but Congress overrode his veto and the act went into effect on May 1, 1917. A long and comprehensive piece of legislation, the act contained thirty-eight subsections and took up twenty-five pages in the Congressional Session Laws.

The law was significant in five major areas; it

  • increased the head tax 
  • expanded categories of "undesirable aliens” 
  • excluded South Asian immigrants 
  • added a literacy requirement 
  • contained new enforcement provisions 

The new law increased the head tax levied on every adult immigrant to eight dollars and required liens to be was placed on passenger ships for nonpayment. The law’s expansion of categories of "undesirables” who would be barred fromentry reflected new theories of comparative psychology. The act excluded so-called "idiots, imbeciles, and feeble-minded persons;” persons of "constitutional psychopathic inferiority;” "mentally or physically defective” persons; the insane; alcoholics; persons with epilepsy, tuberculosis; or contagious diseases; paupers and vagrants; criminals; prostitutes; anarchists; polygamists; political radicals; and contract laborers.

The Immigration Act of 1917 also barred most immigration from Asia. Chinese immigrants were already barred by the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the Japanese by the Gentlemen’s Agreement. In addition, the act created the "Asiatic Barred Zone,” which encompassed India, Afghanistan, Persia (now Iran), Arabia, parts of the Ottoman Empire and Russia, Southeast Asia, and the Asian-Pacific islands.

Reflecting public hostility to southern and eastern European immigrants, the act required all adult immigrants to demonstrate an ability to read. Any language sufficed. Finally, the act contained extensive provisions for enforcement. Penalties were imposed on any persons or corporations who encouraged or assisted the immigration of persons barred by the act or contract laborers. The act required all ships carrying immigrants to provide detailed information about each passenger’s name, age, sex, physical description, literacy, nationality, destination, occupation, mental and physical health, and criminal record. Immigration inspectors, medical examiners, and Boards of Special Inquiry were authorized to carry out these regulations and decide on the admissibility of immigrants.

Impact of the Law

The act of 1917 represented a further tightening of the immigrant restrictions begun by Congress during the 1870’s. Although the 1880’s witnessed the exclusion of "undesirables” and Chinese and the imposition of a head tax, the 1917 act greatly expanded these restrictions. The list of undesirables was couched in vague terms of mental and physical health, and could thus be interpreted in almost unlimited ways. The eight-dollar head tax was a significant levy on impoverished immigrants. The literacy requirement, which had been vetoed by three presidents, appeared to be a significant impediment to many immigrants. Heavy penalties and fines were imposed on any persons who seemingly assisted immigration in violation of the law. This expansion of restrictions can be explained, in part, by the rise of psychological and eugenics theories categorizing inferior individuals and races and nativist sentiments exacerbated by World War I.

The restrictions culminating in the 1917 act ultimately proved to be more qualitative than quantitative. In fact, the first two decades of the twentieth century saw the greatest numbers of immigrants up to that time: 8,795,386 people entered the United States between 1901 and 1910, and another 5,735,811 entered between 1911 and 1920. In the fiscal year between July, 1920, and June, 1921, more than 800,000 immigrants entered the country. Only about 1,450 persons were actually excluded by the literacy test. The 1917 act prefigured but differed from the immigration quotas that would be imposed by new immigration laws during the 1920’s. These quotas greatly restricted immigration for the first time in American history and did so in an attempt to preserve the ethnic heritage of the United States as it was perceived at the turn of the century.

Howard Bromberg

Further Reading

  • Daniels, Roger. Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants Since 1882. New York: Hill&Wang, 2004. General history of immigration restrictions. Notes that the 1917 law represented the first major categorical restriction of immigration in American history. 
  • Hing, Bill Ong. Defining America Through Immigration Policy. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Chapter 3, on the 1917 literacy test, sees its origins in American animosity toward Italian and Jewish immigrants. 
  • King, Desmond. Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Scholarly study of the history of immigration that describes the 1917 act as replacing the tenet of individual selection for admission with group criteria. 
  • Lee, Erika. At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Highlights the creation of the Asiatic Barred Zone as a milestone in restricting Asian immigration. 
  • Shanks, Cheryl. Immigration and the Politics of American Sovereignty, 1890-1990. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Historical study of the relationship between immigration law and policy and notions of American sovereignty. Portrays the Asiatic Barred Zone as the predecessor of the quota laws of the 1920’s and the literacy test as motivated by exclusionary rather than educational sentiments. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Asiatic Barred Zone; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Chinese immigrants; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1882; Immigration Act of 1891; Immigration Act of 1903; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration law; Literacy tests.

Read the full story

Intelligence testing

Definition: Use of psychometric standards concerning verbal and nonverbal abilities as part of legislation guiding decisions regarding authorized entry of foreigners into the United States

Significance: The nascent science of intelligence testing developed in confluence with growing support for more severe controls on the acceptance of foreign-born entrants to the United States. Proponents of this view were able to highlight some of the early studies of psychologists conducting intelligence testing research as part of their efforts to pass restrictive immigration legislation, even in the face of presidential vetoes.

Intelligence testing has a long, honored tradition in the United States. It originated in France, where psychologist Alfred Binet was the first researcher to categorize student performances on specific reasoning tasks in terms of what he called their "mental ages” between 1904 and 1908. When he judged that students’ mental ages were substantially lower than their chronological ages, he concluded that the test result argued for special remedial programs for the students. In 1912, the German psychologist William Stern defined "intelligence quotient,” or "IQ,” as a ratio of mental age divided by chronological age, multiplied by 100. What began in Europe as an earnest attempt to identify the needs of students with learning disabilities became a source of labeling with serious consequences in twentieth century America.

In 1910, the American psychologist Henry H. Goddard translated Binet’s work into English. Goddard invented the label "moron” for any adult with a mental age between eight and twelve and advocated that those with IQs below 70 should not be allowed to have children. This perspective fit in well with a budding eugenics movement in the United States that advocated genetic engineering to raise intelligence levels, while reducing poverty and criminality. Lewis Terman, a professor at Stanford University, adapted the Binet scale and its measured intelligence quotient into its most commonly used form. Like Goddard, however, he was heavily influenced by biological determinism and at least initially supported the idea that there were racial differences in human intelligence that reflected differing biological makeups. He recanted this view in 1937, but not before the stage was set for changes in important immigration legislation in the United States that reflected his earlier orientation toward the understanding of intelligence.

Intelligence Testing and Immigration Law

The psychological work with the closest influence on later immigration policy was performed by Robert Yerkes of Harvard University. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, he created the Army Mental Tests and oversaw their administration to 1.75 million Army draftees. Two versions of the tests, "Alpha” and "Beta,” provided written and pictorial modalities so that illiterate servicemen could be tested as well. Carl Brigham, a Princeton University psychologist, analyzed the data that were collected and concluded that nativeborn draftees had higher IQ scores than immigrants. Moreover, a "Nordic” (northern European) subgroup had higher scores than those from southern and eastern Europe.

Brigham’s work was attacked on methodological grounds, and he recanted his conclusions in 1930. However, he published his findings in 1923, the year before the federal Immigration Act of 1924 greatly restricted foreign entry to the United States. This act initially used the 1890 census as a basis for establishing strict quotas not to exceed 2 percent of those fromeach country included in the census. It greatly reduced the number of southeastern Europeans allowed into the country and had an impact that would be acutely felt during World War II, when entry was largely denied to European Jews seeking a safe haven from extermination in the Nazi Holocaust. Although detailed analyses of empirical work supporting immigration restrictions do not appear in the congressional hearings concerning this law, the acceptance of biological determinism and the discriminatory treatment of minorities may well have contributed to its passage.

Later Perspectives

Relatively soon after the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, the popularity of using racial theories of intelligence as guideposts to immigration law and policy waned. There was an increasing realization that test performances reflected familiarity with American culture and language more often than they did an assessment of native intelligence. Meanwhile, members of the psychology-research establishment became more ethnically diverse, and during the aftermath ofWorldWar II there was more of an interest in explaining prejudicial attitudes. This was accentuated by a eugenics-oriented policy carried to horrific extremity by the German Nazi regime in Europe.

While the current intelligence testing community is much more sensitive to issues of cultural bias and attempts to develop "culture-fair” or "culturefree” instruments, elements of biological determinism have persisted. The Human Genome Project, which some people have claimed has important implications for controlling psychological disorders related to crime and homelessness, is a prominent example.

In addition, the early twenty-first century U.S. "war on terrorism,” with its restriction of basic civil liberties, perpetuates an orientation toward selecting out undesirables in order to eliminate their perceived threat. Instead of classifying would-be immigrants as "feebleminded” on the basis of intelligence tests of questionable validity, there has developed a tendency to employ modern biometric technology that enforces even more restrictive policies to bolster homeland security.

Eric Yitzchak Metchik

Further Reading

Elliott, Stuart, Naomi Chudowsky, Barbara Plake, and Lorraine McDonnell. "Using the Standards to Evaluate the Redesign of the U.S. Naturalization Tests: Lessons for the Measurement Community.” Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice 25, no. 1 (Fall, 2006): 22-26. Methodological critique of attempts by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to revise naturalization tests. 

Perdew, Patrick R. "Developmental Education and Alfred Binet: The Original Purpose of Standardized Testing.” In 2001: A Developmental Odyssey, edited by Jeanne L. Higbee. Warrensburg, Mo.: National Association for Developmental Education, 2001. Comprehensive review of the historical evolution of intelligence testing in the United States, including its relationship to biological determinism and immigration law and practice. 

Resta, Robert G. "The Twisted Helix: An Essay on Genetic Counselors, Eugenics, and Social Responsibility.” Journal of Genetic Counseling 1, no. 3 (1992): 227-243. Examination of the historical implications of the eugenics movement and its most recent manifestations. 

Samelson, Franz. "From ‘Race Psychology’ to ‘Studies in Prejudice’: Some Observations on the Thematic Reversal in Social Psychology.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 14 (1978): 265-278. Analysis of historical reasons for change in social psychological research, from studies of alleged racial differences in intelligence to causal models explaining racial prejudice. 

Snyderman, Mark, and R. J. Herrnstein. "Intelligence Tests and the Immigration Act of 1924.” American Psychologist 38, no. 9 (1983): 986-995. Critical analysis of the alleged link between viewpoints of psychologists conducting intelligence research and the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 that greatly restricted immigration. 

See also: "Brain drain”; Eugenics movement; Higher education; Immigration Act of 1924; Immigration law; Language issues; Literacy tests; "Mongrelization”; Quota systems; Stereotyping.

Read the full story