Struggles over Immigrants' Language: Literacy Tests in the United States, 1917-1966

Synopsis

Oh argues that the introduction of literacy tests influenced both the possibility of immigrant admission to the United States and the exercise of suffrage. The Literacy Test Act of 1917 was the first national language restriction on immigration and was used as a means of excluding "undesirable" linguistic minorities. Focusing on New York State, Oh shows how literacy tests were used to preserve the political hegemony. She argues that linguistic assimilation carried different meanings for different people. For Europeans, it meant swifter assimilation into American society, while for non-whites it meant greater resistance to their attempts to enter society. Ultimately, the interactions and conflicts between immigrants, the states, and society over language restriction have been integral to the historical processes that defined and redefined the nation.