The Beginning of Federal
Language Restriction: The Literacy
Test Act of 1917
American immigration history has been marked by many political battles and transfers of power between nativists and those who supported immigration. As political theorist Ali Behdad notes, ethnic “stereotypes point to the ambivalence of the nation toward its immigrants, an ambivalence marked by … knowledge and disavowal, control and defense, exclusion and amnesty, acceptance and rejection.”1 These ambivalent sentiments emerged in response to the occasional domination of xenophobia coupled with random economic fluctuations, but the formation of immigration policy has not been influenced by these forces alone. At other times, contingent events like the assassination of President William McKinley or the outbreak of World War I tilted the political playing field one way or another. Moreover, it is important to remember that immigration policies in the United States grew out of the complex configuration of states and federal government that marks the peculiarity of the American state. The structural division of federal government branches, in addition to the separation of the national government and individual states, ensured that it was difficult for the United States to develop comprehensive immigration policies.
Until the end of the nineteenth century, the American door to immigrants was generally open. Before the 1890s, not surprisingly, it was the individual states, instead of the federal government, which regulated immigrants coming into the United States.2 The majority of individual states recognized the benefits of maintaining an immigrant labor force, so they encouraged immigration. In addition, Irish,