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

By Young-in Oh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2:
Applications and Challenges:
Immigrants and the Administrators

Historians have clearly delineated the journey of the Literacy Test Act of 1917 from its first appearance in an 1893 bill until its passage into law. It was a congressional attempt to deal with the prevailing antiimmigration sentiments that pushed various interest groups to apply political pressure. Congress privileged particular immigration groups in an unprecedented move by creating a restrictive policy that limited the entry of undesirable groups, specifically Southern and Eastern Europeans. The Literacy Test Act became part of the new immigration order, creating a racial and national hierarchy. For many of its proponents, the Act was the solution to all the perceived problems of immigration.

The Literacy Test Act of 1917 soon failed to live up to its promise. Proponents of the Act observed an immigration spike after World War I, with an increased number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe. After the Great War, troubling economic conditions in Europe compelled immigrants from Europe to seek better opportunities in the United States. Moreover, the literacy rates had risen even in the less-developed nations of Europe.1 The increase in literacy could well have been the most important reason why the Literacy Test Act became ineffective for screening so-called “undesirables.” The development of a free public education system in Southern and Eastern Europe ensured that more than eighty percent of Europeans in those regions received enough education to be qualified as literate by the 1920s.2 A literacy test had been the goal of restrictionists for more than two decades, but the test did not live up to its billing. The restrictive features of the 1917 Act were seen to be “neither as effective nor as selective as hoped” within a few years after the test was adopted.3 In response, Congress applied numerical quotas on

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