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

By Young-in Oh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4:
The Literacy Tests and the National
Quota Immigration Policies

The “national origins quota system,” established in the 1920s, marked a significant transition for American immigration policy makers. Historian John Higham, like many other immigration scholars, observed that it imposed “the first sharp and absolute numerical limits on European immigration.”1 The temporary legislation of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924, known as Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, marked the end of open immigration. The new law established quotas based on the population of each immigrant group, defined by nationality, at an earlier period. The quotas established “a hierarchy of desirability” of immigrants from particular countries.2

The Immigration Act of 1924, in addition, laid the groundwork for the establishment of a “white” America. The initial intention behind the Act had been to frame a preference for certain Europeans, but completely blocking immigrants from Asia produced a contrary result. The national quota system, in other words, gradually removed the previous distinction among Europeans in that the system filtered applicants so that only Europeans could enjoy the privilege of naturalization regardless of their national origins.3 The American courts also played an important role in defining and redefining the meaning of “whiteness” as well. The attitude of the courts in dealing with racial policies in the 1920s was not in line with the prevailing public anxieties toward the new immigrants from the undesirable regions of Europe. The courts’ rules for granting citizenship were expanding to include non-Anglo-Saxon Europeans. Ultimately, individual states most actively responded to the process of laying out a “white” America. Many states forcefully adopted the English literacy test method in order to exclude not only African Americans but also

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