The central questions of immigration history over the past three decades have been diverse, centering on the experience of the immigrant. Historians, influenced by new social history, explored questions of who came to America, what factors influenced their decision to migrate, how their life and culture changed as a result of life in America, and how native-born Americans reacted to the presence of different immigrant groups.1 Another related branch of scholarship has focused on everyday lives of immigrant communities and their identity throughout the United States. The role of language as an important aspect of immigration history, however, has not received a great deal of attention, even though language and language policies took on a central role in the immigrant experience.
This gap in the scholarship is ironic, because the issue of language was frequently connected to questions of national cohesion and national identity. During the era of immigration restriction, it was used as a powerful weapon to prove the “superiority” or “inferiority” of certain immigrants. Indeed, those who favored immigration restriction had their first major success with the passage of the Literacy Test Act of 1917, which created the first systematically restrictive immigration law by defining language as an essential component of national loyalty. At the federal level, the law was the first significant achievement for nativists and restrictionists who saw the sheer number of new immigrants from “undesirable” regions of Europe as a threat to AngloAmerican racial purity.
The 1917 Literacy Test Act, which Congress passed more than two decades after nativists introduced an initial version, then quickly proved to be inefficient in the face of a rising tide of immigrants at the beginning of the 1920s. The tide of immigrants and the bureaucratic problems of implementing the literacy regulations compelled Congress