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5 - World War I and the Literacy Test

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2018

Jeanne D. Petit
Affiliation:
Hope College
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Summary

In January of 1916, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization began hearings for yet another literacy test bill. Like the bills vetoed in 1913 and 1915, this bill called for immigrant men and unmarried immigrant women over the age of sixteen to pass a literacy test in order to gain admittance to the United States. Prescott Hall, Louis Hammerling, and Grace Abbott entered statements into the record that reiterated the arguments they had developed over the years. Prescott Hall submitted a report from the Immigration Restriction League (IRL) which concluded that a literacy test would exclude those who would pass on their “poor physique” to future generations. Louis Hammerling reiterated the typical argument of the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers (AAFLN) about contribution of immigrant manhood to the United States, saying that “the fundamental development, continued growth and great prosperity of this nation have always been and are today due, in no small measure, to the sturdy, virile immigrants who have come to these shores in the past 35 years.” Grace Abbott, representing the Immigrants’ Protective League (IPL), explained that the nature of the “immigrant problem” was “one of adjustment and protection against exploitation.” Abbott went on to declare that her organization led the way in “trying to get those who are here well taken care of,” and that “restricting immigration will not accomplish that end.”

Abbott also brought up a logical point. “We ought to postpone the question of further restriction of immigration,” she declared, “until we know what conditions are going to be after the close of the war.” Indeed, the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914 had led to the decline of European immigration to the United States by some 400 percent. Why waste time debating restriction, Abbott argued, if there were so few immigrants coming to the United States? By 1916, however, Abbott's practical point of view did not resonate in the larger American society. The momentum for the literacy test had grown, even as immigration declined, and the European war strengthened the hand of restrictionists.

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The Men and Women We Want
Gender, Race, and the Progressive Era Literacy Test Debate
, pp. 103 - 127
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2010

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