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100 years ago: Overriding Woodrow Wilson’s veto, U.S. Senate bans immigration from Middle East and much of Asia

The U.S. Senate passed what was called the Alien Bill, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported on Feb. 5, 1917. (Spokesman-Review archives)
The U.S. Senate passed what was called the Alien Bill, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported on Feb. 5, 1917. (Spokesman-Review archives)

A controversial and divisive immigration law was making front-page news a century ago.

The U.S. Senate passed what was called the Alien Bill, overriding President Woodrow Wilson’s veto.

The law had two especially controversial sections. First, it contained an “Asiastic exclusion section,” barring immigration from large swaths of Asia, and it contained a “literacy test,” requiring prospective immigrants to display a certain level of reading skill in their own languages.

“The measure, containing the literacy test fought over for 20 years and vetoed by three presidents, now becomes law,” said a front-page story in the Spokane Daily Chronicle.

Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department warned that the Asiatic exclusion section “might result in disturbing amicable relations with Japan.” The law was somewhat modified in the final version to meet some of Japan’s objections.

Wilson’s administration had already used its influence to block “anti-alien land bills” in Oregon and Idaho. These bills would have prevented Japanese and Chinese immigrants from owning land and discourage them from settling permanently in the U.S. The administration was acting out of “a desire not to agitate Japan.”

In the 1920s, Idaho, Oregon and Washington would eventually pass such laws. Decades later, they would be ruled unconstitutional.

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