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The Immigration Restriction League, was founded in 1894 by people who opposed the influx of "undesirable immigrants" that were coming from southern and eastern Europe. They felt that these immigrants were threatening what they saw as the American way of life and the high wage scale. They worried about immigrants bringing in poverty and organized crime at a time of high unemployment.
The League was founded in Boston and had branches in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. It attracted prominent scholars and philanthropists. An umbrella group, the National Association of Immigration Restriction Leagues was created in 1896 and one of the founders of the original League, Prescott F. Hall, served as its General Secretary from 1896 to 1921.
The League used books, pamphlets, meetings, and numerous newspaper and journal articles to disseminate information and sound the alarm about the dangers of the immigrant flood tide. The League also had political allies that used their power in Congress to gain support for the League’s intentions.
On April 8, 1918 the League introduced a bill into the Congress to increase the restriction of immigration by means of numerical limitation. The goal of this bill, called "An Act to regulate the immigration of aliens to, and the residence in, the United States," was to reduce as much as possible the number of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe while increasing the number of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe who the League thought were people with kindred values.
The bill provided for these reductions:
|Actually admitted||Admissible under bill|
|Northern and Western Europe||189,177||1,090,500|
|Southern and Eastern Europe||945,288||279,288|
The bill asked for an increase of the duty paid by alien passengers to enter the United States from two to five dollars. It excluded the citizens of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba. The League demanded an increase in duty in order to properly support and maintain the inspection and deportation of immigrants. Among other things, the funds obtained from the increase in duty would be used for:
With this bill, the League also hoped to diminish the immigration of people from the poorer countries, who were considered less beneficial for the United States.
The National Conference on Immigration, held in New York, proposed to add imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, and epileptics to the excluded classes. Persons of poor physique were more susceptible to diseases because of the unsanitary places where they lived. The Bill also demanded an extension of fines to steamship companies for bringing imbeciles, feeble-minded persons, insane persons or epileptics into the U.S.
Previously, transportation companies were only asked to exercise care not to transport illegal immigrants into the United States when returning home from Europe. This bill ordered transportation companies to prevent the landing of "undesirable aliens".
It was a law that would allow deportation of immigrants who entered the United States in violation of law and those becoming public charges from causes arising prior to their landing. Furthermore, it stated that the company that provided the transportation of such individuals would pay half the cost of their removal to the port of deportation.
The IRL made common cause with blue collar workers in labor unions in advocating a literacy requirement as a means to limit poorly-educated immigrants who would lower the wage scale. Potential immigrants had to be able to read their own language. Congress passed the literacy bill for the first time in 1896, which set the ability to read at least 40 words in any language as a requirement for admission to the United States. President Grover Cleveland vetoed that bill in 1897.
President William Taft also vetoed a literacy test in 1913. Again in 1916, President Woodrow Wilson vetoed such a bill. But in 1917 Congress overrode Wilson’s veto and instituted the first literacy requirement for naturalization as part of the Immigration Act of 1917. The law stated that immigrants over 16 years of age should read 30 to 80 words in ordinary use in any language. After World War I, the number of immigrants, including those from Eastern and Southern Europe, remained high despite the literacy test.
The influence of the Immigration Restriction League declined, but it remained active for twenty years. After the death of Prescott Farnsworth Hall, the League disbanded.