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Activist, Scholar, Dandy

Shadows of the Past

Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration and the Asiatic Barred Zone
By Kritika Agarwal |
FEBRUARY 5, 2017

On January 27, news broke that the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, had signed an executive order barring citizens from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya, and Somalia from entering the United States for 90 days. The very next day, immigration officials started detaining and, in some cases, deporting, those arriving from these seven countries; crowds gathered outside US airports in protest, and the ACLU, along with several other groups, filed a legal challenge.

People on social media pointed out that Trump had issued the anti-refugee and anti-Muslim executive order on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Under the hashtag, #HolocaustMemorialDay, people shared images of Jewish families and children who had arrived to the United States on the St. Louis in 1939, only to be turned away and to later perish in European concentration camps. The parallel between refusing Jewish refugees escaping persecution then, and refusing Muslim refugees escaping war and persecution now, is remarkable.

Yet, one can go back even further in history to find prior connections with the events that have recently unfolded: February 5, 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917—an Act, which for over three decades after its passage, along with existing immigration laws and agreements, prohibited immigrants from almost the entire Asian continent from entering the United States.

Passed over a presidential veto, the Immigration Act of 1917 marked the epitome of anti-immigrant sentiment in a nation that was then gripped with the hysteria of “100% Americanism” in the midst of World War 1. Enabled by fears of economic competition, anti-Asian sentiment led to widespread support of the Act’s xenophobic exclusions. Various labor organizations, including the American Federation of Labor, supported the passage of the Immigration Act of 1917.

In addition to imposing a native language literacy test, an English language test, and head taxes on immigrants, the Act also barred immigrants with disabilities, diseases, or with any characteristics that the state determined to interfere with their ability “to earn a living.” Also excluded were “polygamists,” anarchists, prostitutes, and those opposed to “organized government.” The clearest connection of the Act to today, however, was its creation of what later became known as the “Asiatic Barred Zone”: a geographic tract in Asia enclosed by precise latitudinal and longitudinal parallels designated by Congress. All residents of this area, with some exceptions, were barred from entering the United States.1

In the first two months after the Immigration Act of 1917 went into effect, the commissioner general of immigration noted in his annual report to the secretary of labor that “391 aliens were rejected under the illiteracy test,” along with about a dozen others who failed to meet the various other restrictions laid out in the Act. In his 1918 report, the commissioner general noted that “During the past year, 19 natives of the barred zones were rejected at ports of this country.” The barred zone, according to the commissioner general, included “India, Siam, Indo-China, parts of Siberia, Afghanistan, and Arabia, the islands of Java, Sumatra, Ceylon, Borneo, New Guinea, Celebes, and various lesser groups with an estimated population of 500,000,000.” It excluded parts of China and Japan, but the existing Chinese Exclusion Act (passed in 1882) and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 already prevented immigrants from those countries from migrating to the United States. The Philippines, as an occupied US territory, was also excluded from the zone. Not satisfied with the limits of the law, the commissioner general suggested extending the “barred zone to such parts of Asia as are not now included therein nor affected by exclusion laws or agreements, and also to Africa and adjacent islands, so as to exclude inhabitants who are of unassimilable classes or whose admission in any considerable number would tend to produce an economic menace to our population.”

Oddly enough, even though the barred zone included huge swaths of central Asia, apart from a corner of the Arabian Peninsula covering the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, it did not include the area today referred to as the “Middle East.” (The map of the Asiatic Barred Zone on Wikipedia appears to be inaccurate. Instead, see the map above.) This means that the West Asian countries of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, that are included in the 2017 ban were not part of the 1917 ban. In Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (2009), Sarah Gualtieri asks why Syria fell outside the Asiatic Barred Zone. She argues that this was because, “the 1917 Act constructed a different Asian space, one that lay beyond West Asia and that delineated not just a geographic location but the peoples that had triggered American anxieties about the ‘yellow peril.’”

The barred zone, thus, covered those geographical areas from which immigration was seen as particularly threatening, both racially and economically. The racism and xenophobia that triggered the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese immigrants from the United States is well documented. Starting in the early 20th century, exclusionists on the West Coast were also raising voices against the arrival of immigrants from the South Asian subcontinent. They argued that the new migrants, whom they labeled “Hindus” or “Hindoos” (despite the fact that a majority of the incoming migrants were Sikhs or Muslims), were the newest incarnation of the ongoing Asian “problem” that faced the United States.

At the time of the creation of the barred zone then, Congress was more concerned about “The Tide of Turbans,” and “yellow peril” with origins in China, Japan, and India, than it was in immigration from the Middle East. As Gualtieri writes, “The erection of the Asiatic barred zone marks an important moment of differentiation between Europe’s Asia—which included India and West Asia—and America’s Asia, in which India occupied a liminal space and West Asia (the ‘Middle East’) was absent.” (77) Today, the source of anti-immigrant angst has shifted: from “Orientals” and “Hindoos” to Muslims and “radical Islamic terrorists.” The Asiatic barred zone created in 1917 remained in effect, in one form or another, until the passage of several acts that acknowledged and overturned the racial exclusions it promoted: the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, the Luce-Celler Act of 1946, which allowed the entry and naturalization of immigrants from India, and the 1952 McCarran Walter Act, which abolished all racial restrictions on immigration in favor of a quota and preference system. The 2017 ban returns us to an exclusion era these acts sought to put to an end; so far, the ban is for 90 days, but it is possible that it will be extended in duration and expanded to other countries.

In their introduction to a special issue of the Journal of Asian American Studies on Arab American Studies, Sunaina Maira and Magid Shihade argue that scholars of Asian American Studies should expand “our frame of analysis to consider the ways in which categories of subjects such as ‘Asian American’ and ‘Arab American’ are positioned in relation to US empire.” As we see reflections of 1917 in 2017, and understand how anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia in the United States have precursors in the anti-Asian immigrant movements of the late-19th and early-mid 20th centuries, the task of forging connections between Asian American and Arab American studies becomes more important than ever.

To help us look back at the significance of the Immigration Act of 1917 and its relevance in 2017, SAADA is putting together a special issue of Tides and will be publishing pieces about the Act throughout its yearlong centenary. As our call says, “The Immigration Act of 1917 and the surveillance, exclusionism, and nativism that were part of it are strikingly relevant to the present day.” Please consider submitting; your voice is needed more than ever.

1. The Immigration Act of 1917 exempted “government officers, ministers or religious teachers, missionaries, lawyers, physicians, chemists, civil engineers, teachers, students, authors, artists, merchants, and travelers for curiosities or pleasure,” and their “legal wives or their children under sixteen years of age” from the barred zone restrictions. Individuals allowed entry under these provisions, however, had to maintain their “status or occupation” while in the United States or be subject to deportation.
Kritika Agarwal is associate editor, publications, at the American Historical Association.