“Unusual – Indeed Unprecedented”: U.S. Immigration Policies and Travel Restrictions During World War One

The registry room or “Great Hall” at Ellis Island, New York. Daniel Vorndran/Wikimedia Commons.

This post by Lauren Catterson is part of the “(In)Security in the Time of COVID-19” series. Read the rest of the series here.

It’s been more than a year since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In March and April 2020 many countries imposed strict border controls or closed their borders to non-essential travel and non-citizens in an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, and many travel restrictions remain in effect today.

Uncertain about how the pandemic would impact travel and immigration, some travelling, working, or studying abroad scrambled to return to their home countries before travel restrictions set in. Others, myself included, chose to stay put overseas. Still others found themselves stranded. Ongoing border closures, changing travel restrictions, and disruptions in the processing of visas threw wrenches in the plans of immigrants across the world.

In the United States, the Trump administration barred entry to non-U.S. citizens and non-U.S. residents travelling from certain countries and made important changes to immigration policies, even as Trump downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19. Among the changes, U.S. immigration authorities in March 2020 began summarily removing migrants lacking documentation, including unaccompanied minors, at the U.S.-Mexico border (see also here). Citing the “extraordinary circumstances of the economic contraction resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak,” Trump limited the issuance of new green cards and work visas in April and June 2020.

Trump also stoked racism and xenophobia, particularly anti-Chinese racism as was most clearly seen in his repeated use of phrases intended to associate COVID-19 with China (see here and here). Trump and members of his administration claimed immigrants brought diseases into the U.S. years before the pandemic hit in order to portray immigrants as a threat and justify anti-immigrant statements and policies. The association of immigrants with disease has a long history in the U.S., as shown by historians such as Alan M. Kraut (Silent Travelers) and Nayan Shah (Contagious Divides).

We have heard the word “unprecedented” used a lot over the past year. While there can be no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted and continues to disrupt travel and immigration, just over one hundred years ago immigration to the U.S. was reduced drastically, anti-immigrant sentiments were rife, and new requirements on international travel were implemented during World War One. This post explores that history and the restrictions on immigration that the U.S. Congress introduced in the years immediately after the end of World War One.


There were already restrictions on immigration into the U.S. prior to the outbreak of World War One. The Immigration Act of 1907 barred entry to a long list of unwelcome immigrants, including but not only criminals, sex workers, anarchists, political radicals, persons “with a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease,” and persons considered (by immigrant inspectors) likely to become public charges. By 1914 the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act had been in force for thirty-two years, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907 between the U.S. and Japan put a stop to the migration of new Japanese workers to the U.S. However, neither the Chinese Exclusion Act nor the Gentlemen’s Agreement entirely stopped immigration from China and Japan to the U.S., and determined immigrants found ways around discriminatory exclusion policies.

Despite these restrictions, immigration from Europe was high before the outbreak of World War One. In the Bureau of Immigration’s annual report for 1914, Commissioner General of Immigration Anthony Caminetti projected that annual immigration had “apparently reached the million mark permanently.”[1]

In late July and early August 1914, Europe was on the brink of war and newspapers across the U.S. described scenes of Americans rushing to get out of Europe. On July 31, the Washington Post reported that “the question of getting safely home before the guns begin to thunder is already causing something approaching a panic both among the regular members of Europe’s American colonies and still more among the tourists now there.”[2] On August 2, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “[e]very berth on the transatlantic steamers sailing before September 15th has been sold and many thousands of Americans travelling here [that is, from Paris] have become almost panic-stricken.”[3] On August 5, 1914, President Woodrow Wilson issued Executive Order 2012, which directed the Secretaries of the Navy, Treasury, War and State Departments to coordinate their efforts to provide, as the title of the order suggests, “For the Relief, Protection and Transportation Home of Americans in Europe at the Outbreak of the European War of 1914.”

Immigration from Europe to the U.S. fell off a cliff during the war. The Bureau of Immigration’s annual reports state that the total number of persons who immigrated to the U.S. was 1,218,480 in 1914, 326,700 in 1915, and just 110,618 by June 1918.[4]

With fewer arrivals to inspect, Commissioner General Caminetti explained, came the opportunity to conduct “closer and more minute inspection[s]” of new immigrants.[5] According to statistics published by the Bureau of Immigration in 1917, the proportion of migrants denied entry into the U.S. in each of the years 1915, 1916, and 1917 was roughly double the rate in 1914, when 2.3% of persons applying for entry were rejected.

However, the war created what Caminetti described as “unusual – indeed unprecedented – conditions and problems” for the U.S. immigration service. The service could hardly deport persons denied entry at the gates or arrested within the U.S. to Europe without potentially endangering their lives. It held off on deportations to Europe during the war and, because detention was expensive, some migrants were released from federal custody on bond or personal recognizance and parole “to apparently responsible persons or societies.”[6]

As historian Mae M. Ngai has explained, fervent nationalism coupled with a suspicion and fear of immigrant disloyalty strengthened existing demands for further restrictions on immigration. The 1917 Immigration Act, enacted over Wilson’s veto, required immigrants pass a literacy test. This requirement was intended to make it more difficult for immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to gain entry into the U.S. The 1917 Act also added those suspected of being or affiliated with political radicals to the list of “undesirable” immigrants and barred from entry immigrants from much of the Asia-Pacific region (except the Philippines, then a U.S. territory, and Japan).[7]

Concerns that the movement of people and information across national borders posed a threat to the U.S. prompted the introduction of wartime visa and passport controls. In May 1918, Congress passed “An Act to prevent in time of war departure from or entry into the United States contrary to the public safety,” which required that all U.S. citizens possess a valid passport in order to leave and re-enter the U.S. and imposed restrictions on non-citizens departing from or seeking to enter the U.S. Wilson announced additional rules and restrictions in Proclamation 1473 in August 1918, including that citizens and non-citizens could not leave or enter the U.S. unless they had a valid reason to travel and their leaving or entering was “not prejudicial to the interests of the United States.”

Immigration from Europe to the U.S. resumed after the end of the war, but anti-immigrant sentiments, along with passport and visa requirements, persisted.

In an August 1919 article on Wilson’s plan to extend the wartime departure and entry law for another year, the New York Times quoted Wilson as stating that:

The act of May 22, 1918, which makes possible the prevention of undesirable individuals from departing for the United States, will automatically cease to be operative upon the establishment of a condition of peace. Individuals will then be free to come here for whatever purpose they choose, and many will come for purposes which we cannot approve, and which may indeed be dangerous to the country and to its institutions.[8]

Just over two months later, Congress dropped restrictions on non-citizens leaving the U.S., but renewed passport and visa requirements for entry.

We take it for granted today that passports and visas are required to cross international borders. But, as media historian Craig Robertson has shown, new documentation requirements for international travel didn’t go over well with many Americans. They were labelled a “nuisance” by newspapers in the 1920s. According to Robertson, many applicants for U.S. passports saw the need to provide documentary proof of their identity “as a sign that officials considered them dishonest and untrustworthy – a response grounded in the association of identification documents with suspect individuals such as criminals.”[9]

“The only way to handle it”. Uncle Sam imposes a quota on European immigration. Literary Digest, May 7, 1921, p. 13. Library of Congress.

The U.S. implemented further restrictions on immigration in the 1920s. The Immigration Act of 1921 established quotas on immigration based on nationality and placed an annual cap on immigration for the first time, and the 1924 Immigration Act reduced the quotas and the annual cap. Immigrants had to secure a passport and visa issued by an American consular official. The 1924 Act aimed to reduce immigration from southern and eastern Europe, but it also prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” (a phrase which then referred to almost all immigrants from Asia) from immigrating to the U.S. This quota system remained in effect, with some changes, until 1965.


Still in the midst of the pandemic, it’s unclear when COVID-19 related travel and border restrictions will lift, especially given the spread of COVID-19 variants, but there is talk of so-called “vaccine passports” (documentary proof of vaccination for COVID-19) becoming a requirement for international travel in the future. Perhaps its introduction will prove as unpopular as passports were a century ago before becoming taken for granted. (Some countries already require proof of immunisation for certain diseases).

In the U.S., now President Joe Biden promised during his campaign for the presidency to move the U.S. decidedly away from the Trump administration’s anti-immigration and anti-immigrant policies.

The example of World War One is an important warning about hardening anti-immigrant attitudes during times of crisis and also cautions us against thinking that policies introduced during a crisis will remain in effect only so long as the crisis lasts.

Lauren Catterson is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation explores allegations of misconduct, maladministration, and corruption against U.S. immigration service personnel between 1903 and 1940.

Further Reading

Ngai, Mae M. “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924.” Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (June 1999): 67-92.

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Updated edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Robertson, Craig. The Passport in America: The History of a Document. New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Torpey, John C. The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State. 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. See especially chapter four, “Toward the ‘Crustacean Type of Nation’: The Proliferation of Identification Documents from the Late Nineteenth Century to the First World War,” 114-150.


[1] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Immigration, Annual Report of the Commissioner General of Immigration to the Secretary of Labor, 1914, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1915), 3. [hereafter cited as AR-CGI]

Annual Report, fiscal year ended June 30, 1914, 3.

[2] “Would Blockade Sea,” The Washington Post, July 31, 1914, 1.

[3] “Americans Flee from War Zone,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 2, 1914, 33.

[4]  AR-CGI, 1914, 3; AR-CGI, 1915, 10; AR-CGI, 1918, 9.

[5] AR-CGI, 1917, xiii.

[6] AR-CGI, 1915, 9-10.

[7] Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), 19.

[8] “President Urges Longer Alien Ban,” New York Times, August 26, 1919, 1 and 4.

[9] Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2010), 215-216.

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