The “Asiatic Barred Zone”

The “Asiatic Barred Zone” was established by the 1917 Immigration Act, an omnibus piece of legislation that sought a comprehensive reform of immigration and which was most well-known (and fiercely opposed) for its inclusion of a literacy test for immigrants.

Section three of the 1917 Act enumerated various classes of aliens excluded from admission to the United States. These classes included persons deemed physical or mentally “defective”, those of questionable moral character, polygamists, anarchists, and contract laborers. The last class of excluded aliens were all natives of a exclusionary zone defined geographically:

“unless otherwise provided for by existing treaties, persons who are natives of islands not possessed by the United States adjacent to the Continent of Asia, situate south of the twentieth parallel latitude north west of the one hundred and sixtieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich, and north of the tenth parallel of latitude south, or who are natives of any country, province, or dependency situate on the Continent of Asia west of the one hundred and tenth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and east of the fiftieth meridian of longitude east from Greenwich and south of the fiftieth parallel of latitude north, except that portion of said territory situate between the fiftieth and the sixty-fourth meridians of longitude east from Greenwich and the twenty-fourth and thirty-eighth parallels of latitude north.”

Exceptions were made, however, for excluded natives (similar to exceptions to Chinese Exclusion):

“Government officers, ministers or religious teachers, missionaries, lawyers, physicians, chemists, civil engineers, teachers, students, authors, artists, merchants, and travelers for curiosity or pleasure, nor to their legal wives or their children 
under sixteen years of age who shall accompany them.”

The same geographic language was repeated several times in the 1917 Act with regard to prosecution and penalties for ship owners and captains who arranged for or transported members of these excluded classes.

The convoluted geographic language was intentional and deliberate. Originally written simply to exclude “Hindus,” the term used commonly to refer to natives of British India (including Muslims, Sikhs, and members of other non-Hindu religions), the language of this portion of section three was modified just before final passage of the legislation. Its more abstract geographic zone expanded the territorial reach of its exclusion and avoided the appearance of racial or national prejudice – despite its original intent. While initially, the zone was referred to as the “geographic exclusionary zone,” by 1921, and for the next three decades until its reconfiguration as the Asia-Pacific Triangle in 1952, it was more commonly referred to and known as the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” making clear and explicit its intent.

The original immigration exclusion of the Barred Zone, moreover, was extended to an exclusion from naturalized citizenship as a consequence of the Supreme Court’s 1923 decision about the naturalization eligibility of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Punjabi Sikh immigrant. Citing the zone against Thind, the Court suggested that all natives of the zone, not just Indians, were ineligible to become naturalized citizens.

The “Asiatic Barred Zone”