This Act targeted mostly immigrants from Asian countries. It established several rules that imposed restrictions on these immigrants. First, there was the $8 fee placed on immigrants coming into the country

(Tucker & Creller, 2016)

Views on Immigration and Race in the Progressive Era


The Progressive Era denoted to the period between 1890 and 1920 when several changes took place in the United States. The goal of this era was to find solutions to the problems of the unregulated capitalist period and previous times. Several communities including women, African Americans, workers, and immigrants also demanded change to existing social and political norms. Several developments also took place in science and technology causing a new way of thinking. As a result, various social, political, economic and scientific changes characterize this period. Lead by progressive reformers; the progressive era saw new legislation and amendments to the Constitution. Some of the most significant Constitutional changes include the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women voting rights, the Sixteenth Amendment that introduced a federal tax on income, and the Seventeenth Amendment that allowed for direct election of senators (Flanagan, 2016). Other important laws were the Food and Drug Act of 1906 and the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. These changes sought to improve the country by working towards keeping the promises of equality, justice, democracy, and freedom.

While a significant number of the changes of this era are considered positive, certain groups remained oppressed and discriminated on during this period. The views on immigration and race during the Progressive era are a part of the “dark” side of this period. The progressive era was a difficult one for racial minorities, particularly African Americans. It was an era characterized by open segregation, racial profiling, discrimination of American Americans. The result was a rise in movements and reformists who defended the civil rights and equality of African Americans. Immigrants faced a similar situation where they were openly targeted by laws and treated as lesser human beings. It is important to note that not all progressives were racist. Additionally, some of the racist and anti-immigration attitudes might have been the expected impact of a history that was passed down from discriminatory periods. This paper highlights the major events and actions related to immigration and race in the progressive era showing that things did not instantly change for racial minorities and immigrants.


The industrial revolution that happened in the 1800s increased the number of immigrants in the United States significantly. In the mid-1800s, for example, Chinese immigrants came into the United States with the goal of economic stability through labor in industries (The Oakland Museum of California, 2017). They worked in different industries including mining and the construction of railroads. Various immigrants from other regions also came into the country during this person. At first, the reaction was positive especially by capitalists who benefitted from the cheap labor that the immigrants provided. This factor ensured that the business owners could maximize profits and continue offering poor working conditions. However, this view shifted when people realized that the immigrant laborers took opportunities that could benefit Americans. The result was hostility from people toward immigrants. The establishment of the Exclusion Act showed immigrants that they were unwanted. The poor treatment of immigrants went on into the progressive era.

American labor unions and workers, as well as some progressive leaders, hated Asian immigrants because they worked for low wages that they managed to survive on, unlike Americans. The impact of the willingness to accept low wages was felt by American workers. The demands for increased pay by Americans would not be met as long as there was an alternative. As a result, they developed one of the most significant legislation affecting immigrants in the Progressive era, the Immigration Act of 1917. This Act targeted mostly immigrants from Asian countries. It established several rules that imposed restrictions on these immigrants. First, there was the $8 fee placed on immigrants coming into the country (Tucker & Creller, 2016). The rule was that every adult immigrant or a 16-year-old without an adult was required to pay this fee before entering the United States. As mentioned above, most of the immigrants came into the United States to work and accepted low wages. Therefore, expecting them to pay this fee meant that most immigrants would not be allowed into the country.

Another limitation that the Immigration Act of 1917 placed on immigrants was literacy tests. Tucker and Creller (2016) explain that “those who were over the age of 16 and could read some language were expected to read 30 to 40 words to show they are capable of reading” (para.4). The literacy tests limited the number of immigrants coming into the country because most immigrants were not proficient in English. These immigrants also came from countries will less developed education systems, and most of them had not even gone to school. Therefore, a large number of them were bound to fail the literacy tests. It is important to note that people that were escaping religious persecution did the test but were not required to pass (Tucker & Creller, 2016). However, those escaping persecution are classified as refugees rather than immigrants because their safety depends on their escape. Regardless of the exemptions, the literacy tests had a significant impact on the number of immigrants allowed into the United States.

Generally, the Immigration Act of 1917 was meant to prevent people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone” from entering the United States. This Act was an extension of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which targeted only Chinese immigrants. The new law applied to everyone from Asia and other regions like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. One can argue that the restrictions imposed by the Immigration Act of 1917 were racially motivated. However, they seemed motivated by the opportunities that immigrants from these regions took over more than their race (although racism was rampant at the time). Additionally, the Immigration Act of 1917 also used derogatory terms to describe immigrants. The general term used was ‘undesirables’ meaning that they were unfit to come into the United States. Tucker and Creller (2016) provide other words used in the legislation including

“idiots, imbeciles, epileptics, alcoholics, poor, criminals, beggars, any person suffering attacks of insanity, those with tuberculosis, and those who have any form of dangerous contagious disease, aliens who have a physical disability that will restrict them from earning a living in the United States…, polygamists and anarchists, those who were against the organized government or those who advocated the unlawful destruction of property and those who advocated the unlawful assault of killing of any officer” (para.1).

These terms showed the attitudes that the people, as well as the government, had towards immigrants. The American people and their representatives found the slightest reasons to keep these immigrants from coming into the country.

Immigrants from European countries appeared to be safe until the enactment of the Immigration Act of 1921. This legislation specifically targeted people from eastern and southern European countries (Porter, 2010). This Act was developed after fear that there would be an increased number of immigrants from European countries. Therefore, the leaders developed a policy that would limit not only the number of immigrants but also their race and nationality. The basic rule was only to allow immigrants that would easily embrace the values of the United States (Porter, 2010). At this time, racism played a huge part in determining who could come into the country legally. The people from other parts of Europe represented a race that seemed ideal and superior to most Americans. This Act also restricted the number of people that could come in from most parts of the world. The result was a significant decrease in the number of immigrants that came into the United States. Meanwhile, there were clear expressions of xenophobia toward the immigrants that were already in the United States.

Views on Race

American is often described as a nation of immigrants due to the diverse communities in the country today. This diversity started with the voyage of Christopher Columbus which opened up the Americas to the rest of the world. Other factors like slavery and immigration also contributed to the racial diversity in the United States today. The results of various racial communities living in one country have not always been positive with racism being one of the worst social evils. Racism has scarred the American society for decades. Racial minorities have historically been segregated, discriminated upon, and denied basic rights that other Americans enjoy. In the Progressive era, the African American community experienced different laws, limitations, and events that hindered their freedoms as citizens of the United States. Social and political injustices were high at the time. Overall, the system was deliberately designed to place African Americans below all other communities. However, African Americans did not just sit and watch, they started movements and filed lawsuits to improve their position in society.

Jim Crow laws were one of the most significant challenges for African Americans. These laws enabled legal segregation of African Americans in the South. According to Campbell (2014), most states established laws that enabled segregation after the end of the Civil War. The South had lost the Civil War, and slavery became illegal. The rush to establish laws of separation came from the fear that Africans Americans would become equals and interact with White Americans now that they were free. These laws were a prevention to keep racism alive. The WGBH Educational Foundation (2017) explains that legally, blacks received separate but equal treatment which was not always the case. The Jim Crow laws ensured a separation of black and white Americans on an equal level. The American society at the time refused to view African Americans as equals who have similar rights and freedoms. W.E.B Du Bois (1999) called this societal view a psychological wage that all White people enjoy. The Jim Crow laws only added to the struggles of African Americans.

As mentioned above, Black people did not simply sit aside and accept the situation as it was. They took different actions to ensure that they earned equal rights, protection, and social justice. In 1896, the U.S Supreme Court decided on Plessy v. Ferguson. The case questioned the constitutionality of the Louisiana Railway Accommodation Act at the time. The first part of the Louisiana Railway Accommodation Act read,

all railway companies carrying passengers in their coaches in this State, shall provide equal but separate accommodations for the white, and colored races, by providing two or more passenger coaches for each passenger train, or by dividing the passenger coaches by a partition so as to secure separate accommodations; provided that this section shall not be construed to apply to street railroads (Thomas, 2017 para.2)

This law provided guidelines for train companies in Louisiana. However, it was clear that black people did not enjoy the “separate but equal” phrase because it was not happening in the real world. Plessy argued that the segregation laws violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S Constitution. The Court ruled in favor of the Louisiana law stating that as long as amenities are equal, they can be separate.

The legalization of segregation fueled further racial discrimination. One of the greatest impacts of this increased discrimination was the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan is a group/organization that killed several black people before based solely on their race (Hovenkamp, 2017). At this time, the Klan members felt like they could openly express their dislike for racial minorities because of the general public’s attitude towards race at the time. During this period several murders and lynches occurred in the United States. Perhaps this resurfaces, or new confidence stemmed from the new laws reaffirming that the White race is superior to all other areas. Most members of the Ku Klux Klan held extreme views about Black people. Therefore, they were not pleased by the new-earned freedom of African Americans from slavery. The case of the Ku Klux Klan is an example of old beliefs relating to race and immigration resurfacing. The Klan was not influenced by the progressive era regarding opinions on race. The new legislation in most Southern states only provided an opportunity for Klan members to revive their old ways.

Other legislation and policies affected the ability of racial minorities to vote. The Fifteenth Amendment gave Black people the right to vote stating that “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” (U.S. Const. Amend. XV). This meant that all African Americans and other racial minorities could participate in elections regardless of their race. The system then started creating barriers for these voters. One of the most dominant limitations in Southern states were the literacy requirements. The requirement was that people must pass a literacy test before voting. At the time, this requirement was unfair given the limited learning environments of most racial and ethnic minority groups. The education level of most racial minorities was also far down compared to White people. As a result, the number of African Americans and other racial minorities could not participate

Another unfair component is the introduction of poll taxes. Poll taxes refer to money that people had to pay before voting. After slavery and with low-income jobs, the majority of African Americans could afford to pay these taxes. As a result, most of them did not take part in the elections. Other racial and ethnic minorities also went through the same problems. Finally, several others laws affected ordinary functioning activities like a favorable working environment and simple social interactions. These laws also touched on labor roles and the wages. Generally, race played a huge part in determining different functions like elections, security, education and access to facilities. The Jim Crow laws allowed the existence

Significant African American Reformers

Several African American leaders emerged during this period all seeking to enlighten the Black community. One of the earliest significant reformers is Booker T. Washington. The primary ideology of Washington was racial uplift (Cohn, 2011). The approach depended on African Americans improving themselves. Washington had two main philosophies. First, he urged African Americans to remain hardworking and develop themselves to growth (Cohn, 2011). The primary message here was to encourage African Americans to work peacefully in solidarity to improve their position in society over time. The second philosophy was that African Americans should endure the pain and focus only on self-improvement (Cohn, 2011). This stand was questioned by many who believed that the right action would be to fight for the rights of all racial minorities firmly. The suggestion to focus on the future seemed unreasonable especially for people who were actively suffering through oppression, segregation, and discrimination. In the end, several people agreed with Washington while others disagreed calling for immediate action.

W.E.B Du Bois is one of the reformists that disagreed with Washington’s views completely. The argument of Du Bois was that people could not get back their rights by letting them go and expecting them to be given back eventually (Cohn, 2011). Du Bois encouraged African Americans to insist on being given rights as citizens. His arguments were in comparison to what White people had. In a statement, Du Bois urged Black people to demand their rights. He explained that Black children wanted to go to school and they deserved a proper/quality education just the White children. Du Bois also touched on several areas of the African America community like voting rights and changed regarding racial discrimination. Despite the disagreement, Du Bois openly states that he appreciates the fact that Washington was among the few people to look out for and help families in the Black community. He also appreciated the learned nature of Washington explaining that his knowledge is useful to the African Americans.


Eugenics is a concept that affected both immigrants and racial minorities. Racist beliefs and views of superiority regarding race influenced the notion of eugenics. The supporters of this concept believed that the law could be useful in preventing the deterioration (Hovenkamp, 2017). Racial deterioration, in this case, referred to the biological features that the society at the time viewed as inferior. The manner in which analysis was done was based on race and societal position. Naturally, the undesirable features were given to racial minorities and immigrants. Eugenics was referred to as a science that ensured better breeding. The result was the establishment of certain policies and beliefs that furthered the agenda of superior and inferior race (Hovenkamp, 2017). Immigrants were included in the lower classification also based on race and their country of origin. Other groups of people classified as the “undesirables” included the mentally ill, people from lower economic status, and the developmentally disabled. The system placed White Protestants at the top of the hierarchy followed by groups whose features resembled those of the superior race.


Issues of race and immigration have existed in the United States since the establishment of the presidency. The existence of diverse racial and ethnic groups in the country provides opportunities for discrimination. Today, one can see some of the elements of the progressive era regarding both race and immigration. Immigration has become a popular subject since the 2016 election campaigns. One of the candidates used derogatory terms like “rapists” to describe immigrants from Mexico. There was also the narrative that the immigrants (both legal and illegal) were taking away job opportunities that belong to American citizens. Several people believe this narrative that there are no good immigrants coming into the United States. The early stages of President Trump’s term saw the issue of several travel bans for various reasons. All these issues and the support from some members of the public show that the negative attitude towards immigrants still exists in the United States today.

Racial discrimination and oppression of racial minorities have also been a significant issue in the United States. Ethnic and racial minorities are faced with these negative outlooks in different areas from offices to schools. Institutional racism, particularly racial profiling is widely evident today. There are several cases and stories in the news where young men of color are shot by police without committing a crime. Most African Americans also share stories of being pulled over by the police for no reason. Perhaps a more interesting example is the case of White people calling the police on Black people for no offense. The argument that most people provide here is that these White people have a fixed opinion on black people which are wrong. The stereotyping causes them to react with fear. The concepts of immigration and race have been a significant part of American society. Some beliefs on these issues are based on personal, political, and social morals and experiences.


The progressive era is often praised for the positive social, scientific, and political changes that took place in this period. However, race and immigration remain among the darkest elements of this period. As seen above, immigrants were treated as lesser human beings. The government even established specific laws to keep immigrants out of the country. What makes it even worse is the fact that most of these laws were racially motivated. Preference was given in to races whose features resembled the of the superior races. In the progressive era, the opinions on race and immigration were influenced by the previous era. For example, the existence and ownership of slaves created a sense of entitlement hast causes people to want to continue honoring this legacy by controlling the lives of former slaves. The issues on immigration raised in this article also summarize the thoughts on immigration which were mostly negative. One thing to note is that although the paper covers the negative side of this era, not all progressors had similar ides.


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Hovenkamp, H. J. (2017). The Progressives: Racism and public law. Arizona Law Review, 59(947), 947-1003.

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