The “Asiatic Barred Zone”

As I’ve occasionally posted, I’m researching the “Asiatic Barred Zone” created by Congress in 1917 for an article and book project on race, geography, and territoriality. Recently I’ve been going over the Congressional Record and other government documents to retrace the specific details of its origin and formulation and found some interesting material.

The legislation that created the barred zone, House Resolution 10384 (H.R. 10384), was based on earlier attempts to enact a comprehensive immigration policy for the United States beginning in 1912. Several had passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate, but were vetoed by Presidents Taft and Wilson, principally because they included a literary test required of all prospective immigrants – legislation requiring a literacy test pre-dated legislation seeking to implement comprehensive immigration policy. Proposed in January 1916, H.R. 10384 re-introduced much of the language in its immediate predecessor, H.R. 6060, but added new provisions, among them language to exclude Asian Indians. Responding to concerns about the growing number of Asian Indians in the western states, the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization added a clause to section three of the bill, which enumerated the classes of people barred from entering the United States. To the list, which included prostitutes, polygamists, anarchists, persons of “moral turpitude,” and persons who were “mentally or physically defective,” the House Committee added, “Hindus and those not eligible to become naturalized citizens of the United States” – with additional language avoiding issues between the United States and Japan. The term “Hindu,” following the Dillingham Commission on Immigration’s 1911 report, was used to refer to “East Indians” generally; as that report acknowledge, East Indians . . . include Sikhs, Mohammedans, and Afghans . . . . They are all known as ‘Hindus,’ though, strictly speaking they are not all of the Hindu cast.”

Seeing Hindu exclusion as part of a larger and several decade concern about Asiatic exclusion, the Senate Committee proposed an amendment that offered a more general solution. Rather than adding Hindus to the Chinese and informally but discretely, the Japanese, as excluded groups from Asia, it proposed a geographic zone, from which all native groups would be excluded. The exclusionary zone was defined using geographic coordinates, its borders demarcated by meridians and parallels, lines of longitude and latitude, that included both a large portion of the “Continent of Asia” and islands adjacent to it. Also called the “geographic delimitation zone” or the “longitude and latitude zone,” the “barred zone” included the majority of Afghanistan, a southeast corner of Arabia, the Sultanate of Muscat and Oman, the central Asian portion of the Russian empire south of Siberia (part of modern Kazakhstan as well as all of modern Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan), Tibet and a large portion of Mongolia (both independent since 1912), a large portion of the Republic of China (divided in civil war for most of the interwar period), British India (which included modern Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Burma), Nepal, Bhutan, Siam, French Indo-China (modern Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), the Malay states, the Dutch East Indies (modern Indonesia), Portuguese Timor, the Philippines, British New Guinea, and most of German New Guinea (which included the Caroline Islands (modern Micronesia and Palau), the Mariana Islands (with the exception of Guam), the Solomon Islands, and the Bismarck Archipelago as well as Kaiser-Wilhemsland, the northeast portion of the island of New Guinea).

Because Guam and the Philippine Islands were U.S. territories, they were technically not part of the barred zone, but the 1917 Act also prohibited natives from the barred zone from entering the United States via its insular territories. Immigration from most of East Asia not included in the zone was already excluded by the Chinese Exclusion Act, made permanent in 1902, and the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” reached between the United States and Japan in 1907.

The House accepted the Senate amendment among other revisions to H.R. 10384, which was passed by both chambers in late 1916. President Wilson vetoed the bill because of its literacy test, but Congress overrode his veto in January 1917, enacting H.R. 10384 as the Immigration Act of 1917.

Here is a map of the restricted zone included in a Bureau of Immigration publication detailing the provisions of the new laws (I added color to its borders to help make them more visibly distinct):

Additional immigration acts in 1921 (the Emergency Quota Act) and 1924 (the Immigration Act; Johnson-Reed Act) added to and revised the 1917 law’s administrative policies and procedures, notably instituting immigration quotas based on national origins and the census, and generalizing the exclusion of “aliens ineligible for citizenship” – language that was part of the original House version of H.R. 10384. The exclusions of the Asiatic Barred Zone remained in effect until 1952 when the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran-Walter Act) substantially overhauled the immigration and naturalization system in the midst of the Cold War – leaving intact, however, national origins quotas. Much of its territory was included in the redesignated Asia-Pacific Triangle.

There is little historiography about the barred zone and what exists often describes the zone incorrectly and inadequately. Wikipedia’s entry on the Immigration Act of 1917 refers to the Act as the “the Asiatic Barred Zone Act” when the language is nowhere to be found in the legislation and states that the Act’s most controversial part was the barred zone clause, which it was not; the literacy test was Wilson’s only stated reason for his veto. Wikipedia also shows a map that includes the Asian Middle East – an oddly revealing, but inadequate term – as part of the zone when it was not. A commonly cited work states the zone included “most of China, all of India, Burma, Siam, and the Malay states, part of Russia, all of Arabia and Afghanistan, most of the Polynesian Islands, and all of the East Indian Islands.” In addition to omitting Muscat and Oman, French Indo-China, British and German New Guinea, and adding the rest of Arabia east of the 50th meridian, the description confused Polynesia, which was not in the barred zone, with Micronesia and Melanesia, the western sections of which were. Another work, citing the 1917 act in a footnote, states, “The barred zone included parts of Arabia, Afghanistan, India, Burma, Thailand, Indochina, the Malay States, the East Indian Islands, Asiatic Russia, and the Polynesian Islands.” A third, recent work explains the zone “extended the exclusion imposed on Chinese laborers to the entire continent of Asia and its adjacent islands.”

More significantly, every contemporary description I have ever seen of the barred zone translates its territory to match modern international political borders. While such translation helps orient and locate the barred zone, it also elides an important and crucial historical difference: for much of its existence, most of the territory within the barred zone was colonial territory, controlled and administered by European imperial powers — and after World War One, Japan. Drawn with geographic lines, and drawing upon geography’s scientific and in principle, objective association, the barred zone’s definition removed these colonial concerns as well as the racial and national concerns driving its proposal from direct consideration.