” Turkish Bank Guard” (left), “Even Algeria Sends its Quota to America” (right)

Like many Americans, my father was born in this country, but his father came from Sicily in the 1890s. The year my father was born, 1917, National Geographic Magazine published a lead article entitled “Our Foreign-Born Citizens.” Given the current anti-immigration sentiment of many Americans today, it is useful to look back at the same issue that rocked American politics almost a century ago. Given the optimistic note below that our territory could hold 900 million people, the latest census results showing the U.S. population is now over 300 million is a hopeful, even if not well documented, sign. Here is a sample from the article:

Never in the history of the American people has a measure been passed by Congress as often and vetoed by the President as many times as the immigration bill recently enacted into law. Three presidents of the United States have felt so keenly that the founders of the government and their successors were right in holding that the lack of opportunity to learn to read and write should not bar an alien from freedom’s shores, that they have overridden the will of the four Congresses and have interposed their veto between the congressional purpose and the unlettered immigrant’s desire.

But Congress was strong enough at last to override the presidential veto, and so the immigration doctrines of a century and a quarter are changed and the practices of generations are to be made over. Hereafter no one above the age of 16 who cannot read and write may enter.

The effect of the literacy test applied to the immigration of the future may be shown by a few figures. More than one-fourth of all the immigrants admitted to the United States in the past two decades who were over 14 could neither read nor write. Out of 8,398,000 admitted in the ten years ending with 1910, 2,238,000 were illiterate. And yet so rapidly does illiteracy melt away that, adding to this number all the illiterates here before these came, there were only 1,600,000 illiterate foreigners in the United States when the census of 1910 was taken.

Under a literacy test we will turn back one-fourth of the Armenians, two-fifths of the Serbians, Bulgarians, and Montenegrans, more than a fourth of the Jews and Greeks, more than a half of South Italians, more than a third of the Poles and Russians, a fourth of the Slovaks.

Who can estimate our debt to immigration? Thirty-three million people have made the long voyage from alien shores to our own since it was proclaimed that all men are born free and equal, and liberty’s eternal fire was kindled first on American soil! …

Furthermore, these statistics prove that his [the immigrant’s] grandchildren are about as free from illiteracy as the American child of native lineage, and even less disposed to insanity than the child whose ancestry may be traced to colonial times. In everything that goes to show good citizenship the grandchild of the immigrant stands the statistical text as well as the child of native parentage. How many immigrants we shall receive in the future no one can say. But, assuming that we have no immigration, and that the United States will grow as fast during the three centuries ahead of us as Europe grew from 1812 to 1912, we will have a population of nearly 500,000,000 in 2217, or approximately 166 to the square mile.

Agricultural students have declared that the soil of the United States has a sustaining power of 500 to the square mile. Assuming that one-third of the country is occupied by waste land, we have room on this basis for 900,000,000 people.

Excerpts from “Our Foreign Born Citizens,” The National Geographic Magazine, February, 1917, 31(2), pp. 95-97, 113-114.