AP Explains Past Immigrant Entry Exams

Global May 2019
AP takes a look at the history of immigration in the U.S., including past physical and mental exams, forced fumigation, and the screening and interviewing the Cuban refugees.

AP Explains Past Immigrant Entry Exams

Immigrant Entry Exams Had Puzzles, Delousing


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — President Donald Trump announced last week a wide-ranging immigration plan that would change how certain immigrants would be allowed in the U.S. His proposal includes a civics test for entrance that some critics say could exclude many high-skilled immigrants. Other critics called the idea of a civics exam bizarre and charged that some U.S. citizens even might fail such a test.

If adopted, this would not be the first time the U.S. has embraced a physical or mental exam for immigrants seeking just to get into the country outside of becoming a citizen. Here's a look at how the U.S. used entrance exams on aspiring immigrants throughout history:


Millions of immigrants from Europe would come through Ellis Island in New York Harbor before entering the U.S. in the early 20th Century and U.S. officials would subject them to all sorts of physical and mental exams.

To determine the "mental fitness" of new arrivals, an examiner administered an exam involving a wooden 10-piece puzzle known as the Feature Profile Test. According to the Smithsonian , officials said the exam would help keep out "feeble-minded" immigrants.

Howard A. Knox, a physician who developed the test, said it would sort out immigrants "who may, because of their mental make-up, become a burden to the State or who may produce offspring that will require care in prisons, asylums, or other institutions."

The puzzle test was used until 1916.

Other exams involved asking children to speak to check for hearing and forcing toddlers to walk to check for physical abilities.


During the Mexican Revolution from 1910-20, the U.S. began adopting policies to halt refugees seeking to escape the violence. Some white people complained that Mexican migrants carried diseases and lice and demanded federal officials delouse migrants.

To enter the U.S. migrants were forced to strip and were sprayed with pesticides. Officials then threw their clothes in a steam dryer. It was later discovered that health workers had been photographing images of naked women and posted the photographs at a nearby cantina.

The practice of fumigating Mexican migrants continued until the 1950s.

Historian David Dorado Romo told NPR in 2006 in researching his book "Ringside Seat to a Revolution" he discovered that U.S. officials at the Santa Fe Bridge in El Paso, Texas, continued to delouse and spray the clothes of Mexicans crossing into the U.S. with Zyklon B — a cyanide-based pesticide invented in Germany in the 1920s.

Romo said the Nazis later used the same chemical as a fumigation agent at German border crossings and at gas chambers in concentration camps to kill millions of people.


In 1980, Cuban President Fidel Castro announced that anyone who wanted to leave Cuba was free to do so from the port of Mariel. As a result, nearly 125,000 Cubans jumped on watercrafts and headed to Florida.

U.S. officials soon discovered that Castro also was sending refugees from Cuban jails and mental health institutions.

The U.S. government soon took over the processing of refugees known as "marielitos" and placed them at detention centers. There, officials with the agency then-known as U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services, screened and interviewed the refugees. The refugees had to answer a series of questions about their past, any connections to organized crime and their mental health in order to be released.

Federal immigration officials refused to admit round 2,000 marielitos based on mental illness and criminal records.


Russell Contreras is a member of The Associated Press' race and ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at

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