The dictation test

Author: Dr. Barry York, Europe-Australia Institute,

In some cases, exclusion was justified, as in the case of persons with contagious diseases, but most of the Maltese - and indeed nearly two-thirds of all persons excluded between 1901 and 1946 - were kept out by section 3(a) of the Immigration Act, known in common parlance as the dictation test. Section 3(a) provided for a dictation test to be administered in any European language to an arriving migrant. It was a selectively administered device, as not all immigrants were tested; in fact, the vast majority were not. The decision to exclude via the dictation test sometimes came from officials high up in the departments responsible for immigration and it even came, on occasions, from ministers. Most of the time, however, the decision was taken by customs' officers at ports of disembarkation.

459 Chinese were excluded under 3(a) in 1902, and 208 Maltese were similarly excluded in 1916. These were the two biggest single groups to be excluded in any given year. The dictation test was neither an educational nor a literary test. It was not really a test at all but a ploy designed to keep out individuals or groups whom the government of the day or immigration and customs officers felt were undesirable immigrants.

The absurd and dishonest nature of the dictation test is revealed by a handful of cases: a Japanese kept out after failing a test in Greek, an English divorcee excluded after failing the test in Italian, 208 Maltese kept out after failing it in Dutch, and so on.

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