The United States Immigration Commission (also known as the Dillingham Commission after its chairman, Republican Senator William P. Dillingham of Vermont) was a bipartisan special committee formed in February 1907 by the United States Congress, President of the United States and Speaker of the House of Representatives, to study the origins and consequences of recent immigration to the United States. This was in response to increasing political concerns about the effects of immigration in the United States and its brief was to report on the social, economic and moral state of the nation. During its time in action the Commission employed a staff of more than 300 people for over 3 years, spent better than a million dollars and accumulated mass data.
It was a joint committee composed of members of both the House and Senate. The Commission published its findings in 1911, concluding that immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was a serious threat to American society and culture and should be greatly reduced in the future, as well as continued restrictions on immigration from China, Korea and Japan. The report highly influenced public opinion around the introduction of legislation to limit immigration and can be seen to have played an integral part in the adoption of the 1921 Emergency Quota Act and subsequent Johnson Reed Act of 1924.
The Changing Face of Immigration
In 1800, the American population was about 5 million, by 1914, migration had led to a further 50 million people in the country. The Population had amassed to a total of 77 million, 14 years earlier, in 1900.
Historically, immigration policy had been based on economic arguments, but new research suggests eugenics as influencing public opinion on admission criteria. This change towards racial scientific theory was evident in the success of Madison Grant's works which argued that the old immigrant races were in danger of being overtaken by inferior races, particularly Southern and Eastern Europeans. Similarly, the work of Sir Francis Galton on advocating for Eugenics found heightened interest and readership during the late 1800s, reflecting the growth of racial pseudo-science based ideas amongst the American public at the time.
Modern historians have continued to argue that eugenic ideology supported immigration policy. However, Benton-Cohen's recent work highlights the importance of economics within the Commission members thinking, in particular when referring to commission member Jenks, arguing that it predates eugenics. In addition to this, pressure from labour leaders such as President Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labour to acknowledge the perceived negative effect of immigration on the American born workforce helped influenced the formation of the Dillingham Commission. Nonetheless, this fails to acknowledge that the immigration debate had been around for decades as well as early ideas of racial distinctions and these factors continued to influence commission members as much as economic ones.
Historian Robert, F. Zeidel situated the Commission within the Progressive Era, with Nativism as the motivation for the legal enforcement of immigration in this period. But before World War One, most restrictions were exclusively directed to the Asian population, without classification of races; factors such as income and education came first. Immigration Acts had previously banned prostitutes, convicts, the insane, and those with serious illness or disability. Nativism changed this through moving toward a racial hierarchy which pitted the superior natives of the United States against the 'inferior' immigrants.
The Commission's Investigations
Tension between nativists on one side of the debate (who wanted more restriction of immigration) and those that wished to reform existing rules and immigration systems which promoted the inclusion of 'good' immigrants in American society, played a part in the Dillingham Commission's investigation. The Commission was dedicated to taking an empirical approach, with plans to visit Europe, and places most associated with immigration to the US, which would then be used to inform states across America on which immigration would be most suited for the needs of America, and where. This sort of classification was not new to the Commission, with racial classification remaining popular from the turn of the century, into the 20th and beyond, scientifically informing the nativist rhetoric of the time. Data collected by the Commission did not support racial preconceptions, when taking to account the success of immigrants and their level of assimilation, but recommendations were made, nonetheless.
In the words of the report, "The former (immigrants) were from the most progressive sections of Europe and assimilated quickly... On the other hand, the new immigrants have come from the less progressive countries of Europe and congregated separately from native Americans and the older immigrants to such an extent that assimilation has been slow".
In reaching this conclusion the Commission made distinctions between 'old ' and more recent 'new' immigrants. The report favoured 'old' immigrants from North and Western Europe and opposed 'new' immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe and Asia. The Commission was highly influential due to it being based on 'scientific research'. However, the Commission did not hold any public hearings or cross-examine witnesses, also choosing not to use "information from census reports, state bureaus of labor and statistics or other agencies". The Commission used its own investigators to present their personal findings. This led investigators to form racial distinctions between different groups of immigrants, as evidenced by way of example by the reports description of Polish immigrants: "In their physical inheritance they resemble the 'Eastern' or 'Slavic' race more than that of North-Western Europe". When referring to Russian immigrants, they described them as 'clannish', which shared community through 'gangs' as reason for non-assimilation. When considering educational standards applicable to immigrants, only 2 out of 26 questions on an assessment form related to student achievements and failed to take into account economic differences, when reaching conclusions on literacy levels. The Commission's investigation stated that 'the ability to speak English is a matter of great importance, for it increases industrial efficiency and assists in the process of assimilation [and shows] the degree of assimilation which has taken place'.
The Commission's Recommendations
The commission recommended that any future legislation should follow a set of principles, as follows:
- Immigrants should be considered with quality and quantity as stipulation for the process of assimilation.
- Legislation must consider businesses and the economy, for the well-being of all Americans.
- Health of a country is not shown by total investment, products produced, or trade, unless there is corresponding opportunity to citizens requiring ‘employment for material, mental and moral development’.
- Development of business may be done through a lower standard of living of the wage earners. A slower expansion of industry allowing for the mixing of incoming labour supply with Americans, is preferred. Rapid expansion can result in laborers of low standard emigrating to the United States. Thus, the standard of wages and conditions of employment would be negatively affected for all workers.
The Commission agreed that:
- Those with convictions for serious crimes within the first 5 years after arrival were to be deported.
- The President should appoint commissioners, who can make arrangements with other countries for copies of police records. Only once documents which prove zero convictions are produced, can a person be admitted to the US.
- Immigrant seamen to be considered under existing laws.
- An Immigrant that ‘becomes a public charge within three years’ of arrival should be deported.
- All previous recommendations should be enforced regularly, enacted by congress, specifically regarding women being imported for immoral purpose.
- A statute should be enacted which provides the enforcement of law by government officials on vessels carrying passengers at sea, for the protection of the immigrants. Sending officials to the lower decks of ships, disguised as immigrants, should be allowed to continue, under the Bureau.
- Boards of inquiry should be appointed for the purpose of judicial review of appeals and other matters.
It was also agreed that immigrants should be protected from exploitation. States were recommended to push regulations onto immigrant banks and employment was also targeted for regulation, to ensure stability. Immigrants that convinced others to send money overseas, thereby encouraging non-assimilation, were recommended deported. Finally, it was also recommended that information about opportunities for agricultural purposes be made available by states that desire more settlers, in order to attract immigrants that were willing to help with this need.
The Commission also agreed that:
- Necessity to import labour for new industries, to be reviewed by the Secretary of Commerce and Labour , when required and should determine the conditions of such labour.
- Policy that excludes Chinese labourers should be extended to East Indians, with assistance from the British Government. Japanese and Korean immigration should continue to be questioned.
- Abundant unskilled labour is damaging, therefore: Satisfactory amounts of labour were recommended excluded from the existing labour force. Furthermore, immigrants that came with no intention of becoming American citizens and plans of residence, were recommended for deportation by the relevant authority. Those to be excluded were described as 'least desirable', in reference to habits or personal qualities known to relevant authorities.
The restriction of immigrants was to be determined considering:
- Those unable to read or write.
- Quotas for each race, every year, by percentage.
- Unskilled workers accompanied by wives and families.
- Limits on the number of arrivals at ports.
- Increasing the required amount of money on such persons at the port.
- Increase of the head tax.
- Reducing the head tax of male immigrants that are skilled and with families.
Finally, they determined that reading and writing should be tested through literacy tests, as the best way to eliminate the inclusion of undesired citizens in American society. The Commission recommended that further restrictions be placed on unskilled immigrants with a literacy test to prove they would be of a sufficient educational standard to assimilate into American society. This led to the proposed bills for the new literacy test which were passed by Congress but vetoed first by William Taft in 1913 and subsequently Woodrow Wilson in 1915 (and again in 1917).
The Commission's Legacy and Impact
Benton-Cohen described the commission as 'one of the first federal agencies to employ women in professional positions', because the Commission employed around 200 women. The Commission came during a period in which women were offered very little opportunity to climb the professional ladder, and this even extended to college-educated women. Women were therefore able to have an impact on 'reform efforts', in regards to immigration, particularly focusing on 'sex trafficking, as well as the economic conditions of immigrant laborers'.
The Commission's recommendations had a substantial impact on American immigration policy. The recommendations eventually led to the introduction of literacy tests (in 1917 Congress overrode the second veto by Woodrow Wilson), the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and Johnson Reed Act of 1924. It therefore placed immigration policy firmly in the hands of the federal government, as opposed to the previous state level of enforcement. Immigration from China,Korea and Japan continued to be restricted leading to the Immigration Act of 1917 which denied entry for immigrants from Eastern Asia and the Pacific islands. The literacy test and head tax that came with this act were ineffective, preventing just 1,500 immigrants annually, from entering the country between 1918 and 1921. Following these results, a quota system designed to prevent immigration, based on nationality was enacted (The Emergency Quota Act of 1921), which meant that 3% of the amount of a particular nationality in a 1910 census, were to be permitted entry. Nativists were not satisfied by the results, culminating in the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, which would limit Europeans to 150,000 a year, zero Japanese immigrants, and 2% of every other nationality's population in the 1890 census. Immigration in America declined much more significantly after this Act was enforced, in 1929:
European immigration to the United States, 1921-1930
- 1921- approximately 800,000
- 1924 - approximately 700,000
- 1925-28 - approximately 300,000 per annum
- 1930 - less than 150,000
In 1911, the Dillingham Commission issued a 41-volume report containing statistical overviews and other analyses of topics related to immigrant occupations, living conditions, education, legislation (at the state as well as the federal level), and social and cultural organizations. A planned 42nd volume, an index of the other 41 volumes, was never issued.
- Volumes 1-2: Abstracts of Reports of The Immigration Commission, with Conclusions and Recommendations and Views of the Minority. Vol. 1
- Volume 3: Frederick Croxton. Statistical Review of Immigration, 1820-1910. Distribution of Immigrants, 1850-1900.
- Volume 4: Emigration Conditions in Europe.
- Volume 5: Daniel Folkmar, assisted by Elnora Folkmar. Dictionary of Races or People
- Volumes 6-7: W. Jett Lauck. Bituminous Coal Mining. Vol. 6 Vol. 7
- Volumes 8-9: W. Jett Lauck. Iron and Steel Manufacturing. Vol. 9
- Volume 10: W. Jett Lauck. Cotton Goods Manufacturing in the North Atlantic States; Woolen and Worsted Goods Manufacturing
- Volume 11: Silk Goods and Manufacturing and Dyeing; Clothing Manufacturing; Collar, Cuff, and Shirt Manufacturing
- Volume 12: W. Jett Lauck. Leather Manufacturing; Boot and Shoe Manufacturing; Glove Manufacturing
- Volume 13: W. Jett Lauck. Slaughtering and Meat Packing.
- Volume 14: W. Jett Lauck. Glass Manufacturing; Agricultural Implement and Vehicle Manufacturing
- Volume 15: W. Jett Lauck. Cigar and Tobacco Manufacturing; Furniture Manufacturing; Sugar Refining
- Volume 16: W. Jett Lauck. Copper Mining and Smelting; Iron Ore Mining; Anthracite Coal Mining; Oil Refining.
- Volumes 17-18: W. Jett Lauck. Diversified Industries.Washington: G.P.O., 1911. Vol. 17 Vol 18
- Volumes 19-20: W. Jett Lauck. Summary Report on Immigrants in Manufacturing and Mining. Vol. 19
- Volume 24: Alexander Cance. Recent Immigrants in Agriculture. Vol. 24 part 1 Vol. 24 part 2
- Volumes 23-25: Harry A. Millis. Japanese and Other Immigrant Races in the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain States. Vol. 23 Vol. 24 Vol. 25
- Volumes 26-27: Emanuel A. Goldenweiser. Immigrants in Cities: A Study of the Population of Selected Districts in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Buffalo, and Milwaukee. Vol. 26 Vol. 27
- Volume 28: Joseph Hill. Occupations of the First and Second Generations of Immigrants in the United States; Fecundity of Immigrant Women
- Volumes 29-33: The Children of Immigrants in Schools. Vol. 29 Vol. 30 Vol. 31 Vol. 32
- Volumes 34-35: Immigrants as Charity Seekers. Vol. 34 Vol. 35
- Volume 36: Leslie Hayford. Immigration and Crime
- Volume 37: Steerage Conditions, Importation and Harboring of Women for Immoral Purposes, Immigrant Homes and Aid Societies, Immigrant Banks
- Volume 38: Franz Boas. Changes in Bodily Form of Descendants of Immigrants.
- Volume 39: Immigration Legislation
- Volume 40: The Immigration Situation in other Countries: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Brazil
- Volume 41: Statements and Recommendations Submitted by Societies and Organizations Interested in the Subject of Immigration
- Dillingham, W.P., 'Immigrants in Industries (in Twenty-Five Parts)', Reports of the Immigration Commission, Senate Document no. 633, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, 25 (Government Printing Office, 1911), p. 2.
- Pula, James (1980). "American Immigration Policy and the Dillingham Commission". Polish American Studies. 37 (1): 5–32.
- Bernard, William (1950). American Immigration Policy - A Reappraisal. New York: Harper & Bros. p. 13.
- Ponting, Clive (2001). World History: A New Perspective. London: Pimlico. p. 701.
- Ponting, Clive (2001). World History: A New Perspective. London: Pimlico, p. 657.
- Woofter, Thomas Jackson (1933). Races and Ethnic Groups In American Life. New York. p. 31.
- Grant, Madison (1916). The Passing Of The Great Race Or The Racial Basis of European History. New York.
- Benton-Cohen, Katherine (2018). Inventing The Immigration Problem:The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy. Massachusetts.
- Cannato, Vincent (2019). "Inventing The Immigration Policy:The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy". American Historical Review. 124 (3): 1021–1024. doi:10.1093/ahr/rhz438.
- Cannato, V., "Inventing The Immigration Policy:The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy". American Historical Review 124(3) (2019), p. 1022.
- Young, J. G. (2017). "Making America 1920 Again? Nativism and US Immigration, Past and Present". Journal on Migration and Human Security. 5 (1): 223. doi:10.1177/233150241700500111. S2CID 219950261.
- Thomas, V., 'Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics: The Dilligham Commission, 1900-1927', The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 103(4) (2005), p. 808
- Thomas, V., 'Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics: The Dilligham Commission, 1900-1927', The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 103(4) (2005), p. 810
- Pula, James (1980). "American Immigration Policy and the Dillingham Commission". Polish American Studies. 37 (1): 5–31 – via JSTOR.
- Jones, P. A. (2004). Still struggling for equality : American public library services with minorities. Libraries Unlimited. p. 6. ISBN 1-59158-243-1. OCLC 56194824.
- Njai, Mae (2002). Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens And The Making Of Modern America. New Jersey. p. 115.
- Dillingham, W.P., 'Immigrants in Industries (in Twenty-Five Parts)', Reports of the Immigration Commission, Senate Document no. 633, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, 25 (Government Printing Office, 1911), p. 360.
- Dillingham, W.P., 'Immigrants in Industries (in Twenty-Five Parts)', Reports of the Immigration Commission, Senate Document no. 633, 61st Congress, 2nd Session, 25 (Government Printing Office, 1911), p. 359.
- Dillingham, W. P., et al., Brief Statement of the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Immigration Commission: With Views of the Minority (1911), p.37.
- Dillingham, W. P., et al., Brief Statement of the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Immigration Commission: With Views of the Minority (1911), p.38.
- Dillingham, W. P., et al., Brief Statement of the Conclusions and Recommendations of the Immigration Commission: With Views of the Minority (1911), p.39.
- Cannato, V.J., 'Inventing The Immigration Policy:The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy', American Historical Review. 124(3) (2019), p. 1022.
- Cannato, Vincent J. (2019-06-01). "Katherine Benton-Cohen. Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy". The American Historical Review. 124 (3): 1023. doi:10.1093/ahr/rhz438. ISSN 0002-8762.
- Young, J. G. (2017). "Making America 1920 Again? Nativism and US Immigration, Past and Present". Journal on Migration and Human Security. 5(1): p. 224
- Reports of the Immigration Commission. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911
- Katherine Benton-Cohen. Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy. Harvard University Press, 2018. 342 pp. (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-97644-3.
- Abstracts of Reports of the Immigration Commission: With Conclusions and Recommendations (1911, the official summary) online free to download
- Benton-Cohen, Katherine. "The Rude Birth of Immigration Reform". The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2010.
- Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018.
- online review
- Bernard, William. American Immigration Policy - A Reappraisal (New York, 1950).
- Cannato, Vincent. 'Inventing The Immigration Policy: The Dillingham Commission and its Legacy', American Historical Review, Vol. 124.3 (2019), pp. 1021-1024
- Grant, Madison. The Passing Of The Great Race Or The Racial Basis Of European History (New York, 1916).
- Lund, John M. "Boundaries of Restriction: The Dillingham Commission". University of Vermont History Review, vol 6 (1994)
- Ngai, Mae. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens And The Making Of Modern America (New Jersey, 2004)
- Pula, James S. "American Immigration Policy and the Dillingham Commission". Polish American Studies, vol. 37, no. 1 (1980): 5–31.
- Tichenor, Daniel. Dividing Lines:The Politics Of Immigration Control In America (New Jersey, 2002).
- Woofter, Thomas Jackson Races and Ethnic Groups In American Life (New York, 1933).
- Zeidel, Robert F. Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics: The Dillingham Commission, 1900-1927. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004.
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- Online copies of report volumes; free to download
- Dillingham Commission Reports, Harvard University online copies of 400,000+ pages from 2,200+ books, pamphlets, and magazines, and 9,600+ pages from manuscript and archival collections
- Dillingham Commission's Ranking of Immigrant Groups Affected U.S. Policy for Decades - NPR interview