Dillingham Commission

Identification: Joint congressional committee formed to study immigration

Date: Operated from 1907 to 1911

Also known as: U.S. Immigration Commission

Significance: The forty-one volumes of statistical material on immigration eventually published by the Dillingham Commission contained a wealth of information that provided support for limiting immigration, thereby helping lead to passage of the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921 and the Immigration Act of 1924.

During the late nineteenth century, the United States underwent a period of rapid industrialization that required an expanding work force. Immigration supplied much of the new labor needs, and the country’s foreign-born population grew rapidly between 1880 and 1914. Although most Americans thought of themselves as belonging to a nation of farms and small towns, the newest arrivals were predominantly big-city dwellers. New York, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Chicago held the largest immigrant settlements in the United States. By 1910, 79 percent of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and 68 percent of those from northern and western Europe lived in American cities. The numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had also been increasing most rapidly, a matter of concern to some native-born Americans. In 1860, only 1.2 percent of foreignborn residents of the United States had come from the southern and eastern countries; by 1910, that proportion had grown to 37.5 percent of the foreign-born.

Background to the Commission

Densely concentrated in the growing cities and distinctly alien in the eyes of many American officials and older American citizens, the new immigrants seemed to represent a problem to groups such as the Immigration Restriction League of Boston. The trend in political and social thinking known as Progressivism contributed to concerns over immigration, because many Progressives believed that solving social problems such as alcoholism, poverty, urban slums, and poor education required improving the human stock of the United States, and they saw continuing immigration as contributing to civic decay. Creating a culturally more unified nation was part of the Progressive ideology. Some political leaders argued that immigrants were flooding into the country in such great numbers that the newcomers could not be assimilated. Progressives also believed that social problems could be solved by the careful scientific analysis of experts.

The desire to bring immigration under control led the U.S. Congress to pass the Immigration Act of 1907. This legislation updated earlier immigration laws and—consistent with Progressive goals ofimproving the American population—excluded persons classified as physically and mentally defective. Section 39 of the 1907 law established a ninemember commission, made up equally of members of the Senate, members of the House of Representatives, and presidential appointees. The task of the commission was to undertake a full examination of the issue of immigration and to prepare a detailed report of its findings, with recommendations for future action, for the U.S. Congress.

Makeup and Mission of the Commission

The U.S. senators on the U.S. Immigration Commission established in 1907 were Republican William P. Dillingham of Vermont, Republican Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, and Democrat Asbury Latimer of South Carolina. After Latimer died in 1908, he was replaced by Mississippi Democratic senator LeRoy Percy. Dillingham chaired the commission, which became known by his name. New Jersey Republican Benjamin F. Howell, New York Republican William S. Bennet, and Alabama Democrat John L. Burnett made up the trio of members from the House of Representatives.

President Theodore Roosevelt appointed three experts to guide the investigation. Jeremiah Jenks, who later summarized the commission’s findings in a book he coauthored with W. Jett Lauck, was a professor, academic researcher, attorney, and respected writer on social and political issues. Charles P. Neill was a former professor of political economy who had entered into public administration. The president’s third appointee, William Wheeler, was a prominent California businessman.

Members of the commission were generally suspicious of immigration from the beginning, and their preconceptions guided their investigations. Nevertheless, they engaged in detailed and intensive research. In May, 1907, Dillingham, Bennet, Burnett, Howell, Latimer, and Wheeler went to Europe with a commission staff to study the sources of European immigration to the United States. They visited most of the countries that had sent immigrants to the United States and interviewed 108 former immigrants who had returned to theirhome countries. Within the United States, the commission amassed and organized a vast range of statistics on immigration and immigrants under the direction of Neill and Jenks. The commission also sponsored the research of anthropologist Franz Boas, who looked at the changes thought to have occurred in the bodies of immigrants and their children. Boas argued that these changes could be taken as physical evidence of the degree of assimilation of immigrants in American society.

Findings of the Commission

The Dillingham Commission concluded its work in 1911. Its official final report filled forty-one volumes and formed a virtual encyclopedia of immigration. The commission presented its conclusions and recommendations in the first volume. The most notable conclusion was that the heavy southern and eastern European immigration of recent years had posed a serious danger to American society by bringing in large numbers of people who were dramatically different from the older stock of European Americans and who could not be assimilated. The report recommended much more restrictive immigration policies. It also suggested literacy tests to raise the education levels of new settlers.

The Immigration Problem, the summary book based on the report first published by Jenks and Lauck in 1911, is still available in many libraries. It offers an excellent portrait of immigration in the early twentieth century and an illuminating example of how American officials of that era saw immigration.

The findings of the Dillingham Commission helped steer American legislation. In 1917, Congress passed a new law that not only barred all immigrants from a vast zone in Asia but also expanded categories of admissible preexisting immigrant communities and made literacy a requirement for admission for all immigrants above the age of sixteen. In 1921, the Congress enacted the Emergency Immigration Act, which attempted to limit numbers of southern and eastern Europeans by pegging the number of immigrants permitted from each country at 3 percent of the number of people from that country who had been living in the United States in 1910. The Immigration Act of 1924 made American policy even more restrictive by setting the national quotas at 2 percent of the number of people from each country living in the United States in 1890.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

  • Gould, Lewis L. America in the Progressive Era, 1890- 1914. Harlow, England: Pearson, 2001. Stimulating history of the United States during the era of its heaviest immigration from Europe—the same era during which the Dillingham Commission undertook its investigation. 
  • Jenks, JeremiahW., andW. Jett Lauck. The Immigration Problem: A Study of American Immigration Conditions and Needs. 6th ed. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1926. One-volume summary of the Dillingham Commission’s official forty-one volume report containing the most important findings of the commission. 
  • Zeidel, Robert F. Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics: The Dillingham Commission, 1900- 1927. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004. Objective modern scholarly study of the work of the Dillingham Commission that assesses its role in bringing about the restrictive immigration laws of the following years. 

See also: Center for Immigration Studies; Congress, U.S.; History of immigration after 1891; Immigration Act of 1907; Immigration Act of 1917; Immigration Act of 1921; Immigration Act of 1924; Language issues; Literacy tests; Progressivism; Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.

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