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Usos y Costumbres

The Dillingham Commission: A History of Restrictive Immigration

Por Anna Sones
December 2017
In mid-November, an appeals court in California allowed for part of Trump’s immigration ban to take effect. The decision stated that the government can prohibit immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries. It’s one more headline in the series of damaging immigration legislation we’ve seen from the current administration. It isn’t new, however; immigration law in the United States has a long, complex history regarding the exclusion of immigrants. Much of the current legislation can be linked to a project undertaken a century ago, the Dillingham Commission.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the US population was growing precipitously. The majority of people lived in overcrowded cities, and they had new stresses to dealt with. Street riots and fear of communism ran rampant, and the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 left the country in shock. People sought a scape goat for the chaos, leading to a growth in nativism, an ideology that prioritized the interests of already-established Americans. Between 1901 and 1910, nearly 9,000,000 immigrants arrived in the US, and they suffered the blame for all of these crises.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt passed the Immigration Act of 1907. A key component of this act was the Dillingham Commission, also known as the US Immigration Commission. Its purpose was to assess the effects of immigration growth in the country. It consisted of members of the House and Congress, a handful of unelected representatives, and hundreds of analysts and experts on immigration and industry. Some members had political motivations, while others did not. Joel Perlmann, professor at Bard’s Levy Institute of Economics, says in his paper on immigration in the era, that there was “a diversity of views about the meaning of the race [statistics].”

This team worked together to create a monumental 41-volume report. The most famous volume is number 5, the Dictionary of Races and Peoples. It used simplistic categories to compile a detailed list of every race in the world and its characteristics. It influenced how those races were seen for decades. According to Professor Perlmann, the Dictionary “remained in use for fully half a century” and “came close to being adapted for the United States decennial Census” due to a proposal to use the same categories to define races; in the end the proposal was rejected.

The Commission also focused on the difference between “old immigrants” from Northern and Western Europe, and “new immigrants” from Eastern and Southern Europe and anywhere else. People from the first group were associated with the religion and culture of established Americans; they were normally tall and fair, Protestants who already had family or money upon arriving in the country. On the other hand, people from the second group tended to be uneducated and unskilled, practicing different customs and religions, with very little money and dark features. The report was finished in 1911 and concluded that “new immigrants” posed a huge threat to the wellbeing of the country, and thus their entry should be restricted. This measure is strikingly similar to those of today, and it was not the only one of its kind.

In the following years, various immigration laws were passed. In 1913, the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization was established. The Immigration Act of 1917 banned the entry of Asians and Pacific Islanders. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act reduced immigration quotas even further, and the Border Patrol was established that same year.

While we witness the creation of a new age of legislation and protect a new generation of immigrants, we must remember that the Dillingham Commission was not the first instance of restrictive legislation that was prejudiced towards certain races, and it would not be the last. It was not the beginning or the end of the immigration discussion in this country. Furthermore, according to Professor Perlmann, “the centrality of racial concerns to immigration restriction… remain in contention.” However, the importance of the Dillingham Commission is that it clearly reflects the position of the country towards immigrants during that time, and it influenced the direction it would go in the future.

Further Reading:
“Dillingham Commission.” Immigration to the United States, 2015,                               

Perlmann, Joel. “Views of European Races among the Research Staff of the US Immigration
            Commission and the Census Bureau, Ca. 1910.” Levy Economics Institute of Bard                      
            College, Jan. 2011,

Benton-Cohen, Katherine. Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and
            Its Legacy. Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2018.

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