The Dillingham Commission and the “Immigration Question,” 1907−1921

Newly arrived immigrants in waiting room at Ellis Island, New York, 1907 (Library of Congress)The Dillingham Commission played a pivotal role in the formation of American immigration policy, notably the establishment of general exclusion as an overarching principle. Created by Congress in 1907 as a compromise between restrictionists and their critics, the Commission exemplified the Progressive Era’s quest for social reform by seeking to find practical solutions to the so-called immigration problem. Yet it also showed how emotional responses can trump expertise. Members and their staff conducted an extensive three-year investigation of American immigration, compiling the results in forty-one volumes of reports. The findings generally portrayed immigrants, including the often maligned southern and eastern Europeans, as having contributed favorably to the United States. Nonetheless, in the hands of restrictionists, the Commission’s recommendations would contribute to the passage of the 1917 Literacy Test Act and the 1921 Quota Act.

Changes wrought by industrialization, which focused attention on late nineteenth-century immigrants, set the stage for the Commission’s inquiry. Concerns about foreigners centered on their growing numbers and their disparate places of origin. Economic opportunity attracted millions of immigrants from all parts of Europe, Asia, and Mexico. Their sheer volume dismayed many Americans, and their ethnic diversity intensified fears about their ability to assimilate and contribute to the American republic. Apprehension led to calls for more extensive exclusions. Chinatown Declared a Nuisance!, pamphlet published by the Workingmen’s Party of California accusing Chinese immigrants of competing unfairly for jobs and creating unhealthy living conditions, 1880 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC06232.03)Congress in 1882 acted to proscribe Chinese laborers and thereafter passed additional statutes to prohibit the entry of specifically defined undesirables, such as criminals and those afflicted with contagious diseases. Most aliens, however, freely could enter the United States.

By the 1890s, vocal xenophobes wanted more stringent limitations. The Immigration Restriction League’s constitution succinctly stated their demands for the enactment of new policies to bar foreign “elements undesirable for citizenship and injurious to our national character.”[1] Seeking to craft an effective method, economist Edward W. Bemis broached the idea of a literacy test, which would exclude any “single person over sixteen and no man over that age who cannot read and write his own language.”[2] The proposal quickly gained favor and fostered extensive congressional deliberation.

For ten years prior to the creation of the Dillingham Commission, lawmakers debated the literacy test’s propriety. The measure proved to be divisive, and when proponents in 1897 garnered enough support to pass such a bill, President Grover Cleveland vetoed it. Present conditions, he asserted, did not warrant its passage, nor did its specifics offer constructive modifications to existing immigration laws. Test supporters lacked the votes for an override, and subsequent efforts to pass a similar bill came to naught. Finally, in 1907, advocates believed that they were on the verge of success.

Instead, Congress voted to create a nine-member investigatory commission, equally composed of senators, representatives, and outside experts appointed by the President. Statutory language charged them with making “a full inquiry, examination, and investigation” of all aspects of American immigration and reporting to Congress its findings, along with such recommendations “as in its judgment may seem proper.”[3] In addition to substituting fact-finding for new restrictions, the commission bill also addressed a growing controversy involving the expulsion of Japanese students from “white” San Francisco schools. A provision of the commission bill placated West Coast anti-Asian bigotry by barring “coolie labor” from the US, without any specific mention of Japanese immigrants.

Commission members’ preexisting attitudes toward immigration varied considerably. Senator William P. Dillingham, 1904 (Library of Congress)For example, Senator William P. Dillingham, from whom the officially titled US Immigration Commission took its popular appellation, held moderately restrictionist views, but he also championed alternatives, such as better distribution of foreign arrivals. Fellow senator Henry Cabot Lodge had established himself as a leading restrictionist spokesman, while Representative William S. Bennet championed the perpetuation of America’s open-door policies. Other commissioners held either generally moderate or not well-publicized views about aliens in the United States.

Social sciences, then emerging as distinct fields of knowledge, figured prominently in the Commission’s study. Numerous contributors had extensive training in social science disciplines. For example, Commissioner Jeremiah Jenks held a PhD in political economy and previously had served as an expert advisor to the US Industrial Commission. Staffer W. Jett Lauck, also a political economist, led the Commission’s study of “Immigrants in Industry,” the findings of which comprised fourteen volumes of the final reports. Finally, Franz Boas, America’s premier anthropologist, undertook Commission-sponsored study of “changes in bodily form” to see if immigrants and their children experienced physiological changes after coming to United States. When his findings showed that they had changed, he viewed it as an endorsement of America’s ability to assimilate diverse “types.”

The Commission’s findings were presented in forty-one volumes of reports. Twenty volumes covered W. Jett Lauck’s study of immigrant workers in virtually every major American industry, and other volumes addressed foreigners’ presence in urban areas, their children’s educational patterns, and Boas’s study of “Changes in Bodily Form.” Thousands of charts and graphs indicate the researchers’ penchant for statistical analysis. Commenting on urban congestion, the Commission found that immigrants initially tended to live in densely populated neighborhoods, but thereafter many dispersed to less crowded locations. Volumes covering education presented a mass of statistics, but little analysis. Boas, conversely, made clear how his data challenged prevalent beliefs about immigrants’ immutable negative physiology. While the investigators’ methodologies and results warrant scrutiny, the depth and breadth of the findings do indicate the Commission’s efforts to conduct an objective inquiry.

While the commissioners intended the reports to provide a compendium of information to government officials and the general public, two introductory volumes containing abstracts of the subsequent reports and recommendations attracted primary attention. The forty-page introduction to Volume 1, written by Commission Secretary William W. Husband, emphasized the investigation’s positive findings about immigrants, particularly the “new” arrivals from southern and eastern Europe who had predominated in recent years. Current laws worked well, ensuring the entrance of women and men who were “as a rule . . . the strongest, the most enterprising, and the best of their class.” General guidelines, prepared by Jeremiah Jenks, thereafter emphasized the importance of limiting future immigration to such “quantity and quality as not to make too difficult the process of assimilation.” Generally endorsing restriction, Jenks stressed that admission standards should be based on the need to protect “the prosperity and economic well-being of our people,” not negativity toward the newcomers.[4]

At the urging of Senator John Burnett, and only after contentious debate, the Commission then added the specific endorsement of the literacy test. Commissioners first voted to avoid recommending a specific method and instead supported a generic call for exclusions as needed to protect the nation’s economic and social well-being. Burnett persisted, and eventually all of the commissioners except William Bennet agreed to recommend the literacy test as the “single most feasible” means of restriction. Ambiguous wording left unclear if this was a call for Congress immediately to enact the test. Uncertainty revolved round the question of whether the Commission believed that the present state of immigration threatened American prosperity, which would justify the literacy test’s prompt passage.

Letter from Minnesota representative James Manahan to A. G. Johnson opposing the literacy test stipulated in the Burnett immigration bill as discriminatory and unfair, January 15, 1914 (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC09518.02)Literacy test supporters ignored the nuances, as well as the reports’ generally favorable portrayal of immigrants, and asserted that the Commission had endorsed the literacy test. The campaign for its enactment lasted another six years, during which time Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson vetoed such bills. In 1917, Congress overrode Wilson’s second veto and passed a bill requiring most immigrants to be able to read or write in some language. Advocates who petitioned the President included Jeremiah Jenks and William Husband.

The Commission’s recommendations also listed potential new restrictions, including the limitations based on a percentage of the number of each “nationality,” or ethnic group, living in the United States. When the vetoes threatened to scuttle the literacy test, Senator Dillingham directed Husband to prepare a more detailed quota proposal. Husband used the 1910 Census to devise a plan, using a relatively high percentage of those living in the US to set the quotas and proposing quotas for Asians. While he admitted that the quotas would affect the “new” European groups more than the “old,” he predicated this on their larger current presence among immigrants, rather than presumptions about their inherent negative qualities and their negative effect on the American republic.

In 1921, Congress drafted a more draconian measure. It lowered the multiplier to 3 percent of a group’s residents, and instead of using the 1920 Census, which would have been more favorable to the new immigrants, it stayed with the 1910 Census. It also denied quotas to Asians. Interestingly, the quota system exempted Western Hemisphere immigrants. Subsequent revision, in 1924, would use even smaller allotments. Especially telling was that many quota advocates openly stated their dislike of the so-called new immigrants, arguing that their presence adversely affected a mythical “American” quality of life.

The US Immigration Commission tried to complete its charge by conducting a full and objective study of American immigration. Its findings, while incidentally critical of some aliens, generally portrayed immigrants favorably. Recommendations acknowledged conditions that would warrant greater restrictions but tried to base the rationale on enlightened principles. Unfortunately, given the era’s heightened xenophobia, extremists highjacked the investigation and twisted the results to advance their anti-immigrant agenda.


[1] Robert D. Ward, “An Immigration Restriction League,” Century 49 (February 1895):639, and Immigration Restriction League, Constitution of the Immigration Restriction League (Boston, ca. 1894), 1.

[2] Edward W. Bemis, “Restriction of Immigration,” Andover Review 9 (March 1888): 252.

[3] Memorandum for the Secretary [of Commerce and Labor], April 14, 1909, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85/File 53108/70, National Archives, Washington DC.

[4] [US Immigration Commission], Reports of the Immigration Commission: Abstracts of Reports of the Immigration Commission, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911), 25 and 45–48.


Robert Zeidel is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin–Stout. His research focuses on immigration and Americans’ reactions to foreign arrivals during the era of industrialization between 1865 and 1927. His published works include Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics: The Dillingham Commission, 1900–1927 (Northern Illinois University Press, 2004).