The Rude Birth of Immigration Reform

The Rude Birth of Immigration Reform

Katherine Benton-Cohen

As America debates immigration reform, it is in danger of repeating the mistakes made a century ago when the flawed foundations of today’s policies were established.

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In 1908, Anna Herkner donned the tattered peasant clothing of a Bohemian immigrant and boarded a crowded steamer bound for the United States. She was shocked at what she found. In steerage, women weakened by seasickness were mauled by crew members, and some were reportedly raped. Nauseated passengers lay “in a sort of stupor” in their cramped berths. “Only the fresh breeze from the sea overcame the sickening odors. The vile language of the men, the screams of the women defending themselves, the crying of children, wretched because of their surroundings, and practically every sound that reached the ear, irritated beyond endurance. There was no sight before which the eye did not prefer to close. Everything was dirty, sticky, and disagreeable to the touch. Every impression was offensive.” Herkner’s 12-day voyage offered “abundant opportunity to weaken the body and emplant there germs of disease to develop later. . . . Surely it is not the introduction to American institutions that will tend to make them respected.”

The overcrowding on the ship would have been even worse had the financial panic of 1907 not sharply reduced immigrant crossings from the record 1.4 million of the previous year. Eighty percent of the new arrivals were, like many of Herkner’s fellow passengers, from southern and eastern Europe. But Herkner was not counted among them. She underwent her ordeal not because she was immigrating to the New World, but because she had been hired by a federal commission to study those who were. Iowa born, she held a degree in Slavic languages from the University of California, Berkeley, and had been a social worker in a Polish neighborhood in Baltimore. After three undercover journeys by sea, she wrote a report for the commission chronicling her experiences and those of nine other agents, and calling for better enforcement of American laws regulating transatlantic vessels.
The United States was in the midst of a surge of immigration that would drive the foreign-born share of the population to 14.7 percent, a level that has been rivaled, but not surpassed, only in recent times. The “new immigrants” of the early 20th century were primarily Italians, eastern European Jews, and Slavs. As a group they tended to be darker skinned, and poorer, than most previous immigrants. A small number were political radicals. More alarming to many in overwhelmingly Protestant America, most of the immigrants were Catholics or Jews. Critics questioned the newcomers’ “fitness for democracy.” Some worried that Italians would upend American race relations, because they lacked the “Anglo-Saxon repugnance” toward intermarriage with “the colored races.” Secretary of State Elihu Root compared the immigrants to “the invasion of barbarians into the Roman Empire.”
In the American West, many newcomers were Japanese, and the response was even harsher, including rigid segregation and physical as well as verbal attacks. Federal barriers to almost all Chinese immigration had been erected in 1882. One California congressman declared that the arrival of Japanese immigrants posed a “race problem as menacing as the negro problem in the South.” Anti-immigrant sentiment was not confined to one region. In 1906, a third of the letters written to members of Congress called for tighter controls on immigration.
A century later, the rhetoric is directed at different groups, but sometimes sounds similar. As Arizona’s notorious new statute highlights, national immigration reform seems just as urgent now as it did to many Americans then.
Herkner’s report was part of 41 volumes produced between 1907 and 1911 by the U.S. Immigration Commission, chaired by Senator William P. Dillingham (R-Vt.). What became known as the Dillingham Commission examined almost every imaginable aspect of the immigrant experience. Fieldworkers canvassed hundreds of factories, mills, and farms for 20 volumes of data on “immigrants in industries.” A report on “white slavery” (forced prostitution) electrified the public and prompted the passage of the Mann Act of 1910, which forbade the transport of women over state lines “for immoral purposes.” Ranging from Los Angeles to Boston, social workers and economists studied the homes, schools, and banks of immigrants, as well as the asylums and prisons that incarcerated them. Altogether, the commission spent an unprecedented $1 million, employed 300 workers, and gathered original data on some three million people. That early experience and the legislation it led to show the importance of “getting the facts” about immigration straight, but they also warn us about the creeping biases with which we approach “facts” about immigration and the need to look beyond the passions of the day toward the potential unintended consequences of the policy choices we make.
The Dillingham Commission owed its existence to a chance act of political reaction. In 1906, the San Francisco School Board started a diplomatic firestorm when it decided to segregate Japanese students, infuriating a Japanese government that was still basking in its triumph in the Russo-Japanese War. President Theodore Roosevelt and his allies used the uproar to push the Immigration Act of 1907 through Congress, omitting a much-debated provision requiring all male immigrants to be literate but giving the president authority to deny entry to people holding Japanese passports on certain technical grounds. The idea was to reduce immigration without public embarrassment to the Japanese. The commission came as part of the package, a classic Washington promise to study the problem further. In this case, however, study ultimately led to action.
The nine men appointed to the commission spanned the geographic and political spectrum. Seven were Republicans and two were Democrats, with views on immigration that were not defined by party. Roosevelt named three of the members: U.S. Commissioner of Labor Charles P. Neill, Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Labor William B. Wheeler, and Cornell University economist Jeremiah Jenks. Not one commissioner was an immigrant, and none were of southern or eastern European stock. There were no Jews. Neill, the only Catholic, was closest to the immigrant experience; his parents had been born in Ireland. Three members held Ph.D.’s—Jenks, Neill, and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (R-Mass.), who had earned Harvard’s first doctorate in political science.
Advanced education and distance from the immigrant experience were supposed to ensure the commissioners’ impartiality in an era when reformers worshiped expertise and believed that finding “objective truth” would allow them to make decisions free of political and other considerations. But what did objectivity and facts mean to these men? Jenks was president of the American Economic Association but also had published a text for YMCA adult education courses titled The Political and Social Significance of the Teachings of Jesus. Lodge was a trained social scientist, but he was also, in the words of historian John Higham, immigration’s “most dangerous adversary.” He first introduced a literacy-test bill while serving in the House in 1892; two years earlier, he had published an article purporting to “prove” that the English “race” was superior to all others.
More damaging to immigrants’ interests was the researchers’ steadfast commitment to the concept of the “American standard of living,” which sounded scientific but invited subjective judgments about how immigrants lived. On its face, the concept assumed that all jobs should pay well enough to allow a working man to own a home and support a wife and children. This standard was supposed to demonstrate the Dillingham Commission’s commitment to carrying out a study that was “chiefly” economic in character. In fact, it served mainly to let the commission recast its arguments in more seemingly acceptable terms. As one prominent magazine editor explained, “It is not the cultural deficit of a husky country lad from Croatia that threatens American standards. It is the fact that he sells his working day for less money than a family can live on.”
Cultural biases inevitably tainted the commission’s work. The “American standard of living” hid moralizing assumptions about the roles of women and men, housing choices, consumer culture, and ethics. Commission adviser H. Parker Willis, for example, said that the high percentages of immigrant women who worked for wages showed “the extent to which the immigrant has been reduced not merely personally, but in family life, to a basis of commercial exploitation.” Economist W. Jett Lauck, who oversaw the commission’s ambitious industrial studies, designed detailed surveys for his field agents to use, but left undefined such terms as “assimilation, adaptability, tractability, [and] progressiveness.” Yet one man’s assimilation can be another’s capitulation; tractability could be desirable, or synonymous with the dreaded un-American “docility” of “backward races.” Surveying the situation at a steel plant near Pittsburgh, Lauck wrote, “As to the tractability of the Slovaks, Magyars, and Croatians, there is no apparent difference. . . . The Italians, on the other hand, are thought less of than any of the more recent immigrants, and are considered treacherous and hard to control.” At another plant, however, “a very different opinion . . . is expressed.” There, Magyars and Croatians were “tractable, but none are considered very industrious.” Instead, the “Poles are considered more intelligent and industrious.” How could objective science be fashioned from such assessments?
Lauck empathized with the “American” workingmen he saw as imperiled by Slavic and Italian newcomers in the hardscrabble coal fields and steel mills of western Pennsylvania. Such enterprises were undergoing wholesale “racial displacements,” as the commission put it. Lauck later said that he had once belonged to “the sect of conservatism and thought America was a land of great opportunities, but my impression from visiting these districts . . . led me to think that . . . our democracy was pretty much of a failure.” The poverty appalled him, as did the ill education and the divisions—geographic, cultural, linguistic, and economic—between Americans and new immigrants.
Lauck had been trained as an economist at the University of Chicago, but he was also one of eight children born to a West Virginia railroad engineer. His strong identification with “American workers” like his father propelled him toward the conclusion that “our industrial system has become saturated with an alien unskilled labor force of low standards, which so far has been impossible to assimilate industrially, socially, or politically, and which has broken down American standards of work and compensation.”
Then as now, however, even apparently solid evidence that immigrants displaced large numbers of native-born workers was actually quite tenuous. In 1912, an economist and Russian Jewish émigré named Isaac Hourwich used the commission’s own data to show that Italians, Bohemians, and Slovaks were not taking native-born workers’ jobs; rather, by taking low-wage jobs, they were pushing more-experienced American workers into better positions. Furthermore, the newcomers were making the raw materials and industrial products of a capitalist economy cheaper for consumers. In this sense, they might have been good for the American standard of living.
The Dillingham Commission operated under the sweeping assumption that the federal government had the right to create immigration policies enforceable on its own shores, on the open seas, and at foreign ports. At least in the domestic sphere, this assertion of authority was built on a relatively recent foundation. Until the 1880s, individual states had crafted immigration policies, though by 1907 the federal government’s right to regulate immigration was well established. The commissioners, however, had even bigger ideas. They grasped immigration’s global nature, and understood it in the framework of the imperialistic ambition found in many quarters in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. They had no compunction about reaching far into Europe to study and shape immigration policy. Lodge was the Senate’s grand lion of imperialism, and Dillingham, though a less polarizing figure, was just as fervent. The most prominent staff members of the commission had designed government programs in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, two colonies acquired as a result of the recent war. Yet some of the “immigration problem” was a direct result of imperialism: Japanese immigration had increased when Hawaii became American soil, and thus a stepping-stone between Asia and California. The world was coming to the United States, and the United States was reaching out to the world.
As the brouhaha over segregation in San Francisco illustrated, immigration could not be viewed solely in terms of its domestic implications, and the commission was willing to cast a wide net. Five members, accompanied by their wives, spent several months in Europe investigating emigrants’ villages and exit ports and consulting with officials. In 1909 Dillingham sailed to Hawaii, a U.S. colony since 1898, to examine Japanese immigration there. (Not surprisingly, when the commission requested additional appropriations in 1909, these junkets were lambasted on the House floor.) Ultimately, the aim was to harmonize the laws of other nations with those of the United States. The Immigration Act of 1907 had authorized Roosevelt to create an international commission to fashion global immigration and emigration policies. But, as would occur many times in the future, the imperatives of domestic politics in the United States had already scotched any prospects for international cooperation. With their people barred from American shores, for example, the governments of Japan and China could hardly be expected to join in cooperative efforts.
The Dillingham Commission presented its massive reports to Congress in installments throughout late 1910 and 1911. Few people, if any, read them in their entirety. Instead, readers focused on the first volume, with its concise 40-page summary and recommendations. The imprimatur of objectivity gave to these recommendations the hard gleam of “fact.” As The New York Times put it, the commission had shown that “aliens are not being, and cannot be assimilated—cannot be, that is, unless some check is placed upon their continued influx.”
Among the recommendations were a literacy test, a permanent bar to Asian immigration, “legislation restricting the further admission of . . . unskilled labor,” and some sort of quota system. Dillingham and fellow commission member Representative John L. Burnett (D-Ala.), who chaired the Senate and House committees on immigration, respectively, immediately introduced bills based on the recommendations. The literacy test passed both houses three times. President William Howard Taft vetoed it once, Woodrow Wilson twice. Both men worried about its fairness and constitutionality, and the reactions of immigrant voters. By 1917, recession and world war had slowed immigration, but Congress finally passed the literacy test, over Wilson’s second veto.
As isolationist sentiment resurged after World War I, resistance to immigration did likewise. In 1921, Vice President Calvin Coolidge addressed American housewives (who had won the right to vote only the year before) in a Good Housekeeping article with the telltale title, “Whose Country Is This?” His verdict was clear: “Measured practically, it would be suicidal for us to let down the bars for the inflowing of cheap manhood, just as, commercially, it would be unsound for this country to allow her markets to be overflooded with cheap goods, the product of cheap labor. There is no room either for the cheap man or the cheap goods.”
That year, Congress passed the first quotas on immigration in U.S. history; three years later, it made the restrictions even tighter. The quotas were based on the distribution of national origins in the U.S. population found in the 1890 Census—before the rush of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. After 1929, a tiny quota of 150,000 would be shared by all Europeans (Canadians and Mexicans were exempted as were wives and children of U.S. citizens). This had the effect of cutting immigration to about one-tenth of its level in 1908 when Anna Herkner had made her voyage. For Asians, the restrictions were even more severe. The same 1917 law that had imposed a literacy test on immigrants also created an “Asiatic barred zone,” closing the door to virtually all Asians, and made those who were already in the United States ineligible for citizenship.
In the heated debates during the early 20th century, few people gave much thought to the longer-term consequences of restricting immigration, but these were many and profound. African Americans had already begun what became known as the Great Migration from the South to replace immigrants in northern and midwestern factories during World War I, and their numbers increased as quotas dried up the supply of foreign-born labor. Black ghettos replaced Italian and Jewish ones. Deprived of new arrivals from the Old Country, immigrant groups retained their distinctive cultural and religious traditions, but these inevitably changed to accommodate American mores. The immigrants and their descendants began to see commonalities with people of other European origins, and contrasted themselves with African Americans. In a sense, the immigration restrictions consolidated the category of “white,” as national and ethnic labels lost their force.
At the same time, the quotas ensured an increase in Mexican immigration, an issue the Dillingham Commission had not thought important enough to address in any of its final recommendations. The United States did not even count immigrants arriving across land borders until 1908. In 1917, employers in the Southwest lobbied for an exemption for Mexicans in the literacy law, and immigrants from the Western Hemisphere were not subject to the quotas of the 1920s. Mexicans began to come in larger numbers to fill agricultural and industrial jobs once occupied by Chinese, Japanese, and European workers. Some were technically “illegal,” a status that before had applied almost solely to Chinese.
The “immigration problem” the Dillingham Commission identified and studied a century ago differs from the one the United States faces today, but the commission unwittingly did a great deal to help create our current difficulties. The strict quotas gave those who yearned to come to America few choices—a dilemma the people in steerage class with Herkner never had to face. The laws recommended by the Dillingham Commission created the United States’ modern immigration framework, which has been renovated—most comprehensively in 1965, when the national-origins quotas and literacy test were abolished, and 1986—but never dismantled.
Today, many Americans are concerned about the racial background of immigrants, their impact on political and cultural institutions, and their threat to, yes, the “American standard of living.” These concerns echo those that motivated the Dillingham study. But the results of the commission’s work—strict quotas, bad social science about “racial displacements,” and unforeseen consequences—might give us pause. The Dillingham Commission thought a lot more about how to exclude immigrants than how to incorporate them.
Many people today believe we need a quota system that can be adjusted in response to economic conditions—an idea considered but rejected during the Dillingham era. We also need a flexible frame of mind in which to understand today’s immigrants—not as “an invasion of barbarians,” as Elihu Root saw them, but as Americans in the making. The immigrants who so frightened the commission indeed became Americans; they birthed a large portion of the generation that fought in World War II and helped create the nation’s postwar prosperity.
Today, the challenge of crafting an immigration policy free of unintended consequences remains. The lessons of the Dillingham Commission suggest it will not be easy.

Read a letter from Douglas S. Massey received in response to this article.

About the Author

Katherine Benton-Cohen is an assistant professor of history at Georgetown University and the author of Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (2009). As a 2009–10 fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center, she worked on a book about the Dillingham Commission.

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