Dillingham Commission's Ranking Of Immigrant Groups Affected U.S. Policy For Decades

As momentum grows for immigration reform, Audie Cornish takes a look back in time at another moment when the country was grappling with its immigrant population. In the early 1900s, the Dillingham Commission was mandated by Congress to undertake a massive study of immigrants. We take a look at the 1911 report with Senate Associate Historian Betty Koed. Its conclusions led the country to prioritize certain immigrants over others. We explore how those findings still reverberate today with Richard Alba, a professor of sociology who has spent decades studying the immigrant experience.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to go back in time now, more than 100 years, to another moment when the country was struggling with how to manage its immigrant population. In the early 1900s, immigrants were pouring into American cities. Lawmakers fretted over assimilation, urban poverty and crime. So Congress did what it does best: It created a bipartisan commission to sort it all out. The results: one of the largest investigative surveys Congress ever conducted, a massive report on the American immigrant population

BETTY KOED: Well, it says here that a commission is hereby created consisting of three senators...

CORNISH: That's Betty Koed, associate historian for the Senate. I visited her in her Capitol Hill office. On a library card set, what's known as the Dillingham Commission report, more than 40 dusty, fabric-bound volumes, spines imprinted in gold lettering with the dates 1909, 1910 and 1911. It looks like a set of encyclopedias, and it took a small army of researchers to pull together.

KOED: This is part of the progressive era. And the progressive era was in love with social science. They thought in social science they will discover the solutions to modern society's problems.

CORNISH: The commission conducted hundreds of surveys: immigrants in agriculture, in schools, in mining, in crime.

KOED: This is one on the iron and steel manufacturing. There are things in glass manufacturing, soap goods, cotton mills...

CORNISH: Stats, door-to-door surveys, you name it. Lawmakers wanted to figure out who could and should be welcomed on American shores. There is even a dictionary of racial definitions. But the word race, as Koed says, had a different connotation then.

KOED: When we use the word race in modern parlance, we think of white, African-American, Asian-American, that type of thing. But back in 1907, when the commission began their work, when they were talking about racial differences, they were thinking about the differences between Greeks and Italians or the differences between Germans and Irish, that type of thing.

CORNISH: And in the thinking of the time, some of those so-called races were considered inferior to others. The Dillingham Commission was motivated by a sense of urgency about America's growing immigrant population. Now, the words congressional panel may not sound, well, urgent. Senate historian Betty Koed calls the mood...

KOED: Studied panic. There's certainly a panic about immigration by 1907, 1908, and that's partly because the numbers are very high, more than a million immigrants coming in, mostly settling in urban centers. And so for the first time, really, in the early 20th century, the U.S. is facing problems that many policymakers had already - had always thought were an old-world problem, problems of urban poverty. So there's a sense of that - there's a sense of losing control, but there's also at the same time this great confidence and hope that if we study the problems carefully and we apply all these wonderful new sciences we have that we can solve the problem by policymaking.

CORNISH: Of course, now, we can look back and say with confidence the problem was not solved. So listen carefully to some of the Dillingham Commission's conclusions.

KOED: Number one, while the American people, as in the past, welcome the oppressed of other lands, care should be taken that immigration be such both in quality and quantity as not to make it too difficult to process assimilation. So that's their principal concern. The number has to be manageable. It has to be an immigration that is literate and can bring something to society.

CORNISH: In the next decade or so, these principles form the basis of the country's first broad-based immigration restrictions, for instance, in 1917 a literacy test to ensure immigrants had at least some schooling. 1921 and then 1924, a quota system which severely limited the numbers and kinds of people who could enter the country. Now, all this may sound antiquated, but the Dillingham report is still worth considering today as policymakers try to solve today's immigration issues. After I left Betty Koed's Senate office, I spoke with Richard Alba. He's a professor of sociology who studies the immigrant experience.

RICHARD ALBA: I think the kind of thinking that undergirds the Dillingham Commission report that we can, if you will, rank groups in terms of their desirability, in terms of their ability to assimilate, that kind of thinking is still present and I think is likely to shape, in one way or another, the legislation that presumably is going to be proposed by the president and considered by the Congress in the near future.

CORNISH: So is there language of the Dillingham report, do you think, that kind of echoes the kinds of language that we use today in the debate over immigration?

ALBA: Well, I think the Dillingham Commission report was certainly focused on the question of whether the chances of immigrants to assimilate into the American mainstream - and they didn't use the word mainstream but that was really what they meant - and also today a lot of Americans think in terms of the ability of immigrants to assimilate into the American mainstream. You know, for example, it wasn't very long ago that the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington published his book "Who Are We?," which argued that Latin American immigrants are failing to assimilate into the United States.

CORNISH: Richard Alba, I get the sense that people look at the Dillingham report with a kind of suspicion as though somehow these ideas are tainted. And I didn't know if you've got that sense as well. I mean, is it something people look...

ALBA: Well, they are tainted. I mean, they were overtly racist.

(LAUGHTER)

ALBA: I mean, there can be little question about the, you know, the importance of scientific racism in the early 20th century and the degree to which it shaped the thinking that went into the Dillingham Commission report. And we are not as racist today, but that doesn't mean that we are altogether free of this kind of thinking that some groups are superior as immigrants than other groups are.

CORNISH: In your sense, are we learning anything? You know, the commission at the time or...

ALBA: We could learn a lot more. One thing that concerns me is that we may not be confident enough about our own ability to integrate the children of the new immigrants, including the children coming from the homes of undocumented immigrants. You know, I think if we look back after World War II, the United States invested really in education in a way that opened up opportunities for these groups, and they really took advantage of them. And I think we need to remember that history and to recognize that we can invest in education again in a way that will speed the integration of the children of today's immigrants.

CORNISH: Richard Alba, when you - I don't know your personal history, but when you look back at this kind of history, do you wonder where you would fit in? I mean, is there anything that you kind of take away about how we look at our own family histories when you look at a report like this?

ALBA: Yeah. Sure. That's a good question. Well, actually, you know, I'm the grandson of southern Italian immigrants, at least, on my father's side. And my grandfather was illiterate, and I'm a university professor. And, you know, I think that's a kind of remarkable accomplishment. And I want to find ways to open up those pathways for the descendants of new immigrants. And I believe we can.

CORNISH: Richard Alba, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALBA: Thank you, Audie. I enjoyed our conversation.

CORNISH: Richard Alba studies immigration. He's a professor of sociology at The City University of New York's Graduate Center.

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CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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