The “Good” and “Bad” Immigrant

By Erin Suh

How does prejudice become policy? The Dillingham Commission, or the United States Congressional Joint Immigration Commission, was a committee headed by Senator William Paul Dillingham from 1907-1911. It was authorized by Congress on immigration in the US and published a report providing data that later backed immigration quotas and restrictions. The commission as an example of how eugenics were used to push for xenophobic legislation, reflecting the belief that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, or “new immigrants”, were less desirable than “old immigrants” from Western and Northern Europe, as well as the opposition towards Asian immigrants.

Below are two passages from the commission’s report. The first maligns “new immigration” by using stereotypes to support their claims, calling them unassimilable and less intelligent. The second passage spells out some of the recommendations of the report based on their “findings.” The distinction between good and bad immigrants to advocate for policy is a strategy used not just by Dillingham, but by others like the Immigration Restriction League and Harry Laughlin of the same era.

Plan and scope of the inquiry 

During the fiscal year 1907, in which the Commission was created, a total of 1,285,849 immigrants were admitted to the United States. Of this number 1,297,619 were from Europe, including Turkey in Asia, and of these 979,631, or 81 per cent; came from the southern and eastern countries, comprising Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Greece, Itay, Montenegro, Poland, Portugal, Roumania, Russia, Servia, Spain, Turkey in Europe, and Turkey in Asia.

Twenty-five years earlier, in the fiscal year 1882, 648186 European immigrants came to the United States, and of these only 84,973, 13.1 per cent, came from the countries above enumerated, while 563,213, or 86.9 per cent, were from Belgium, Great Britain and Ireland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Switzerland, which countries furnished about 95 per cent of the immigtion movement from Europe to the United States between 1819 and 1883. During the entire period for which statistics are available–July 1, 1819, to June 30, 1910–a total of 25,528,410 European immigrants, including 106,481 from Turkey in Asia, were admitted to the United States, Of these, 16,052,900, or 62.9 per cent, came from the northern and western countries enumerated, and 9.475.510, or 37.1 per cent, from southern and eastern Europe and Turkey in Aia. For convenience the former movement will be. referred to in the Commission’s reports as the “old immigration” and the latter as the “new immigration.” The old and the new immigration differ in many essentials. The former was, from the beginning, largely a movement of settlers who came from the most progressive sections of Europe for the purpose of making for themselves homes in the New World. They entered practically every line of activity in nearly every part of the country. Coming during a period of agricultural development, many of them entered agricultural pursuits, sometimes as independent farmers, but more often as farm laborers, who nevertheless, as a rule soon became landowners. They formed an important part of the great movement toward the West during the last century, and as pioneers were most factors in the development of the territory between the Allegheny Mountains and  the Pacific coast. They mingled freely with the native Americans and were quickly assimilated, although a large portion of them, particularly in later years, belonged to non-English-speaking races. This natural bar to assimilation, however, was soon overcome by them, while the racial identity of their children was almost entirely lost and forgotten.

On the other hand, the new immigration has been largely a movement of unskilled laboring men who have come, in large part temporarily, from the less progressive and advanced countries of Europe in response to the call for industrial workers in eastern and middle western States. They have almost entirely avoided agricultural pursuits, and in cities and industrial communities have congregated together in sections apart from native Americans and the older immigrants to such an extent that assimilation has been slow as compared to that of the earlier non-English-speaking races. 

The new immigration as a class is far less intelligent than the old, approximately one-third of all those over 14 years of age when admitted being illiterate. Racially they are or the most part essentially unlike the British, Qerman, and other peoples came during the period prior to 1880, and generally speaking they are actuated in coming by different ideals, for the old immigration came to be a part of the country, while the new, in a large measure, comes with the intention of profiting, in a pecuniary way, by the superior advantages of the new world and then returning to the old country.



It is desirable in making the restriction that- 

  1. A sufficient number be debarred to produce a marked effect upon the present supply of unskilled labor. 
  2. As far as possible, the aliens excluded should be those who come to this country with no intention to become American citizens or even to maintain a permanent residence here, but merely to save enough, by the adoption, if necessary, of low standards of living, to return permanently to their home country. Such persons are usually men unaccompanied by wives or children. 
  3. As far as possible the aliens excluded should also be those who, by reason of their personal qualities or habits, would least readily be assimilated or would make the least desirable citizens. 

The following methods of restricting immigration have been suggested: 

  1. The exclusion of those unable to read or write in some language. 
  2. The limitation of the number of each race arriving each year to a certain percentage of the average of that race arriving during a given period of years. 
  3. The exclusion of unskilled laborers unaccompanied by wives or families.
  4. The limitation of the number of immigrants arriving annually at any port. 
  5. The material increase in the amount of money required to be in the possession of the immigrant at the port of arrival. 
  6. The material increase of the head tax. 
  7. The levy of the head tax so as to make a marked discrimination in favor of men with families. 

All these methods would be effective in one way or another in securing restrictions in a greater or less degree. A majority of the Commission favor the reading and writing test as the most feasible single method of restricting undesirable immigration, The Commission as a whole recommends restriction as demanded by economic, moral, and social considerations, furnishes in its report reasons for such restrictions and points out methods by which Congress can attain the desired result if its judgement coincides with that of the Commission.

  1. What was the rationale used to characterize the “new immigration” as undesirable? Is it justifiable?
  2. Thinking routine: Same Different Gain
    1. How is the anti-immigrant language used by the Dillingham Commission similar  to xenophobic language used in other periods of immigration? How is it different?
    2. What do we gain by comparing these? What do we lose?