Publication Date

March 25, 2019

Perspectives Section



  • United States


Migration, Immigration, & Diaspora

Facts have a history, and we ought to admit it. In op-eds, public lectures, and social media, historians take great pains to correct falsehoods about the past and the present (especially in my field, immigration history). But the basis of much of our profession’s outrage—that policy should be based on a certain kind of fact—itself has a history.

Border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California.

Border wall prototypes near the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego, California. U.S. Customs and Border Protection/Flickr/United States Government Work

Ultimately, that history dates most prominently to the Enlightenment. But more directly, in the history of federal power and the administrative state—in the United States, but also in Europe and Latin America—it dates to the Progressive Era’s professionalization of expertise. With it came the enshrinement of objective facts to undergird and justify public policies such as economic regulation, conservation and environmental policy, and—not least—immigration.

My recent book, Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (Harvard Univ. Press, 2018), explores the confluence of government social science expertise and “facts” in early 20th-century US immigration policy. From 1907 to 1911, the Dillingham Commission conducted the largest-ever study of immigrants in the United States, and it helped create the idea that immigration was a “problem” that (only) the federal government could and should “fix.”

The Dillingham Commission had nine appointed members: three senators, three congressmen, and three “experts” chosen by President Theodore Roosevelt. Jeremiah Jenks, a professor of economics at Cornell University, organized much of the work and has been called by historians of social science the first “government expert.” The commission and its staff visited or gathered data on all 46 states and several territories. A staff of more than 300 men and women compiled 41 volumes of reports, including a potent set of recommendations that shaped immigration policy for generations to come. The commission’s agents had advanced degrees from the Ivy Leagues and large public research institutions like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, and Berkeley. Economics degrees dominated, though others had degrees in sociology, law, medicine, political science, and anthropology (including Franz Boas, who wrote an important treatise on new immigrants’ bodies and head shapes for the commission). Twenty reports on immigrants in American industries formed the bulk of the work, but other volumes considered everything from conditions on transatlantic steamships to prostitution, debt peonage, crime, schools, agriculture, philanthropic societies, other countries’ immigration laws, and immigrant women’s “fecundity.”

The Dillingham Commission relied on a veneer of objectivity but engaged in thinking and work that was deeply flawed.

Throughout the process, the commissioners insisted that they and the social scientists they hired were objective. In 1909, Massachusetts senator and commission member Henry Cabot Lodge defended the commission member most sympathetic to immigrants, Republican Congressman William S. Bennet, who represented Jewish Harlem. Bennet “is as determined as I am to get all the facts,” said Lodge. In the commission’s work, he insisted, “Bennet has not tried to suppress anything.” But what did objectivity mean for these men? Lodge was a true believer in social science; he earned one of Harvard’s first PhDs in history and government. He was also, in the words of immigration historian John Higham, the new immigrants’ “most dangerous adversary.” His fellow commissioner, California businessman William R. Wheeler, insisted that they wanted to “learn the facts.” The commission’s final report insisted that its conclusions would not be based on race or cultural considerations, but on the sound basis of economics and social science.

The Dillingham Commission is best known for recommending what would become the first restrictions on immigrants based on quantity (numbers) rather than quality (individual politics, health, class, or race status, as previous laws prescribed). It recommended a literacy test for immigrants, along with a continued ban on Asian immigrants, additional regulations and head taxes, and—for the first time—actual numerical limits on immigration, a quota. The literacy test was enacted in 1917 over two vetoes by Woodrow Wilson. And the final recommendation became, by the 1920s, the national origins quota system that openly discriminated against southern and eastern Europeans by using a national quota based on the US population in 1890—before most of the so-called new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had arrived.

Immigrants wait in the Great Hall at Ellis Island after finishing their first mental inspection.

Immigrants wait in the Great Hall at Ellis Island after finishing their first mental inspection. Edwin Levick/The New York Public Library/Public Domain

The members’ backgrounds and training relied on a new social science model of “problem” (in this case, immigrants) and “solution” (restrictive legislation). Commissioners produced a particular kind of knowledge, valued because it was quantitative and produced by experts. But the commission did not necessarily follow it to its conflicting conclusions—the commission’s data and evidence, as historian Oscar Handlin long ago recognized, did not support its recommendations. But the commission believed in federal power in general, and in federal power over immigration policy specifically. So, too, did its rank-and-file employees, from the women who enjoyed rare career opportunities and personal authority to the economist technocrats who had worked in Puerto Rico and the Philippines, where federal officials experimented with new forms of governance.

We historians do our work in particular moments, and is not even our devotion to expertise and facts relative to our own moment? I began this project in the early days of the presidency of Barack Obama, whose own infatuation with experts made me a bit nervous. Although I was thrilled by his election, I was never comfortable with Obama’s reliance on Ivy League–educated wonks. My research on the Dillingham Commission made me more deeply skeptical of its experts, whose conclusions had enduring and racist consequences. The commission and its staff relied on a veneer of objectivity—one they themselves carefully applied and believed in—but engaged in thinking and work that in retrospect was deeply flawed.

Historians’ professional status has a history, rooted in the Progressive Era’s invention of credentialed experts.

I’ve often told my students that you know you’re doing good history when it bumps up against your own politics. But then came the election of Trump in 2016, and now my (minor, cautionary, gesturing) inveighing against experts feels quaint at best, dangerous at worst. Context is everything, and I must confess that I now see the Dillingham Commission’s experts in a more sympathetic light, although I still disagree with their conclusions. The Dillingham Commission was responding to a real event—the massive influx of new immigrants to the United States from southern and eastern Europe since 1882. Their subject was real, even as their labeling it as a “problem” was deeply subjective. In contrast, some so-called immigration problems or crises don’t even appear to be real—border crossings are down, undocumented immigrants commit fewer crimes than US citizens (I could go on). And “facts” seem to have nothing to do with “problems” or the proposed or actual solutions to them. Some—like family separation—are far worse than the “problems” for which they are prescribed. Rhetoric about the border is totally unhinged from reality.

Yet the Dillingham Commission’s utter wrongness—that Asians and eastern and southern Europeans would not assimilate, that they were a “problem” in the first place—ought to give us all pause, too. We ought to recognize that our own claims of truthfulness are situated in a belief system that is about values, too, not just about facts. It is telling—and salutary—that the AHA’s 2013 tuning of the history discipline lists empathy as one of the essential components of historical practice. To practice empathy is to be sympathetic and mindful of the complexity of our subjects and, I would argue, the limits of our own and others’ expertise. The burgeoning authority of social science and certitude in its modern facts encouraged statist solutions to social problems. In turn, it bolstered support for the very governmental overreaches in immigration policy at which President Trump lunges.

Historians should, of course, continue to call out the falsehoods and vitriol that are today presented as public discourse. But we should also recognize that our professional status has a history, rooted in the Progressive Era’s invention of credentialed experts, whose own hubris became baked into the rise of the administrative state. If the administrative state is part of the immigration “problem,” and it was in some sense created by our social science forebears, then we need to recognize that we are living out a paradox that no call for reason based on facts can unravel.

Katherine Benton-Cohen is associate professor of history at Georgetown University. She is the author of Borderline Americans: Racial Division and Labor War in the Arizona Borderlands (2009) and Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy (2018). She recently served as historical adviser for the film Bisbee ’17 (2018). She tweets @GUProfBC.

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