In 1907 the U.S. Congress created a joint commission to investigate what many Americans saw as a national crisis: an unprecedented number of immigrants flowing into the United States. Experts—women and men trained in the new field of social science—fanned out across the country to collect data on these fresh arrivals. The trove of information they amassed shaped how Americans thought about immigrants, themselves, and the nation’s place in the world. Katherine Benton-Cohen argues that the Dillingham Commission’s legacy continues to inform the ways that U.S. policy addresses questions raised by immigration, over a century later.

Within a decade of its launch, almost all of the commission’s recommendations—including a literacy test, a quota system based on national origin, the continuation of Asian exclusion, and greater federal oversight of immigration policy—were implemented into law. Inventing the Immigration Problem describes the labyrinthine bureaucracy, broad administrative authority, and quantitative record-keeping that followed in the wake of these regulations. Their implementation marks a final turn away from an immigration policy motivated by executive-branch concerns over foreign policy and toward one dictated by domestic labor politics.

The Dillingham Commission—which remains the largest immigration study ever conducted in the United States—reflects its particular moment in time when mass immigration, the birth of modern social science, and an aggressive foreign policy fostered a newly robust and optimistic notion of federal power. Its quintessentially Progressive formulation of America’s immigration problem, and its recommendations, endure today in almost every component of immigration policy. 



Chapter One: The Professor and the Commission

Chapter Two: The Gentlemen's Agreement

Chapter Three: Hebrew or Jewish Is Simply a Religion

Chapter Four: The Vanishing American Wage Earner

Chapter Five: Women's Power and Knowledge

Chapter Six: The American Type

Chapter Seven: Not a Question of Too Many Immigrants



“These days virtually all historians revile and reject the Dillingham Commission. Benton-Cohen reveals, however, that the Dillingham reports, which did not always support the Commission’s recommendations, tell us a lot about a time, not unlike our own, of ‘simultaneous suspicion and celebration of immigrants, fear of government power and confidence in public policy, need for manual labor’ and concern about wages and jobs for so-called Anglo-Saxon Americans.”Glenn C. AltschulerForward

“In 1907, Congress authorized the largest study of immigrants in American history. Though many may not know of the Dillingham Commission, Benton-Cohen ably examines the bipartisan special committee and its abstract purpose…Benton-Cohen places the committee in its historical context, demonstrates the emergence of the social norms during the Progressive Era, and successfully relays how immigration policies of the early 1900s still resonate today.”William D. PedersonLibrary Journal (starred review)

“This is a landmark work about a critical turning point in the history of the ‘nation of immigrants.’ In graceful prose, Katherine Benton-Cohen tells how a powerful body of government investigators defined which newcomers were a ‘problem’ and which were not. This set forth policies that radically changed the demography and culture of America. In another era of intense conflict over immigration, there could be no more relevant or timely study.”Michael Kazin, author of War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918

“An innovative interpretation of how the production of knowledge about immigration a century ago not only generated support for immigration restriction but also deepened the federal government’s reliance on social science research to support policymaking, thereby shaping views of immigration for the next century. I enthusiastically recommend this book.”Donna R. Gabaccia, author of Foreign Relations: American Immigration in Global Perspective

“Historians have long understood that ‘immigrants were American history.’ This book is a timely reminder that immigrants are also America’s present and future. By locating the development of immigration rules in the global context of the early twentieth century and in domestic conflicts over race, ethnicity, and religion, Benton-Cohen demonstrates the mix of ‘simultaneous suspicion and celebration’ of migrants that remains at the core of today’s conflicts.”Judith Resnik, Yale Law School

“The work of the Dillingham Commission opened wide a window on early-twentieth-century immigration. Benton-Cohen details the migration experience as well as the role of the social sciences employed to analyze the wealth of data collected. She also shows how Congress used the commission’s conclusions to expand federal control over America’s peopling. Immigration scholars will find her study indispensable, but this rich book offers insight to anyone wanting to comprehend immigration policy challenges past and present.”Alan M. Kraut, author of Silent Travelers: Germs, Genes, and the “Immigrant Menace”

About the Author
Image of Katherine Benton-Cohen
Katherine Benton-Cohen

Katherine Benton-Cohen is an associate professor of history at Georgetown University. She worked on this book while she was a fellow at the Wilson Center from 2009-2010. Read More