June 22, 2018

Sketch of an ocean steamer passing the Statue of Liberty. 1887. Credit: The Library of Congress

It might seem like America’s massive immigration system has always been around. But it hasn’t. Indeed, up until the early 20th century, America’s immigration system was so different it would be unrecognizable from a modern perspective. For the backstory of how the U.S. has approached immigration, we talk with Katherine Benton-Cohen, an associate professor at Georgetown and author of Inventing the Immigration Problem: The Dillingham Commission and Its Legacy.

Three Takeaways: 

  • Immigration was fairly simple in the 19th and early 20th century. There were some exceptions; criminals, paupers, ‘insane persons,’ and the diseased could be turned away. The Chinese were also not welcome after 1882, and other Asians also faced restrictions. But, overall, around 98 percent of the people who went through Ellis Island were let in.
  • All of this changed in the early 20th century, partly because of something called the Dillingham Commission. Formed in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt and Congress, the Commission concluded that immigration from southern and Eastern Europe was excessive and problematic. And it recommended that there be a literacy test and a quota system.
  • There are actually similarities between the early 20th century - when immigration began to be heavily curtailed - and today. For one, the percentage of foreign-born Americans in the country is particularly high - it was about 15% in 1910; it’s about 13% now (by contrast, it was less than 5% in 1970). And, then as now, immigrants aren’t just moving to large cities, but to smaller cities and towns as well.

More Reading: 

immigration, Ellis Island, Dillingham Commission, Culture, Katherine Benton-Cohen

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