How Experts and Their Facts Created Immigration Restriction

tags: historians, immigration, facts, reporting

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.


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.

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.”

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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