National Commissions on Immigration, 1907-1997

By Otis L. Graham Jr. on April 10, 2012

Some public policy issues are so complex and controversial that Congress and president on occasion acknowledge that they cannot craft legislation or administer policy in the usual way. They may be drawn to the advice of a 1955 poem from Punch magazine by Geoffrey Parsons with a Gilbert and Sullivan lilt that runs:

If you're pestered by critics and hounded by faction
To take some precipitate, positive action
The proper procedure to take my advice is
Appoint a commission and stave off the crisis.

The role of the commission or nongovernmental advisory panel conceived of in this ditty is to prevent something the ruling group deems ill-advised. Commissions stall and deflate. Experience in the U. S. suggests the "precipitate . . . positive action" or policy reform mentioned in the ditty may be the contribution of the commission itself, even with decidedly mixed results – as when the issue is arguably the most potent force shaping the American story – immigration.

National commissions to study and recommend on immigration were appointed (and duly reported) three times in the century just finished – in 1911-14, 1978-81, and 1990-97.

The three immigration commission reports came to somewhat different conclusions, are now out of print and out of mind. Yet they deserve to be remembered together as intermittent parts of a vastly important if only partially successful century-long effort to develop an independent view of what should be the role of foreign immigration in shaping the ongoing American story.

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The first immigration commission began as the passionate cause of Sen. William P. Dillingham of Vermont, who in 1907 convinced President Theodore Roosevelt and congressional leaders to support the establishment of a bipartisan study of the causes, characteristics, and consequences of the mounting volume of immigrants arriving at American ports as the 19th century gave way to the 20th. Sen. Dillingham and President Roosevelt were only the most prominent among leading public figures, such as Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge and Immigration Restriction League head Prescott Hall, who in the l890s launched a patrician reform movement to re-think and re-shape immigration. The result was the formation of the "Dillingham Commission", which in 1911 delivered a 42-volume report that expressed concern about many things needing change, most especially the "upward spiral of large numbers" (over a million immigrants came in 1905, a record) originating primarily from "undesirable parts of Europe" (southern and eastern regions) where educational levels were notably lower than found in northern Europe. The commission confirmed public worries that immigration was a growing force churning out of our nation's control. Too many immigrants of the wrong sort – mostly, the wrong nationalities – were relocating to and fragmenting America. The Statue of Liberty heritage of "open gates", of an unlimited invitation to the oppressed of all the earth to move to America, must give way to a regime of immigration limits based upon a system of selection favoring those from the nations that had historically settled the country. Immigration should continue to contribute to modest growth, but must be managed by the federal government so as to replicate the national mixture (unspoken: there need be no more replenishment from Africa or Asia.)

The Dillingham vision had a 50-year run. Ideas and data in the Commission's report lent important support to "national origins" laws passed in 1921 and 1924 that fashioned a new restrictive immigration policy for America and played a role in curbing the pressures that had sent the "Great Wave" of almost 25 million people to the U.S. from 1900 to 1920. Global events and falling domestic birth rates soon reinforced the impact of the new Dillingham-shaped immigration laws. Worldwide economic depression arriving at the end of the 1920s joined with the restrictive laws of that decade to reduce the flood of immigrants that had worried so many in Dillingham's America. Recorded immigration to the U.S. in the latter 1920s had subsided to some 300,000 a year, almost reached zero in the depths of the economic depression of the l930s, and was estimated at 100,000 a year during World War II. The immigration trends shaped by the Dillingham deliberations joined with declining birthrates by mid-century to aim the U. S. for the first time toward cultural and demographic stability – prominent goals of the Commission and its supporters. A Commission had made its mark on the nation's future by influencing policy that shaped the size and composition of the immigration stream and thus the national population. These changes were broadly popular for decades. Critics of the group's work would much later turn to another commission in an effort to change course.

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It seemed unlikely in the 1950s that there would soon be a call for another immigration commission, especially after Patrick McCarran used his Immigration Committee in the Senate in 1950-l952 to streamline an increasingly complex system that was, however, generally popular. But the '60s were turbulent with social reform movements, and pressures for drastic overhaul of the national origins system were building inside (and outside) a country going through the Civil Rights movement, in which no politician wanted to defend an immigration law frequently labeled as "discriminatory" (on the basis of nationality). Demographers warned that global population growth in Latin America, Asia, and Africa was generating "a rising tide of immigration" arriving at the ports of entry and borders. Sensing votes to be had from ethnic communities, two liberal presidents endorsed the repeal of the national origins basis for immigration law, allowing America's demographic future to be shaped by expanded tides of new Americans from non-European nations. President Lyndon Johnson vigorously endorsed the Immigration Act of 1965, declaring as he signed it: "We ought never to ask, In what nation were you born." The law unexpectedly expanded annual immigration fourfold and radically shifted source countries from Europe to the Third World. Large refugee flows became an unexpected result of the Cold War, and illegal entry continued to rise. In the mid-1970s INS head Leonard Chapman declared "an invasion" of illegal immigrants along the U.S.-Mexican border. That decade also brought waves of refugees from Indochina and Cuba, exposing another gaping hole in U. S. immigration law. Annual totals of legal immigrants reached 400,000 by 1973, 600,000 by l978, surging to one million by the end of that decade.

The 1965 act and expanding global migration flows thus ended the Dillingham/national origins restrictionist era. This was an important change to liberal reformers, but left in its place a porous system admitting more immigrants annually than any nation on earth.

Again it seemed to be commission time, to clarify once more whether immigration was serving the national interest. "Racial discrimination" had been repudiated, but many felt that too many were coming illegally, and refugee flows were frequent and unmanageable. President Jimmy Carter in 1978 persuaded Congress to join with him to appoint the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, chaired by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame. More immigrants came to America in 1980 than in any previous year, many illegally, and the public seemed increasingly agitated by the issue and uncertain what sort of immigration it wanted.

The Commission made a fateful error in its early days, when Hesburgh appointed as staff Director Lawrence Fuchs, a Brandeis history professor who was determined not to preside over another shrinking of immigrant numbers, which in his opinion was the "racist" impulse of earlier reformers. Hesburgh, who worried that some American workers were losing their jobs to immigrants, reluctantly agreed not to recommend reduced legal immigration, even though a Roper poll of June l980 found that 91 percent of the public favored "an all-out effort" to stop illegal immigration and 80 per cent wanted fewer legal immigrants, including refugees. Support for this "smaller immigration" position also came from the 1972 report of President Nixon's National Commission on Population Growth and the American Future, chaired by John D. Rockefeller III, which found that "no substantial benefits will result from further growth in the Nation's population," and called for "the gradual stabilization of our population" which required capping legal immigration at 400,000 or less.

This immigration recommendation of the 1972 Population Commission was ignored by the Hesburgh group reporting nine years later. Apparently ignorant of the Rockefeller Report's findings, the Hesburgh/Fuchs commission made the regrettable decision to recommend "closing the back door to . . . illegal migration" so as to "open the front door a little more". If this "open the front door" policy were adopted by Congress, it would confirm the U.S. immigration system as a powerful growth engine when the nation needed to bring growth to a sustainable close. The commission left enforcement problems – "closing the back door" – up to Congress, recommending legal sanctions on employers of illegal workers, but by an indecisive one-vote margin.

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A long legislative war in the 1980s produced an amnesty-ridden failure to deal with the illegal migrant problem – the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Congress left the back door open, and also opened the front door even wider in a law of 1990. American policymaking seemed to have drifted into a long era of permissiveness toward massive legal and illegal entry by foreigners, with little regard for the impacts on American jobs, communities, and population growth – important components of the nation's future. Still uneasy with the unpopular immigration picture, Congress in 1990 decided to try the commission solution one more time; President Bill Clinton appointed as chair former congresswoman from Texas Barbara Jordan.

With that decision, everything seemed to change, as the commission device finally lived up to expectations – almost.

Jordan proved to be a forceful and visionary leader, bringing the nine-member group to unanimous positions on all but one recommendation – where only one member dissented. Finding a decline in educational levels of post-1965 immigrants and a rise in their social costs, the commission concluded that legal immigration should be reduced by 30 to 40 percent, guestworker programs rejected, and illegal immigration firmly brought to an end. Jordan took a draft of their findings to President Clinton in 1995, and he issued a press release declaring them consistent with his own views. Jordan then lost a battle with cancer in 1996. With her leadership silenced, Clinton quietly dropped immigration reform after receiving the Jordan Commission's final report in 1997. The president also ignored the report in 1996 of his Council on Sustainable Development which found that immigration-driven population growth prevented progress toward sustainability. These linked issues then slipped out of public discussion. The national population has nearly doubled in size after 1960, much of that due to immigration.

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In this brief summary we have seen U. S. immigration policy pushed in contradictory directions by three advisory commissions. The first pushed policy toward an historic reduction of immigration's size and influence as a nation-shaper. Half a century later a second commission encouraged Congress to expand the numbers and thus the nation-shaping roles of foreign settlers to the U. S. – more growth, an increasing portion of it illegal; expanding numbers and size of ethnic clusters in politics and society. As the 20th century closed, a third commission united around strong recommendations for reduction again, lower legal immigration levels and a firm end of illegal entry and residence.

What to say of commission performance on an emotional national and nation-shaping issue across a century? It depends on your point of view. Congress and presidents, on the same topic? Not Passing. But American democracy at work.