The "Great American Problem" at the beginning of the twentieth century was immigration. In the years after the Civil War, not only had the annual numbers of immigrants skyrocketed but the demographic mix had changed. These so-called "new immigrants" came from eastern and southern Europe; many were Catholics or Jews. Clustered in the slums, clinging to their homeland traditions, they drew suspicion. Rumors of a papist conspiracy and a wave of anti-Semitism swept the nation as rabid nativists crusaded - sometimes violently - for the elimination of foreigners. In place of "wholesale denunciation, wild theories, and impractical propositions," however, progressive reformers proposed "the calm consideration of rational and practical measures." With their faith in social engineering, they believed that enlightened public policy would lead to prosperity and justice. Such was the hope of the Dillingham Commission, appointed by Congress in 1907 to investigate the immigrant problem.
In Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics, Robert Zeidel introduces the nine members of the Dillingham Commission, created by the immigrant act of 1907, and shadows them from day to day, in the office, on board ship, at the inspection station, as they meticulously gathered the facts for their 41-volume report. In general, the Dillingham Commission reached positive conclusions. If it recommended immigrant restrictions, it did so for economic - rather than cultural or "racial" - reasons. With the isolationist backlash after the Great War and in the face of the Red Scare, the commission saw its work hijacked. Compiled in the spirit of objectivity, the report was employed to justify nativist goals as the United States imposed stringent restrictions limiting the number of immigrants from each country. In the end, prejudice trumped progressive idealism.