Thursday, November 15, 2012

U.S. Immigration: A Brief Historical Note

A commenter on my previous post wrote that "Having open borders renders the entire concept of a country meaningless." That got me curious about the relevant history. My memory was that current restrictions on immigration date only from the 1920's, that prior to that the U.S. had effectively unrestricted immigration, with the only major exception being restrictions on Chinese immigration to the west coast in the late 19th century. I knew that Ellis Island existed, but was unsure what limits, other than checking for contagious diseases, it enforced.

Google is your friend. A little checking turned up the following information:

1. Ellis Island was only established as a federal immigration point—the first such—in 1890.

2. The first federal restrictions on immigration were passed in 1875; they excluded criminals, prostitutes, and Chinese contract laborers. Congress passed the first general law restricting immigration in 1882, banning immigration from China. In 1917 the restriction was extended to immigrants from other Asian Pacific countries. Numerical immigration quotas only came in in 1921, but did not apply to immigrants from Latin America until 1965.

3. While it is hard to be certain, it does not sound as though there was any effective mechanism for enforcing restrictions in the early period. That was obviously true for immigration across land borders, and I do not think there was any enforcement mechanism covering all ports that would have prevented someone from simply walking off a ship and blending into the local population—easy to do anywhere with a significant group of the immigrant's ethnicity. 

On the other hand, checking estimates of ethnically Chinese in America, it looks as though the numbers increased slowly after 1880 and actually declined from 1900 to 1920. I do not know how reliable those estimates are, or whether they reflect factors other than legal restrictions on immigration, most obviously racial legislation restricting Chinese in America and so making it a less attractive destination.

My conclusion is that if the concept of a country is meaningless without at least nominal restrictions on immigration, the U.S. only came into existence about 1875. If the restrictions have to be real—i.e. effectively enforced—the U.S., if it exists at all, has been a country for only a few decades, making it younger than I am.

The other side of the story is public hostility to immigrants. That goes back much farther than 1875—for a very readable account of what successive waves of immigrants faced, I recommend Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America. I am not sure to what extent the survival of effectively open immigration well into the 20th century, with the exception of restrictions on oriental immigrants, reflects a balance of political forces pro and con, and to what extent the limited ability of the federal government to enforce restrictions. It is worth remembering that, throughout the 19th century, the federal government was the smallest of the three divisions (local, state, and federal), at least judged by revenue and expenditures.

And I still do not have any clear idea of why Republicans have been more hostile to illegal immigrants than Democrats in recent years. One possibility is that it has nothing much to do with the parties, that enough voters are hostile to illegal immigrants so that the anti-amnesty pro-border fence position looked like a good way of getting votes and  which party tried to exploit it more was largely a matter of historical accident. 

That would fit the observation that the Democrats, while not as bad on that issue (from my point of view) as the Republicans,  still engage in a somewhat watered down version of the same sort of rhetoric. The difference was most pronounced in the primaries, and it makes sense that if hispanic voters were already more likely to be Democrats than Republicans, Republican candidates would see rhetoric likely to offend hispanics as less risky, at that stage of the election, than Democratic candidates would.

17 Comments:

At 11:33 AM, November 15, 2012, Anonymous David O. said...

The fundamental difference between 1875 and now is that there was no massive welfare state in 1875.

In 1875 anyone could come to America, but they would have to work hard in order to succeed.

But in 2012, immigrants (like everyone else) can get food stamps, welfare, section 8 subsidized housing, free public education, free health care in the form of emergency room visits, and everything else the modern welfare state has to offer the unproductive.

To put it another way, in 1875 being poor in America was similar to being poor in most other parts of the world. We we had then which the rest of the world did not was opportunity.

With the modern welfare state, being poor in America is a considerably better life than being poor in most of the world.

Thus is where I break with most other libertarians like Bryan Caplan, et. all.

I think we can have EITHER a massive welfare state, or we can have completely open borders as we had in 1875. But I don't think we can have both.

 
At 11:35 AM, November 15, 2012, Blogger P.S. Huff said...

One thing that tends to be overlooked in these discussions is just how much transportation has changed over time. Moving across the Atlantic was once a very costly and unpleasant affair. It is much less so today, especially when compared with the pre-steamboat days.

The public hostility to immigrants may also have depressed the level of immigration to some extent.

 
At 11:38 AM, November 15, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

To David O:

A point I have made in the past is that the immigration/welfare link cuts in two directions. On the one hand, the existence of a welfare state makes open immigration a less attractive policy from the standpoint of those already here.

On the other hand, the existence of open immigration makes welfare policies less attractive from the standpoint of those already here, because of the potential for exactly the problem you raise. That's an argument in favor of open immigration from the standpoint of those critical of the welfare state.

 
At 11:53 AM, November 15, 2012, Anonymous David O. said...

To Professor Friedman:

Excellent point. I guess my (pessimistic) assumption was that we are well past the point of being willing to scale back the welfare state for any reason, even as it bankrupts us now.

 
At 12:34 PM, November 15, 2012, Blogger Max said...

I understood that the hostility to immigrants was an assumption that they'd go "changing everything," which upsets conservatives who want to keep things as they are (or at least keep change from happening too quickly).

I haven't met too many people who are hostile to immigrants who assimilate quickly, but I know several people who think it's a travesty to hear Spanish in public, or to see local Cinco de Mayo events (especially if they're paid for with public funds; OTOH Oktoberfest events are generally acceptable).

Personally, I'd love to see the insular attitude disappear, but it appears to have a longer shelf life than anyone expects.

 
At 12:56 PM, November 15, 2012, Blogger wtanksley said...

The picture of historical immigration policies is a little harder to draw than just looking at the restrictionist laws, though. Prior to the laws there were (sometimes, some places) policies which presumed that each immigrant had to prove that he should be admitted. There have also long been laws which allowed nearly arbitrary deportment of non-citizens (even, to a certain extent legal residents) -- although it would be important to know how frequently they were exercised.

During the very early years of the US, many locales had residency laws under which anyone not known to the officials had to bring in a local person who would take responsibility for their upkeep. One did not simply walk into Morristown. This was obviously intended to provide universal health care :-), and it also had the effect of making settlement after immigration much harder.

 
At 9:55 PM, November 15, 2012, Blogger Rohan said...

I think you're overlooking the cost and difficulty of transportation from Europe. Not to mention the fact that there was a lot more "frontier" for people to expand to in North America.

It would be interesting to see what immigration restrictions in a developed European country were like for the same time period.

 
At 11:58 PM, November 15, 2012, Anonymous Jim Rose said...

before 1914 it was possible to travel between a number of countries without a passport.

prior to world war II, British subjects were free to move to and from countries that were part of the British Empire and British Commonwealth of nations long after they gain full sovereignty. Scots were automatically French citizens for 500 years up until 1907.

Commonwealth citizens were not subject to immigration control until 1962.

the Aliens Act 1905 was the first major piece of modern immigration legislation and set up an inspectorate which operated at ports of entry to the UK. Its officers had the power to refuse entry to aliens who were considered ‘undesirable

see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliens_Act_1905

 
At 5:48 AM, November 16, 2012, Anonymous Simon said...

Why did they shut out the prosties for... they should at least have admitted the cute ones.

 
At 7:40 AM, November 17, 2012, Anonymous Randall said...

Not all Republicans are hostile to immigration. It is especially Southern Republicans (and their cultural descendants in Arizona and non-coastal California), and note that 'Republican' hostility to illegal immigration has largely corresponded to the rise to dominance of the South in the Republican Party.

 
At 8:24 AM, November 17, 2012, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"On the other hand, the existence of open immigration makes welfare policies less attractive from the standpoint of those already here, because of the potential for exactly the problem you raise. That's an argument in favor of open immigration from the standpoint of those critical of the welfare state."

That is not how American democracy works. Californians passed a proposition to keep illegals from benefiting from the welfare state and it was overturned by court. Texas and many other states had laws to keep illegals out of public schools and it was overturned by the courts.

I really wish libertarians who make your point would actually cite some instance where this plays out.

"and note that 'Republican' hostility to illegal immigration has largely corresponded to the rise to dominance of the South in the Republican Party."

This is an utter and complete lie... North-Eastern Republican nordicists had a huge amount of influence on American immigration policy around the 1900s.

 
At 11:58 AM, November 17, 2012, Blogger David Friedman said...

"I really wish libertarians who make your point would actually cite some instance where this plays out."

I was thinking in part of controversies over welfare within the U.S. People who want more of a welfare state have generally supported providing it at the federal level, precisely because if it's provided at the state level, states have an incentive to keep it low in order to avoid attracting migrants who will collect more than they pay in.

 
At 1:02 PM, November 18, 2012, Blogger TheVidra said...

To those mentioning more efficient transatlantic transportation: that argument taken alone should have resulted in a higher ratio of European influx over Mexican or Canadian influx (given land travel did not improve by as much as transatlantic travel), yet the opposite has been true.

 
At 1:06 PM, November 18, 2012, Blogger TheVidra said...

Speaking of history, it's ironic how Texans and their neighbors are afraid of a huge influx of foreign settlers, who might change the demographics of the area and eventually call for independence, before being swallowed by the neighboring country. Perhaps they remember the Alamo? :)

 
At 10:35 PM, November 23, 2012, Anonymous Alan said...

The number of Chinese in America between 1900 and 1920 probably decreased because the original immigrants were laborers who were mostly male, and subsequent prohibitions prevented women (even their wives) from joining them.

Naturally this meant that the second generation was smaller than the first.

 
At 3:48 PM, November 25, 2012, Anonymous Emma said...

David O.: "But in 2012, immigrants (like everyone else) can get food stamps, welfare, section 8 subsidized housing, free public education, free health care in the form of emergency room visits, and everything else the modern welfare state has to offer the unproductive."

This is blatantly false. Immigrants have to live here for a long time before they can collect any kind of government assistance whatsoever. For example, people who immigrate because they are married to US citizens (this is the easiest, quickest, cheapest way to immigrate, by the way, and it still costs $1000+ in fees alone and usually takes a year or more) have to work in the US for 40 quarters (that comes out to 10 years minimum) before they can collect any kind of benefits from the government like food stamps, medicare, etc. Immigrants have to have a sort of financial "sponsor" who is a US citizen living in the US with an income 125% of the poverty line for his household who signs an affidavit agreeing to pay back any government assistance taken by the immigrant (if the immigrant doesn't pay it back himself) before they have worked 40 quarters in the US.

 
At 8:33 AM, November 26, 2012, Blogger wtanksley said...

Emma, that's illegal in California specifically when used against illegal immigrants. All CA benefits are available and advertised to illegal immigrants, ever since the successful passing of proposition 187 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proposition_187) -- ironically intended to ban such availability. It was overturned by a federal judge on grounds that it interfered with federal jurisdiction. The ruling includes the phrase that California "is likewise powerless to enact its own legislative scheme to regulate alien access to public benefits."

 

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