How Restricted Borders Replaced Free Migration

By the late 19th century, liberalism had essentially defeated mercantilism as the West’s dominant economic philosophy. With its ascent, state attempts to control trade and travel were limited. In 1872, British Secretary of State Earl Granville stated unequivocally that, “by the existing law of Great Britain, all foreigners have the unrestricted right of entrance and residence in this country.” Two decades later, the Institute of International Law reiterated his point that, generally speaking, “the free entrance of aliens into the territory of a civilized state should not be curtailed.”

Liberalization fueled global trade and precipitated huge movements of people (described in my previous post on this topic), but as would be expected, these movements created backlash from current residents. Moreover, the wealth and innovations generated by the new economic liberalism enabled people with a wider variety of racial, ethnic, and socio-economic backgrounds to move, further inflaming underlying prejudices. Although free markets and trade strengthened economies, they also strengthened state bureaucracies through increased revenues, allowing true border security for the first time. Finally, stronger states solidified national identities, helping build the extreme nationalistic movements of the 20th century.

Prior to the 20th century, even passports were seen as symbols of non-market economies like Russia’s feudal regime. For example, Italian legal scholar Giovanni Bolis argued in 1871 against an Italian passport proposal by asserting that said, “The surest thermometer of the freedom of a people is to be found in an examination of its legislation concerning passports.” France’s revolutionary government toyed with the concept of passports, but ultimately discarded the idea on enforceability grounds, and although Britain’s 1836 Aliens Restriction Act authorized passports, they were not implemented.

As the Great War loomed over Europe, however, nations began reintroducing passports to distinguish foreign nationals from citizens. In April 1917, France mandated that foreigners carry photo identification. Over the next year, Germany, Britain, and the United States created their own passports. Although they were originally passed as temporary measures, the contentious post-war peace led those countries to make them permanent in 1919 and 1920.

Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was manipulated by restrictionists for their own purposes. The eugenicist Secretary of America’s Immigration Restriction League  Prescott Hall asked, “Do we want this country to be peopled by British, German, and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin, and Asiatic races, historically downtrodden, atavistic, and stagnant?” Just after the turn of the century, Australia created a “dictation test.” Literacy tests for immigrants were also passed by the U.S. Congress over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in 1917 along with a doubling of the immigration tax.

Numerical quotas and outright bans proliferated as the 19th century came to a close and became more comprehensive immediately following the First World War. As early as 1855, Australia instituted national origin quotas to restrict Chinese immigration, and the U.S. banned Chinese nationals outright in the 1880s. The 1901 White Australia Policy lowered the continent’s Chinese population from 30,000 to about 5,000 in 1947. Britain enacted the 1905 Aliens Act to restrict Jewish immigration. America’s Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 cut total immigration from over 1.2 million people annually to 350,000, and then to 150,000 by creating national quotas, mainly to exclude Eastern Europeans and Russian Jews.

Ethnic tensions actually increased migration elsewhere. In 1923, Turkey and Greece traded immigrant populations — respectively deporting 1.25 million Greeks and 400,000 Turks. Russian refugees fled war to other parts of Europe, only to be displaced again by riots — in Russia and Ukraine, hundreds, perhaps thousands of riots left around 500,000 homeless. As states refused to accept Jewish migrants, hundreds of thousands fled to Palestine over the next two decades. In 1914, only three percent of Jewish migrants were entering Palestine; by 1925, that figure was 30 percent.

In order to replace the millions of workers lost in the war to death and disease, France’s Société Générale d’Immigration (SGI) brought in more than two million migrant workers in the 1920s, mainly from Italy, Poland, Spain, and Belgium. But global depression in the 1930s reinvigorated protectionism. France adopted a policy of expulsion and limited work permits. The United States deported hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, and total annual immigration fell to a mere 50,000. Immigration restrictions by Northwestern European countries reduced international migration on that continent to a trickle. Germany saw its foreign-born population drop from one million in 1907 to around 100,000 in 1932. Widespread labor union movements reinforced restrictive trends, calling for more protectionist measures against foreign workers.

This new paradigm of tightly-controlled movement stymied refugees trying to escape oppression. The League of Nations had no mandate to deal with migration, and as Western European nations had recently started experiencing more immigration than emigration, they all agreed to restrict migration. The League did appoint a High Commissioner for Refugees, but despite lacking formal authority, Commissioner Fridtjof Nansen decided to grant what became know as “Nansen” passports to refugees which documented their presence, and he almost single-handedly convinced European states to accept them.

But as Jews began to flee Germany, many governments refused to accept them or attempted to limit their entry, contributing to the tragedy of the Holocaust. This included the United States under the Roosevelt administration, which infamously turned away Captain Gustav Schröder’s MS St. Louis after Cuba denied entry to most of its passengers in 1939. Schröder was attempting to evacuate nearly 1,000 German Jews, but the United States rejected his emergency request to dock in Florida and dispatched the U.S. Coast Guard to prevent a landing. When a final asylum appeal to the Canadian prime minister failed, the St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Many of the refugees were soon murdered in the Nazi death camps.

The Second World War displaced more than 30 million people, and the newly-formed United Nations assumed responsibility for refugees. The International Refugee Organization and International Refugee Committee for European Migration relocated almost 3.2 million refugees: 329,301 to the United States, 437,638 to Canada, Israel, and Australia, another 823,000 to Latin America, mainly Argentina and Brazil. More open refugee policy during the Cold War served Western foreign policy objectives, particularly the embarrassment of communist states.

In the decades after World War Two, a restrictive system built on racism and ethnocentric xenophobia could no longer be justified. Canada led reform by dumping its European immigration preferences in 1962, and was followed by the United States in 1965 and Australia in 1973. Even the Persian Gulf oil states softened travel restrictions on foreigners during the 1973 oil embargo crisis. By 1980, 8 million foreign nationals were employed in the region — constituting half of the workforce. But governments were generally unwilling to loosen tight controls over national citizenship, so the main migratory avenues in the post-war period were guest worker permits.

Ultimately, the eugenicist, racist, and nationalist migratory restrictions never left — they just faded into convoluted, inconsistent systems that espouse openness while simultaneously obstructing it. As global trade has flourished, economic development has allowed millions more to move, but because the restrictions have remained, unauthorized immigration has become increasingly common in wealthier countries. With over two hundred million migrants in the world, restrictions have clearly failed to crush international mobility.