Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?

In a blog post titled The Golden Age of Migration, Bryan Caplan notes that, despite its many flaws, the 19th century US was morally better than the current US in one important respect: open borders. Caplan quotes a passage from the book Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future and adds:

Imagine – there was a time when elite opinion and public policy took free immigration seriously. All democracy did to tarnish this political miracle was scapegoat Asian immigrants, while leaving the doors open to not just Europe, but Latin America as well. Whatever its flaws, the Gilded Age was truly the Golden Age of Immigration. Libertarians – and anyone who cares about the genuinely poor – should give credit where credit is due.

An important question is: what has changed since then, and why? There seem to be three kinds of reasons:

  1. Public and elite opinion about the wisdom/desirability of immigration restrictions has changed. See the then versus now page for some arguments that have been offered about the differences between the present and the past.
  2. The technological/financial feasibility of immigration restrictions has changed. In the 19th century, the US federal government was small, hence it lacked the financial and technological resources to enforce immigration restrictions. Passports had not been introduced. Now, with the exception of migration along the southern border, most forms of immigration into the United States can be controlled at relatively low direct cost.
  3. Public and elite opinion about the moral permissibility of immigration restrictions has changed. In the 19th century, however much people hated immigrants, shutting down immigration just wasn’t an option morally on the table, just as deportation to Africa is not a moral option to the problem of black crime in the United States today.

What is the right mix of reasons? My best guess: (1) is unlikely, because anti-foreign bias has been there since the dawn of history. Further, the problems created by immigrants, both real and perceived, haven’t shrunk that much since the 19th century. So, I suspect the reason is some sort of mix of (2) and (3), where they both feed into each other — if immigration restrictions aren’t technically feasible, then they aren’t a salient option morally either, and vice versa.

Any other ideas?

13 thoughts on “Why was immigration freer in 19th century USA?”

  1. I’m not sure quite where this would fall, but I think the main reason is redistribution. In the 19th century, government redistribution was considered vaguely illegitimate. In the early 20th century, “national socialism” of various kinds (from Nazism to Stalin’s “socialism in one country” to sovereign democracy + social welfare states) became the norm. If your government is engaged in redistribution and is committed to maintaining a social safety net for all who are present on your territory, you have to shut your doors to poor immigrants. Considering how much international income gaps have widened since, and largely because of, the rise of migration restrictions, it is no small irony that they were a side-effect of a policy change (or regime change) that was seen then and now as egalitarian.

    1. Nathan,

      Thanks for the interesting observation. I think the growth of the welfare state could operate through any of the three mechanisms I suggested.

      1. It could be yet another reason to fear/dislike immigration, i.e., it gives rise to the welfare objection.
      2. The growth of the welfare state was accompanied by a growth in government documents and records that helped identify people as citizens, residents, etc. and better kept track of them. This increased the technical feasibility of detecting and deporting immigrants.
      3. The growth of the welfare state made people start thinking in terms of citizenism and collective property rights and this made immigration restrictions seem more morally permissible.

      1. Any person of Italian American hetgraie who take seriously their history in this country would not make the mistake of considering themselves white. When the first Italian immigrants arrived at Ellis Island they were referred to as WOPS , without papers, our ancestors were undocumented aliens. The largest lynching in U.S. history occurred at the end of the nineteenth century and involved Italian American laborers in New Orleans, who were wrongfully accused of murder and hanged by the neck by a lynch mob when it was intimated that they might be innocent. Famously, Sacco and Vendetti were wrongly accused of the rape and murder of a small child and executed; less famous were the concentration camps for Italian Americans in World War II. Any Italian American who take the white side of the race issue oe the native side of the immigration issue is a sycophant or a fool. And that is the difference between Alito and Sotomayor.

    2. You’re absolutely right. My poioistn doesn’t indicate otherwise, either. If you read the previous posts on the immigration issue in CT, you will see that I have repeatedly stated that I have no problem with cracking down on illegal immigrants. That’s the law and that’s the way it is.Some people view this as an attack on all immigrants and in some way, I can understand that too. Especially the part about Danbury banning volleyball outdoors, because it is an important part of the immigrant community.However, I do not endorse and quite frankly am repulsed by the rhetoric that the CT Citizens for Immigration Control engages in.

  2. I’m 1.5 too. My parents are from Philippines and we iemagritmd to the US before my 5th birthday. They supposedly spoke Tagalog, English, and Spanish when I was a baby. But I remember going to ESL classes in the 1st grade. I went to pre-school in the Philippines but skipped kindergarten because we were moving around, my father was in the military and we moved around from LA to Florida to relatives in LA before finally settling down.My parents forced me to speak Tagalog at home and I remember hating it, but I’m really glad they did.

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