How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: Intro

As Vipul Naik has recently commented on, I am going to be starting a new series of posts here on  Open Borders. The goal of this series will be to examine how border restrictions have changed and what arguments were used to justify the new rules. Border restrictions of various sorts do have long histories, but why does a more open system tend to close up or a closed system become more open? How do the arguments made in the past compare to modern immigration arguments? Did those arguments hold up given the information available at the time? Do they hold up better or worse knowing what we know now? And in cases where dire predictions for or against immigration restrictions were made, how well did those predictions hold up?

This discussion can help move discussion away from a status quo bias. All else being equal, people tend to prefer the status quo to a change. This is very often a good thing. Indeed, the precautionary principle would indicate that the burden of proof should lie with new policies that they are not harmful. As an example, if you don’t know whether doing exploding a bomb will blow up the planet, but you think it might, then the safe action to take would be avoid blowing up that bomb. However, this principle holds less weight when the reason a status quo is in place to begin with is because of faulty reasoning and that status quo causes great harm itself. We have lots of examples on this site of how current policy creates lots of harm for the world be preventing what we could otherwise achieve or maintaining a status quo that isn’t working for hundreds of millions, but were there good reasons to put the restrictions in place to begin with? Did periods of greater immigration cause serious problems avoided by restriction? And have immigration systems been set up well given the concerns which motivated their creation? Here’s where historical examination and this series of posts in particular come in. I’ll be looking at the arguments used at the time and try to determine which made sense, which were over blown, and which were complete rubbish. Historically, all sides in immigration discussions have made mistakes, screwed up predictions, or even stated outright lies. Such is the nature of politics. But has one side or the other tended to be closer to the truth? If so, shouldn’t we be more suspicious of arguments from the opposite corner? If not, then at least we gain perspective that arguments for and against immigration have been equally bad and that the current status quo (whether one thinks too many or too few immigrants are allowed in) was established with shaky reasoning.

In any event, I hope to cover topics I already know some about such as the closing of the US border, Roman and early feudal restrictions, the end of passportless borders in Europe during World War 1, the partial re-opening of the US border starting in 1965, and the establishment of the open border Schnegen Area in Europe. If any of you readers have suggestions for other examples for me to look into please leave them in the comments and I’ll see what I can dig up! The first real post in this series will deal with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and when that goes up I’ll give a link in this post as well. Given that this kind of project takes quite a bit of time and that I am trying to keep sources mostly limited to data available online and in English (an unfortunate restriction but one that helps keep the conversation accessible to as many readers as possible), I’m always open to sources you all find! For the upcoming post the major sources I intend to use can all be found under the primary and secondary source sections of this page. So if there’s a decent source (whether primary or secondary…I figure my need for tertiary sources is probably met in most cases by Wikipedia), let me know in the comments.

Chris Hendrix is a Masters student in history in Atlanta, Georgia with an interest in the history of borders. See also:

Chris Hendrix’s personal statement
blog post introducing Chris Hendrix
all blog posts by Chris Hendrix

6 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here? The Origins of Immigration Restrictions: Intro”

  1. A very good books that I highly recommend:

    Citizenship and Those Who Leave edited by Nancy Green and Francois Weil. Gives you the context for measure that states have taken to control emigration and immigrations. There are essays about the US. Good to read because you can compare how different states looked at migration in different eras.

    And here is a link to a book list I put together. Patrick Weil (my personal favorite) appears more than once. 🙂

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