David R. Henderson  

Friedman on Immigration History

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Correction below.

Did the United States begin in 1875?

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.

This is from David Friedman, "U.S. Immigration: A Brief Historical Note."

David points this out to address a commenter who wrote, ""Having open borders renders the entire concept of a country meaningless." After pointing out these facts, David writes:

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.

Correction: That Ellis Island was the United States' first immigration station seems to be inaccurate--the first one seems to have been Castle Garden (also called Castle Clinton). HT: Alex Nowrasteh and Vipul Naik.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (36 to date)
8 writes:

The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans served as barriers to entry. Travel was generally expensive, even over land.

Restrictions on immigration started when people started to be bothered by immigration, which was after the numbers picked up, right about the time of the railroad boom.

Steve Sailer writes:

America had open borders on the West in 1875: it had been conquering or buying land from French, Spanish, Indians and Mexicans for a quarter of a millennium. Custer's Last Stand, for example, was the year after 1875. The Census Bureau didn't declare the frontier closed until 1890.

Immigration restriction had been proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1754 to help the wage to land price ratio faced by Americans. His interest in immigration restriction waned in 1756, however, when the French & Indian War broke out because the limit on the supply of land was lifted by the opportunity to invade and conquer French and Indian territory. Franklin then became a strong advocate of war of conquest, and leading strategist of the American expansion into the Mississippi watershed. To Franklin, the good choices were either conquest / immigration or peace / immigration restriction.

Jim Rose writes:

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

prior to and after world war II, British subjects were free to move to and from countries that were part of the British Empire and the later British Commonwealth of nations long after they had gained 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 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

Chris writes:

The lack of cheap travel on ocean-going steamers controlled immigration for post of the period pre-1875.

Sonic Charmer writes:

So basically, two blog posts have now been spent on scoring a pedantic rhetorical point against some unnamed commenter who could have chosen his words more carefully but he didn't so GOTCHA.

Therefore...open borders?

Really going for the capillary here.

MikeP writes:

Sonic Charmer,

I would have to take off my shoes to count how many times I have used the same argument in support of open borders.

There is a persistent belief among many free migration detractors that (1) open borders means a loss of sovereignty and (2) the borders have always been closed.

Neither is at all true. Maybe if some bloggers make it the main point of a post rather than a comment within it, we can finally rest the stupidity.

Captain Curt writes:

Immigration of labor was ignored as long as the U.S. had the western frontier to escape to and labor was in strong demand for a vast expanse of land just for the taking. When the frontier was settled and developed immigrants weren’t as welcome. The onset of social programs has also made immigrants less welcome for tax payers, even of moderate income. As long as the U.S. government hands out social program benefits to poor immigrants, the border issues will certainly continue.

Nathan Smith writes:

Thanks, David. So sad to read about this, like reading about the fall from Eden. We were a better country then, in spite of racism. The Gilded Age was the Golden Age, and the Progressive movement the serpent that spoiled it.

Bob Lince writes:

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do;
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.

MikeP writes:

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so betwixt the two of them,
They both enjoyed comparative advantages.

Charley Hooper writes:

So what is the argument of the anti-immigration people when asked about the lack of problems with open state borders?

I live in California, which has open borders with Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona. We have no problems with people crossing those borders to work, visit, or live. Or, if some people think we do have problems, do they also advocate building walls between the states?

Floccina writes:

So we have a new contender for the honor of first president of USA: Andrew Johnson. I thought that is was just between George Washington and John Hanson.

J.P. Gerner writes:

Isn't the core issue here not the border or control of it but the motivation of the immigrant? I have no problem with open borders as long as people are not coming here to get benefits paid for from my taxes ( other than those benefits that represent the common good of a peaceful society of private property and equality under the law, etc. - those they are welcome to). In the early half of US history, there was no mechanism available to serve such (welfare) interests, so if you came, you came to work. I think Charlie and the good state of California might have a problem if the immigrants are thousands of Nevadans or others whose purpose is to relocate to the sunshine state and be supported by the few remaining people who actually work for a living there. If I remember correctly, the state has had some discussions in years past about putting itself at a competitive disadvantage by being a welfare magnet.

guthrie writes:

No, no, see, Charley Hooper... the strangers who are across your state's border to the north and east are different from those who are from the west and south of you... because they're the same as you, you see... their same-ness makes the difference in differentiating the 'different-ness' of those south and west of you from those who are north and east... see?

John B. writes:

Re state borders: I do hear lots of complaints about "Californication" and "New Yorkers" and "Yankees" from the appropriate locations, so state borders aren't free of complaint. I don't know of any people seriously avocating the imposition of movement controls on state borders, but I have read people suggesting that out-of-staters not be allowed to buy property (e.g. in Colorado or Maine, to keep out Californians or New Yorkers). It may be rare, but it's there.

Steve Sailer writes:

"I do hear lots of complaints about "Californication""

Oregon politicians have been running and winning since the 1970s on platforms of land use and environmental regulations intended to slow the influx of Californians ... especially (although it's never mentioned out loud) Mexican Californians. Portland has adopted a famous system of land use regulations that combat quite effectively the sprawl preferred by Mexican Californians. Thus, Portland today is, on some measures, the whitest city in America. Not surprisingly, this whitopia is considered the most hipster city in America.

guthrie writes:

So you see... the very presence of Californians in Oregon or New Yorkers in Maine renders the entire concept of those respective states as 'meaningless'... why dither with zoning and land use regulations and simply bite the bullet by strictly enforcing state borders?

@ Steve, re: Portland... a dubious distinction, indeed! ;)

Finch writes:

Immigration restrictions are common and can be strict at the local level. That's what zoning restrictions and minimum lot sizes are: ways of keeping out the riffraff from the neighborhood and school. They seem pretty popular.

As far as I can tell the difference between the local, state, and federal restrictions come down to who is being excluded from what. There's no overriding principal at stake, just practical issues.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

Don't forget the Naturalization Act of 1790 that stated:

That any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof on application to any common law Court of record in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law to support the Constitution of the United States, which Oath or Affirmation such Court shall administer, and the Clerk of such Court shall record such Application, and the proceedings thereon; and thereupon such person shall be considered as a Citizen of the United States. And the children of such person so naturalized, dwelling within the United States, being under the age of twenty one years at the time of such naturalization, shall also be considered as citizens of the United States. And the children of citizens of the United States that may be born beyond Sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born Citizens: Provided, that the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States: Provided also, that no person heretofore proscribed by any States, shall be admitted a citizen as aforesaid, except by an Act of the Legislature of the State in which such person was proscribed.
Finch writes:

I also note that there's a little quid pro quo going on with state to state immigration. Immigrants reasonably want to go both ways between, say, Oregon and Washington, whereas there is essentially no immigration from the US to developing nations.

Perhaps developing nations or people therein could trade something (like cash, for example) for immigration slots?

MikeP writes:

Don't forget the Naturalization Act of 1790...

Indeed. It is actually constitutional, not being a law governing immigration or residence, but solely naturalization.

Peter H writes:


By your argument, would you support opening completely the US/Canada border? Canada is wealthy, largely english-speaking, and culturally VERY similar to the United States. What, if any, difference do you see in a person moving between Ontario and New York versus between Pennsylvania and New York?

gwern writes:

Peter, I think a lot of Americans wouldn't much mind such a change (although status quo bias being what it is, such a proposal could never actually be approved); the question more is, what would the *Canadians* think...

Charley Hooper writes:

So can we summarize and say that the welfare state must eventually rely on immigration control to keep the welfare goodies away from those who didn't "earn" them?

But, of course, most of those who get welfare didn't earn it anyway, they just happened to have citizenship in an area where welfare existed.

Eliminate the welfare state and open borders are feasible. Keep the welfare state and expect armed borders.

MikeP writes:

The welfare state must eventually rely on immigration recognition to keep the welfare goodies from being an incentive to migrate.

I am partial to (a) no targeted welfare for immigrants for 18 or 20 years and (b) children -- including citizen children -- are on the welfare schedule of their parents.

The borders need not be closed: only the welfare system need be.

MatthewH writes:

I remember reading or hearing something around the time of the Arizona Immigration case that, while they hand't exercised the power in a while, states had controlled their borders at the time of the founding.

It was usually to keep out criminals, blacks, and French Revolutionaries. I suspect this is what "proscribed by any state" refers to. At the national level, the Alien Act and the Alien Enemy Act of 1798 would have been similar laws.

Ken B writes:

I think Mr Econtrarian nailed it. The US did assert sovereignty and control over immigration, it just chose not to exercise it forcefully, being happy with the actual inflows.

If you read 'open borders' in the quote DF mocked the way Bryan Caplan wants, the denial of a right to control entry, then DF's jibe misses its mark. If you interpret it to mean little practical hindrance then DF's citations lose their relevance.

Ken B writes:

Eek. I was too abstract. DF reads the comment as being about very lax enforcement. But if the comment refers to claiming a right, even if not exercising it, then DF's comment doesn't apply.

I claim the right to smoke pot; that I never have is a separate issue entriely. If I say "Lacking the right to smoke pot makes claims of my freedom meaningless" I might be right, wrong, or babbling, but pointing out I don't smoke pot is irrelevant.

Finch writes:

Peter H, I was making an observation, and not really an argument.

But, with that said, I don't think opening the border with Canada would bother most people too much. Although I suppose one could imagine that resulting in a more open border than intended as people traveled through Canada to get to the US. Assuming you could get around that I don't think you'd see much objection.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
MikeP above answered Mr. Econotarian. His quote was all about naturalization and citizenship, not about immigration.

Ken B writes:

@DRH: OK David, substitute the notorious Alien Act of 1798. It asserted the right to deport aliens. That sounds like exactly the sort of claim-in-principle I refer to in my comments.

MikeP writes:

...substitute the notorious Alien Act of 1798...

This would be interesting if supporters of open borders believed the government should not be able to expel provably dangerous people for specific cause individually applied.

Calling the Alien Act "notorious" is frankly hilarious. Compare it to today's immigration law, where almost everyone accepts that the government can legitimately prohibit individuals from living in the US merely because they exceed a quota of people like them.

Also, while exactly zero people were deported based on the Alien Act of 1798, Obama has deported one and a half million people before the end of his first term. Notorious indeed.

Ken B writes:

@MikeP: If the issue is precedent and the logical assertion of a right then the act is quite relevant. The world is filled with copyrighted theses no-one would think to copy.

Whether the Alien Act was worse than Obama's policy is a separate question entirely.

MikeP writes:

Ken B,

Let's remember that this all stems from the comment...

Having open borders renders the entire concept of a country meaningless.

What open borders advocates mean by "open borders" is certainly within the bounds of the Naturalization Act of 1790 or the Alien Act of 1798 or even the Page Act of 1875 if the racism is excised. "Open borders" means that allowing entry is the norm, that entry is denied only for specific cause individually applied in the service of compelling public safety, and that entry or residence are not limited by quota, duration, or permit to work.

If the comment refers to that definition of open borders, as one ought to presume since that is what everyone else thinks it means, then the commenter is plainly wrong. If the comment refers to open borders in the sense you seem to be suggesting, then the commenter is addressing a straw man. If that is the case, then once he realizes what open borders proponents actually mean by the term, he too should gladly become a proponent of open borders.

Ken B writes:

Mike P, what Bryan Caplan means is not covered by that. If you think immigration is a right then you don't fall under it either.

I think the commenter means reserving the right to reject incomers not the practice of doing so. I reserve the right to preach hatred as do many clerics, but don't expect me to exercise it. But having it is part of having freedom of religion wouldn't you say?

MikeP writes:

Ken B,

Reading the original comment, the commenter uses "open borders" to mean failure to enforce the existing law. But by the end of the comment, he displays approval of earlier times when the existing law was less draconian and even more ignored and recognizes that circumstances then were better.

So I think he is saying that, if the government exercises its power over immigration, it needs to mean it, or it's not a country. It's a pretty confused notion.

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