1896: Immigration and The Atlantic
In 2013, The Atlantic sympathetically profiled the open borders movement. Quite a change from this piece the magazine ran in 1896, when nearly open borders still prevailed. The author, Francis Walker, begins with admirable clarity:
When we speak of the restriction of immigration, at the present time, we have
not in mind measures undertaken for the purpose of straining out from the vast
throngs of foreigners arriving at our ports a few hundreds, or possibly
thousands of persons, deaf, dumb, blind, idiotic, insane, pauper, or criminal,
who might otherwise become a hopeless burden upon the country, perhaps even an
active source of mischief…
proposed is, not to keep out some hundreds, or possibly thousands of persons,
against whom lie specific objections like those above indicated, but to exclude
perhaps hundreds of thousands, the great majority of whom would be subject to
no individual objections; who, on the contrary, might fairly be expected to
earn their living here in this new country, at least up to the standard known
to them at home, and probably much more. The question to-day is not of
preventing the wards of our almshouses, our insane asylums, and our jails from
being stuffed to repletion by new arrivals from Europe; but of protecting the
American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the quality of
American citizenship from degradation through the tumultuous access of vast
throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and
Walker’s view, perhaps surprisingly, is that open borders continued to enjoy popular support:
The first thing to be said respecting any serious proposition importantly to
restrict immigration into the United States is, that such a proposition
necessarily and properly encounters a high degree of incredulity, arising from
the traditions of our country. From the beginning, it has been the policy of
the United States, both officially and according to the prevailing sentiment of
our people, to tolerate, to welcome, and to encourage immigration, without
qualification and without discrimination. For generations, it was the settled
opinion of our people, which found no challenge anywhere, that immigration was
a source of both strength and wealth. Not only was it thought unnecessary
carefully to scrutinize foreign arrivals at our ports, but the figures of any
exceptionally large immigration were greeted with noisy gratulation.
Friends of immigration often point out that nativists today make the same arguments they made a century ago. Nativists typically respond that times have changed. Walker shows that even the “times have changed” argument is over a century old:
It is, therefore, natural to ask, Is it possible that our fathers
and our grandfathers were so far wrong in this matter? Is it not, the rather,
probable that the present anxiety and apprehension on the subject are due to
transient causes or to distinctly false opinions, prejudicing the public mind?
The challenge which current proposals for the restriction of immigration thus
encounter is a perfectly legitimate one, and creates a presumption which their
advocates are bound to deal with. Is it, however, necessarily true that if our
fathers and grandfathers were right in their view of immigration in their own
time, those who advocate the restriction of immigration to-day must be in the
wrong? Does it not sometimes happen, in the course of national development,
that great and permanent changes in condition require corresponding changes of
opinion and of policy?
What exactly has changed?
1. “Complete exhaustion of the free public lands.”
Fifty years ago, thirty years ago, vast tracts of
arable laud were open to every person arriving on our shores, under the
Preemption Act, or later, the Homestead Act. A good farm of one hundred and
sixty acres could be had at the minimum price of $1.25 an acre, or for merely
the fees of registration. Under these circumstances it was a very simple matter
to dispose of a large immigration. To-day there is not a good farm within the
limits of the United States which is to be had under either of these acts… The immigrant must
now buy his farm from a second hand, and he must pay the price which the value
of the land for agricultural purposes determines. In the case of ninety-five
out of a hundred immigrants, this necessity puts an immediate occupation of the
soil out of the question.
2. Falling agricultural prices.
There has been a
great reduction in the cost of producing crops in some favored regions where
steam-ploughs and steam-reaping, steam-threshing, and steam-sacking machines
can be employed; but there has been no reduction in the cost of producing crops
upon the ordinary American farm at all corresponding to the reduction in the
price of the produce. It is a necessary consequence of this that the ability to
employ a large number of uneducated and unskilled hands in agriculture has
3. The rise of unions.
Still a third cause which may be indicated, perhaps more important than either
of those thus far mentioned, is found in the fact that we have now a labor
problem… There is no country of Europe which has not for a long
time had a labor problem; that is, which has not so largely exploited its own
natural resources, and which has not a labor supply so nearly meeting the
demands of the market at their fullest, that hard times and periods of
industrial depression have brought a serious strain through extensive
non-employment of labor. From this evil condition we have, until recently,
happily been free. During the last few years, however, we have ourselves come
under the shadow of this evil, in spite of our magnificent natural resources.
Walker predictably paints open borders as a form of charity:
For it is never to be forgotten that self-defense is the first law of nature
and of nations. If that man who careth not for his own household is worse than
an infidel, the nation which permits its institutions to be endangered by any
cause which can fairly be removed is guilty not less in Christian than in
natural law. Charity begins at home; and while the people of the United States
have gladly offered an asylum to millions upon millions of the distressed and
unfortunate of other lands and climes, they have no right to carry their
hospitality one step beyond the line where American institutions, the American
rate of wages, the American standard of living, are brought into serious peril.
And he charmingly ends with intra-white racism:
The problems which so sternly confront us to-day are
serious enough without being complicated and aggravated by the addition of some
millions of Hungarians, Bohemians, Poles, south Italians, and Russian Jews.
The most striking feature of the essay: It moves back and forth between sounding totally dated and entirely modern. All the specific economic conditions – the focus on land, farming, and unions – sound totally dated. Yet the fundamental philosophy – the misanthropy, national socialism, the effort to paint immigrants as charity cases – sound entirely modern. It’s almost as if immigration restriction – then as now – is merely a solution in search of a problem.