How Open Borders Died in Five Countries
During the last half of the 19th century , many countries competed to attract immigrants. All of them eventually reversed course, but how exactly did this reversal unfold? In “Immigration Policy Prior to the 1930s” (Population and Development Review, 1998), Ashley Timmer and Jeffrey Williamson show what happened to immigration policy in the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, and the United Kingdom from 1860 to 1930.
Timmer and Williamson begin by proposing a policy coding system. Quick version, “The index ranges over a scale of +5 to -5. A positive score denotes a pro-immigration policy, possibly including comprehensive subsidies for passage and for support upon arrival. A negative score denotes anti-immigration policy, possibly including quotas, literacy tests, and legal discriminatory treatment after arrival. A zero denotes policy neutrality, or a neutral outcome between conflicting pro- and anti-immigration policies.” Detailed version:
5 Active worker recruitment abroad with advertising and labor offices, free land or subsidized land purchase, subsidized or assisted passage, temporary lodging, free transport inland from port of arrival, easy naturalization, legal property ownership.
4 Free or subsidized land, immigration treaties or contracts with shipping companies, lodging, worker recruitment, easy naturalization, legal property ownership.
3 Overseas immigration offices, debarkation coordination, land designated for settlement, easy naturalization, legal property ownership.
2 Overseas immigration offices, debarkation coordination, easy naturalization, legal property ownership.
1 Modest advertising, easy naturalization, legal property ownership.
0 Open doors, no encouragement, no discouragement. Or, a balance of pro-immigration and anti-immigrant policies.
-1 Regulations on shipping companies and/or contracts for assisted pas- sage.
-2 Class restrictions on immigration (no paupers, potential wards of the state, criminals) or selective source-country bans (e.g., no Asians).
-3 The above restrictions plus laws for registration, deportation provisions, laws restricting property ownership, unenforced selectivity laws (such as literacy tests).
-4 Restrictive quotas, enforced literacy tests, or other measures designed to reduce immigration volume significantly.
-5 Closed (or only slightly ajar) doors, enforced.
What about countries that combined both pro- and anti-immigration measures?
Whenever we found a mix of pro-immigration and anti-immigration policies, we simply added up the positive and negative attributes to get an overall score. Since a source-country ban on immigration was generally scored -2, and subsidy and recruitment programs were generally scored +3, Canada received a net score of + 1 around the turn of the century. Similarly, in the early twentieth century, Australia recruited and subsidized immigration but also required a dictation test on demand, and we scored this mix a 0 for several years. Because of the mix of policies, we allowed half-steps in the scoring.
Here’s what they find:
Notice: Back when the United States allowed free immigration, other governments actively encouraged it! Indeed, the U.S. looks like the least pro-immigrant country of the bunch. Canada tried a little harder to attract immigrants, Australia, Argentina, and especially Brazil once tried mightily to recruit them, and the U.K. continued to actively promote immigration until at least 1930.
The major drawback with the Timmer-Williamson scores: Since it is based purely on qualitative policy features, it glosses over massive quantitative policy developments. Most obviously, America’s landmark 1924 Immigration Act is invisible in the data. Why? Because the U.S. had already adopted milder quotas in 1921. Indeed, the Timmer-Williamson system would apparently continue to code the U.S. at -5, even after the remarkable liberalization under the 1965 Immigration Act.
But let us not neglect Timmer-Williamson’ great innovation: Revealing the diversity of immigration policy during the “open borders era.” The United States initially opted for laissez-faire, then slowly rolled down the slippery slope of restrictionism. The U.K. aside, the other countries saw larger policy swings. Indeed, most did a full about-face on immigration, switching from active government support to active government opposition. I’ve been studying this issue for decades, and this is still news to me.
Question: Timmer and Williamson provide a nation-by-nation account of their coding in Appendix C of this paper. If you know the history of Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, or the U.K. well, how would you grade their approach?
Oct 10 2018 at 5:08pm
What were the national origins of these immigrants?
What caused the about-face? What is industrialization and urbanization?
Oct 10 2018 at 11:08pm
Substantial increases in restrictions followed these events:
Argentina: Economic depression of 1890.
Australia: Great Depression.
Brazil: Not clear to me that there was any particular economic or political event, but I am not so familiar with Brazilian political history.
Canada: Concern about high levels of immigrants from East Asia in the early 1900s led to restrictions on them. Then World War I came along and Canada established restrictions applicable to certain European immigrants, loosening them after the war but tightening them again after the Great Depression began.
United States: Broadly similar to Canada but without the post-World War I loosening of restrictions.
United Kingdom: I am skeptical about whether it was really as open in practice as it looks in the coding scheme. Would masses of West Indians, or East Indians, really have been able to immigrate?
In summary, depression, world war, and concern about the racial composition of immigrants look to have been the triggers for restrictions.
Oct 11 2018 at 2:35am
Open Borders, to be worthy of its name, must mean non-discrimination of the ethnic and national identity of the potential immigrant. From this, I doubt if any of these countries was Open Borders in any meaningful sense in 1860-1930s. I doubt if Argentina or Brazil sought immigrants from India or advertised in Africa. They probably didn’t even need to make formal laws prohibiting undesirable immigration given that informal barriers were potent enough.
Oct 11 2018 at 6:17am
Did the Soviet Union have open (inbound) borders during the cold war?
Pedro Braga Soares
Oct 11 2018 at 8:51am
I’m Brazilian and know quite a bit about Brazilian history. So I’d say the scores sound pretty accurate.
Up to 1890, Brazil was still and empire. Slave labor was being gradually replaced by free labor (Brazil only abolished slavery in 1888) and migrants were rushed in to fill the coffee plantations. There were mostly private incentives to immigration and some public incentives coordinated by the then province of São Paulo, where free labor was prevalent.
From 1889 on, the monarchy fell and the republic began. As this meant the province-turned-state of São Paulo took hold of the federal government, pro-immigration policies intensifed. The abolition of slavery also played a major role.
In 1930, the first republic fell under a coup. Getúlio Vargas then came to power. He was an authoritarian quasi-fascist dictator. His government severely curtailed immigration. He forced migrants to learn portuguese, created quotas to immigration and passed a law of “nationalization of labor”, demanding that factory labor was at least 2/3 Brazilian.
Oct 12 2018 at 2:49pm
Here is an idea: Why not let the labor force itself (aka parents) freely determine how much labor should be provided rather than letting government dikdat set it?
Oct 18 2018 at 12:44pm
I find it so interesting how Timmer and Williams used a coding system to rate countries on their border policies. Not only is this incredibly intuitive, in my opinion, but seemingly very efficient. The numbering makes since as to how a positive number would indicate an open border and a negative would indicate a closed border. It makes border control policies easier to understand for people who just do not understand policies and laws.
Not only is this system very simple, but it can get slightly more complex with the fact that some countries tend to employ both open and closed border policies. You simply add together the numbers (between -5 and 5) associated with the policy and you get a total that is a summation, which gives the country in question its proper rating in the system.
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