An Immigration Policy That Worked

Could a more open immigration policy work effectively?

A century ago it did, and decisively.

During the peak years of American immigration a century ago, U.S. policy makers managed how the relocation occurred rather than trying to control how many newcomers were allowed in. They set limited and practical goals for adapting to and reducing the risks of mass migration, building and refining a system of limited regulation that was effective, coordinated, reinforcing and long-standing. Their immigration policy “worked” and offers insights that are applicable today.

Drew Keeling 

Draft of 19 December, 2012


DRAFT only: Please contact the author before using or quoting from.

It has been a long time, politically, since America last updated its immigration policy. “Everyone agrees,” President Barack Obama said last year, that “the system is broken.” Now, after the distractions of the 2012 election, might serious repairs be undertaken?

There are three reasons for hope. Firstly, unauthorized U.S. immigration has slowed on its own, following the 2008 financial crash and ensuing recession. This makes it easier to contemplate some “path” to legality for the large number of existing extra-legal immigrants in America, without this immediately setting off new immigration waves. Secondly, the 2012 election results could boost political interest in forging such a path. Thirdly, the continued sluggish economy adds practical appeal to recent studies concluding that increased immigration could be one of the most powerful means available for boosting economic growth.


Immigration often perplexes politicians and intrigues journalists because opinions about it are not divided along typical “fault lines.”  The “progressive” applauds the cultural diversity imparted by immigration, but “left-leaning” labor and environmental groups are more often skeptical; “free-market conservatives” are usually pro-immigration but “social conservatives” are not, and even naturalized immigrant voters often disagree about what has changed or ought to change compared to when they themselves immigrated. The political experience of the past decade in America supports a bipartisan consensus that immigration policy is “broken” but not politically repairable. Immigration and views on it are cyclical, however, and a new upsurge of interest in political fixes may now be in store.


A recent Economist article [November 17, 2012, p. 72] cited studies indicating that the potential economic benefits of significantly increased international migration “swamp the benefits of eliminating remaining barriers to trade.” This finding underlines the role of migration policy. “If policymakers can see past their fear of the foreign, the dividends could be huge.” The results of and reactions to American’s national elections this month suggest that a “badly needed” change of “political tone” might lie ahead. A recent New York Times editorial  saw “new hope” for such a changed tone. Now that the election has scared “some of the immigration opportunists back onto the bipartisan bus,” the newspaper opined, “Mr. Obama and Congress need to act.”


Assuming for the moment that they can actually agree to act meaningfully, the key question then becomes how might a “saner and better,” and fairer and more effective, policy actually be adopted and implemented ?

There are two levels to the “how” challenge. At a local level, flexible politicians are often pushed hardest by constituents opposed to any changes other than toughening restrictions. At the national level, political leaders favoring immigration reform may thus have to actively persuade lower echelons, possibly by pitching their positions directly to voters. Sometimes, however, the most politically persuasive argument is non-political in nature. The studies discussed by Economist, for example, attempt to gauge what the impact upon world GDP if barriers to migration were to be lifted, permitting “full labour mobility” internationally. But, there is also another complementary approach, less direct yet more tangible, and innovative yet firmly anchored in tradition: we can look at what actually did happen in a past era when legal barriers against large-scale international movements of people were fewer and much lower than today.


A century ago, mass migration between Europe and the Western Hemisphere was subject to minimal restriction, and the flows were at or near all-time highs relative to population levels. Most of these European emigrés headed for the United States, where most of them eventually stayed permanently. On the order of a third of American citizens today have as ancestors one or more of the eleven million immigrants who arrived on several hundred large steamships plying between Europe and the United States during the period 1900 to 1914. These immigrants faced difficult challenges, adjustments, and sacrifices, found tears as well as joy, incurred pains as well as reaping gains, and some eventually returned to Europe disappointed. But, on the whole, they gained economically from their migration, and the U.S. economy did too. And, while there were periodically active and even heated debates over immigration policy in those days, declarations that the policy was “broken” did not feature in such debates.


The decades prior to the First World War were marked by rising calls for immigration restriction, growing xenophobia, and racism, but the effect on migration flows was minimal, and only a small fraction of European immigrants was detained or sent back from Ellis Island. In that laissez faire era, governments did little to try influence the scale or ameliorate the effects of business cycle recessions (and migrants “self-insured” against them using their family networks, and often relied on ongoing steamship service to return to Europe and wait out recessions there). Early twentieth century U.S. authorities, however, tapped the resources of the large multinational Atlantic shipping lines. Steering between the competing pressures of restrictionists and open-border advocates, the U.S. government struck a political balance that kept barriers to migration low, but actively addressed tangible migration risks such as imported diseases and general hazards from and to large crowds. In return for port infrastructure, postal subsidies and borders kept largely free of barriers, the shipping lines cooperated by helping screen out the small fraction of immigrants designated as excludable. The story of how this cooperative interaction helped further widely shared interests in keeping migration relatively smooth, safe, and transparent has relevance for those confronting current immigration policy challenges, despite important differences between migration patterns and processes then and now.

Compared to today, immigration a century ago was less complicated and diffuse, and the choices of how to deal with it more limited and clear-cut. Over ninety-five percent of early twentieth century transatlantic migrants to the United States entered through four large and easily monitored ports, arriving thousands at a time on well-documented and regularly inspected week-long crossings. Nearly half made but one single relocation to North America, their “transplantation” more deliberate and their subsequent integration more pragmatically unavoidable than in today’s “global village.” Population growth was a scarcely questioned principal means of economic growth, and employers made money expanding foreign-born workforces, not outsourcing jobs internationally. A handful of large and long-lived steamship companies was a powerful and ubiquitously obvious intermediary force readily able to profit from active but limited regulation of its core business, in a way that has no noticeable parallel today.


Some of the implications of this past history are nonetheless compelling. Shapers of U.S. immigration policy in the early 1900s sought to manage how immigration took place, not determine how many immigrated. They aimed at enhanced quality, not reduced quantity. They consciously favored practical adaptation to immigration rather than control over its magnitudes. They set limited and achievable goals to improve the processes and reduce the risks of mass migration, not to significantly influence its ultimate outcomes. They used popular and political ambiguity on immigration as an argument for building and refining a system of limited regulation that was effective, coordinated, reinforcing and long-standing. They were largely successful in developing an immigration policy that “worked” and has relevance for today, notwithstanding important differences between then and now.


One of the most outstanding efforts at Congressional bipartisan lawmaking in recent years was the ultimately stymied 2006 attempt at comprehensive immigration reform. The obstacles to significant revision of U.S. immigration policy remain formidable today regardless of any renewed interest on Capitol Hill. A century ago, well-organized vested interests successfully defended the then long-standing immigration policy of qualitative management against growing but disparate calls for quantitative limitations. Today, institutional and ideological inertia supports existing quota-based limitations on immigration and thwarts often persuasive but generally not politically well-organized efforts at moving policy from ineffective control towards pragmatic adaptation.


Nonetheless, after many years in which immigration issues often served mainly as material for political rhetoric, more practical perspectives may now gain in priority. After all, legitimate and continuing differences over the general desirability of immigration need not preclude sensible measures to improve the efficiency, transparency and fairness by which it occurs. Over a decade ago, migration scholar Douglas Massey recommended accepting migration as a “natural outgrowth” of the global economy, and designing policies to augment “desirable features” and retard “negative consequences.” This proposed approach not only remains cogent today, it also is a reasonable approximation of the policies actually followed successfully on the North Atlantic a century ago. Ellis Island’s commissioner spoke for many in 1913 when he said that there would always be honest disagreement about whether immigration should be encouraged or discouraged, but not about the desirability of improving the means by which immigrants joined the U.S. economy.


After nearly a century of trying to control immigration using numerical quotas, perhaps it is time to now more forthrightly acknowledge that that approach has deep-rooted flaws, and to take a closer look at replicable aspects of the system used in the century prior to that. A policy regulating process and conditions first and foremost, and placing a lower emphasis on numerical targets or limits, might bring benefits for immigrants, for their origin countries, and for the United States, as it did a century ago.