Control of Immigration

[Republished from The Political Science Quarterly, by permission of Gins & Co.]
By Prof. Richmond M. Smith.

It is constantly happening in practical politics that a line of conduct which at one time seems advisable and even necessary after a while lands the nation in such difficulties that it must in some way be changed. There is at first great difficulty in doing this. The old truth has been so firmly believed and so often and so positively affirmed that a feeling of shame prevents its fiat repudiation.

The first attack on it is made in an apologetic spirit and with the assertion, perhaps, that this is an exceptional case, and that the general rule still holds good. Possibly a direct breach is made in the old rule without any attempt at apology, it being considered better to ignore the connection between the present example and the previous cases.

Gradually, however, necessity compels the more frequent infringement of the old principle and finally its entire abandonment. Then it often happens that the former believers are the most violent in their attacks on the old belief as new converts are proverbially the most zealous persecutors.

The old principle is denounced in unmeasured terms and the contrary course is fanatically followed without the perception that it is as one-sided as the old. Men by nature are partisan, and their intellectual convictions, even in the most cold-blooded questions of political expediency, are largely determined by their emotions.

The present movement in favor of restricting immigration is an example of this process of revising our policy in such a way as to break with our previous beliefs and principles. The whole history of this country, of course, has been one of colonialization and immigration.

Brief History of Immigration to the United States

The original need was for labor—a need which, at one time, in fact satisfied itself by the compulsory importation of negroes to work the rice and sugar fields of the South.

The task which lay before the original settlers was immense. There was in front of them to be subdued a wilderness 3,000 miles wide, covered with primeval forest, unbroken by roads and even unexplored.

The colonists could have maintained his equanimity in the presence of this great task only by ignoring it and contenting himself with an open frontier subject to Indian invasions as one of the ordinary conditions of existence.

His life was a sort of constant picket duty, without relief or furlough, and practically without truce. But although the original settler did not trouble himself with the problem how the whole continent was to be filled up and add to the realm of civilization.

And although he probably had very vague notions as to when such a result would be consummated, yet the spirit of history was busy with the task and brought it to a conclusion much sooner than could have been deemed possible. At first the progress was extremely slow.

The active force was only the original body of colonists, few in number and armed with the hand implements of the seventeenth century, and not the best of these. The principal addition to this original labor-force came from the natural increase of the population and its excess over the mortality.

This excess was very considerable, although the mortality must have been large during the first few years of the settlement. But, although the rate of increase was perhaps the largest of which we have any historic example, yet the basis for the increase was so insignificant that the absolute numbers remained small.

At the close of the Revolution there were less than 3,000,000 men in the thirteen colonies.[ 1 ] It would have taken a very long period for natural increase to have covered this continent, especially with the facilities for transportation then afforded.

It is well known that two influences, neither of which could have been foreseen, have changed these conditions and brought the whole continent under the subjection of 60,000,000 people. These two things are railroads and foreign immigration on a large scale.

Railroads began to be built in 1830; and the foreign immigration, which be gan to be considerable as early as 1820, acquired immediate proportions in the forties and fifties.

These two things have given us the labor-force necessary to subdue the wilderness and the means of placing this labor force exactly where it is most needed and most profitable. Both of them have been necessary, and without them it is utterly improbable that wo could have attained the place wo now hold.

We owe our position as one of the great nations of the world to these two things, and to immigration as much as to railroads. It would be easy also to point out what an important influence this immigration of free laborers, coming as they did overwhelmingly to the Northern States, has had on our internal politics, especially in settling the question of slavery.

When wo consider all these things we shall readily agree that immigration has been one of the prime factors in our development. In accordance with this fact we have always pursued the policy of encouraging it aud have welcomed the immigrants to our shores.

Why That Policy Should Change Now

There are, I conceive, several reasons which might lead us to think of doing this.

  1. It might be shown, for instance, that various undesirable consequences of this immigration-are now for the first time becoming apparent.
  2. It might be maintained that the immigrants are now no longer of the same character as those of the earlier decades, and are not a desirable element for the community to acquire.
  3. It might be held that the country has reached a stage of development where it no longer needs immigrants, and that what was formerly a blessing is now an embarrassment. If any one of these assertions be true, it would, in my opinion, be a perfectly good reason for discouraging immigration in the future then would come up
  4. Questions of political science; as to the abstract right of immigration; as to the effect of restriction on our international relations, and how such a policy would accord with our general political system aud our avowed principles.
  5. There would be, finally, the question of the administrative measures necessary, not so much, perhaps, to prohibit or even restrict immigration as to control it so as to escape its evils. This would finish the discussion.

It is the object of the following paper to collect what evidence and opinion is accessible on these different points aud to present it in an impartial manner. The issue of the whole will probably bo simply this: We shall recognize once more that mod ern civilization has developed social forces which it is impossible to dam up, but which need to be guided into safe channels; aud we shall be warned again to " put our house in order."

1 "At the recent meeting of the American Antiquarian Society, Prof. F. B. Dexter presented an important paper on ' The Estimates of Population in the New England Colonies.' The general conclusions are that in 1640 the British colonies contained an aggregate population of a little over 25,000 whites—60 per cent, in New England— most of tho remainder in Virginia. In 1660 the total had increased to 80,000—half of them in Maryland and Virginia. In 1680 the number was probably a little over 200.000; it reached half a million in 1721, 1,000,000 in 1743, and 2,000,000 in 1767. This period was marked by rapid growth of the middle colonies.

Although the increase just before the Revolution was rapid, the population at the outbreak of tho war can ne-t have been much more than two and a half million. These figures are on the whole somewhat lower than Bancroft's; for the later dates there is a tolerably constant difference of 4 or 5 percent. The Revolutionary war caused a sudden check to the growth of population; in Rhode Island and Georgia there was an absolute spite of the estimate of C. B. Elliott in 'Walker's Statistical Alias' (1874), giving more than 3,000,000 in 1780, it does not seem probable that this number was reached until two or three years after the close of the war."— The (N. Y.) Evening Post, December 3, 1887.

Smith, Richmond M., "Control of Immigration," in Testimony Taken by the Select Committee of the House of Representatives to Inquire into the Alleged Violation of the Laws Prohibiting the Importation of Contract Laborers, Paupers, Convicts, and Other Classes. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1888.

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