Migration in an Earlier Era of Globalization
Migration in an Earlier Era of Globalization


The most recent era of mass voluntary migration was between 1850 and 1914. ver one million people a year were drawn to the new world by the turn of the 20th century. A World Bank report, International Migration and the Global Economic Order, estimates that 10 percent of the world’s population was migrating in this time period, whereas migration today is around three percent. Growing prosperity, falling transport costs relative to wages, and lower risk all helped to facilitate this era of mass migration. (A situation not unlike that of today) It was also at this earlier time that states developed a formal and regulated system of passports and visas to control the flow of people across national borders.

The effects of the first era of migration can be seen in the population compositions of many countries in the Western Hemisphere. In the latter part of the 19th century, for example, nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population was foreign born, with the overwhelming majority of these immigrants arriving from Europe. Irish and Italian immigrants came in particularly large numbers, as did Russian and East European Jews, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Germans. Most current U.S. citizens of European decent are a product of this period of immigration (O’Rourke, 2001).

At the same time that European emigration was surging during the 19th Century, Chinese and Japanese immigrants were arriving in large numbers to the West Coast of the U.S. and Hawaii (Richin, 1972). However, streams of Asian immigration to the U.S. were quickly halted by a series of restrictive policies targeting Chinese, Japanese and finally all Asian immigrants at the turn of the 20th Century (Daniels 1999).  Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, rapidly developing countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Chile experienced large influxes of Spanish and Portuguese immigrants facilitated by the past colonial connection between their countries, but also received immigrants from Germany, Britain, Italy, Poland, China, and Japan (O’Rourke, 2001).

This wave of immigration to the New World resulted in moments of backlash against immigrants. In the U.S., immigrants were blamed for crime, disease, and the persistence of poverty in the urban centers of the Northeast and Midwest. Furthermore, immigrants formed a large and restless population that seemed ripe for social conflict.

Groups calling for worldwide socialist revolution found adherents among poor immigrants, and immigrants were also prominent members and leaders of labor unions, which were often viewed as potential sources of foreign, socialist opposition to American capitalism. In 1919 and 1920, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer instigated numerous roundups of immigrants during the “Palmer’s Raids,” which led to the deportation of thousands of supposed Communist agitators (Daniels 2002).

At the same time, Asian immigrants were viewed with suspicion and outright racism on the West Coast. In 1878, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese immigrants were prohibited from becoming naturalized American citizens. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act preventing Chinese laborers from coming to the U.S. for ten years; later the act was amended to prohibit virtually all Chinese immigration, a situation that lasted until the mid-1900s.  Similarly, Japanese immigration was restricted by the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement between the governments of Japan and the U.S.  Ultimately, nearly all Asian immigration was banned by the Asiatic Barred Zone provision of the Immigration Act of 1917 (Daniels 2002). By 1924, “undesirable” European migration from Southern and Eastern Europe was also severely diminished through the implementation of a new quota system that strictly limited yearly entrants per migrant-sending country.  Again, this legislation resulted largely from nativist, anti-immigrant sentiments which rose in response to historic levels of immigration.  Curiously, the Western Hemisphere wasn’t subject to the 1924 quotas, allowing Latin American immigrants to fill the U.S. labor demand previously met by European and Asian immigrants (Daniels 2002).

These developments and the global depression of the 1930s significantly reduced migration to the Western Hemisphere. Even as World War II and the Holocaust were on the horizon, Jews trying to get out of Germany and Austria were refused entry to other countries. At the 1938 Evian Conference in France, delegates from dozens of countries declined to increase quota numbers to admit the Jews fleeing persecution, with only one, the Dominican Republic, offering to take in any refugees (Laffer, 2011).


Next: Post World War II Migration