The most recent era of mass voluntary migration was between 1850 and 1914. Over 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 about 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 composition 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, as well as Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, and Germans. Most current U.S. citizens of European decent are a product of this period of immigration.
At the same time, Chinese and Japanese immigrants came to the West Coast of the United States and Hawaii. Elsewhere in the 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.
This wave of immigration resulted in a counter-reaction, however. In the United States, 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, at the time viewed as potential sources of foreign, socialist opposition to American capitalism. In 1919 and 1920, then- Attorney General of the U.S. A. Mitchell Palmer instigated numerous roundups of immigrants, labeled “Palmer’s Raids,” that led to the deportation of thousands of people, on the basis that they were Communist agitators.
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 could be prohibited from becoming naturalized American citizens. In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act preventing Chinese laborers from coming to the United States for ten years, and 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 government of Japan and the United States and banned entirely by the Immigration Act of 1924.
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.