One of the hottest political topics today on both sides of the Atlantic is immigration. What, though, do we mean by this and what light does history cast on our present concerns and anxieties?
Migration, the movement and resettlement of people, is one of the universals of history. In some periods it happens on a relatively small scale, while at other times there are large-scale movements with significant effects. Sometimes entire tribes or ethnic groups move as single entities. This is a frequent feature of the history of Africa for example and can also be observed in many parts of Eurasia during the Late Antique period between roughly 250 AD and the eighth century.
The other form that migration takes, which has become the norm in most of the world since the Middle Ages, is individualistic. Here individuals or families move from one part of the world to another.
A lot of literature is concerned with what motivates people and households to migrate. There is a longstanding debate over whether it is “push” factors (the desire to get away from unpleasant conditions) or “pull” ones (the desire to move to a place with better conditions) that should be emphasized. Recent work suggests that although in reality most cases involve a mixture of both, “pull” is commonly more important than “push.”
Another feature identified by recent research is “chain migration,” in which the individuals who initially migrate are then followed by relatives and people from their own immediate place of origin. This explains why most migration is not random or uniform but tends to be from one specific place to another equally specific place, with the reasons for the original movement by the “pathfinder” often personal and idiosyncratic. The central point, however, is the individuality and personal nature of the decisions that both constitute and drive the process of migration.
Today there is a tendency to see the extent and level of migration as unprecedented. This is not true. In this, as in other respects, we are only starting to approach the situation of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. At that time the plethora of border controls that we now have to deal with was hardly even imagined. In Europe in 1900 only two states required a passport for entry, the Russian and Ottoman Empires. This was regarded as a sign of their backwardness—the long-term trend in most parts of the world for the previous 200 years had been for controls on movement to fade away or be abolished.
The scale of migration in the nineteenth century was massive both absolutely and proportionally. Between 1815 and 1914, more than 20 million people emigrated from the United Kingdom. To put this into context, the overall net increase of British population between 1801 and 1911 was 26.5 million. (Thirteen of the 20 million went to the United States.) Britain was not alone in this. No fewer than 5.5 million Italians emigrated between 1900 and 1910, mostly to the United States and Argentina. In Sweden 20 percent of the total population emigrated between 1860 and 1910. Nor was movement on this scale confined to Europe; there were enormous movements within Africa and parts of Asia, such as China and India, not to mention the Russian Empire, while the United States saw the steady movement of population out to the west.
The last few examples and the American case in particular highlight two central points that need to be made about migration in the modern world. The first is that since 1800 the significant migration has been not so much from one part of the world to another as from the countryside to the city. To move from rural Sicily or the Ukraine to Milan or Kiev was as dramatic a move in many ways as from either location to New York.
The other point is that what matters is movement per se, not movement that happens to cross a geopolitical border. In terms of its impact, both on the individuals involved and in the aggregate on the places of origin and reception, there is no fundamental difference between movement within the boundaries of a state and movement that crosses over those boundaries. To take a more recent example, the United States was profoundly changed by the massive movement from south to north that took place between 1920 and 1960 (with a lull during the Depression), a migration contained entirely within the boundaries of one nation-state. In Britain large migration from England into South Wales between 1890 and 1920 completely transformed the recipient society. Among other things it made Welsh a clear minority language as compared to English. Many large cities in Scotland and the north of England were deeply affected by the inward movement of large numbers of Irish from the 1840s onwards.
Thus it is not really a question of whether immigration (or indeed emigration) should be controlled, but whether the movement of people beyond their immediate locality should be regulated. If the concern is that the unintended outcome of many individual decisions to move will be changes in society and ways of life, these are as likely to arise when the movement is within a state as when it is over the borders of a state.
Many pre-modern regimes recognized this. Thus the Chinese state for much of its history had a system of internal controls that (at least in theory) restricted movement within the empire. In medieval times there were legal restrictions on the freedom of movement for most of the lower orders of society. Opposition to immigration because of social and cultural effects is a species of the wider genus of opposition to change in general, just as protectionism and restraints on trade and exchange are partly driven by the fear of the changes brought about by free economic choices of individuals.
Individuals and families make many decisions over such matters as what to buy, what kind of work to do, and where to live. In the aggregate these personal decisions produce large-scale unintended outcomes that are often discomfiting to many. The question is whether should we accept these outcomes and trust human interaction and ingenuity expressed through personal actions and cooperation to deal with any problems, or whether should we use political power and accept the position that collective choices should trump individual ones.
If we adopt the second position we should recognize that what drives it is, above all, the desire, in the words of Hilaire Belloc, to “always keep ahold of nurse, for fear of getting something worse.” If we are tempted to do so, there is something else to consider. British commentators have engaged in much hand-wringing over how the recent influx of migrants from Eastern Europe is putting a huge strain on schools, public housing, social-welfare departments, the police, and public transport. These all have one thing in common: They are provided by the state. There are no anguished complaints from grocery stores, restaurants, or private landlords. They have adapted, started to provide new services and products, and gained from the influx of new skills. We should note this contrast and learn from it.