Bryan Caplan has an interesting post on the recent Swiss referendum to restrict immigration from the European Union. Tyler Cowen also blogged on the same issue twice. Caplan’s point is that the Swiss imposed restrictions because there was insufficient immigration rather than too much. Areas of Switzerland that had fewer immigrants voted to restrict immigration while areas with many immigrants voted to keep the doors open.
A similar theory could explain why immigration quotas were first imposed in the United States after World War I. That war substantially reduced immigration from Europe. From 1904 through 1914, almost 1 million immigrants arrived annually in the United States – a total of 10.9 million. This large population, combined with their children, opposed numerous legislative efforts to restrict immigration from Europe.
|1st Gen %||2nd Gen %||1st+2nd Gen %|
|^1990 = 1993|
World War I erupted in August 1914, slowing immigration and causing the percentage of immigrants to decline more than the increase in the second generation. During the four years of the war, slightly more than one million immigrants arrived. That minor decline, especially in the 1st generation, might be part of the reason why anti-immigration politicians succeeded in passing the first immigration quotas in 1921. During that time many non-citizens could vote and it was much easier to naturalize than it is today.
The post-war U.S. recession, the continuing blockade of Germany, and chaos in Europe prevented immigration from rebounding until 1921 when 805,228 people immigrated – the same year that numerical quotas restricted immigration for the first time. If the pre-war pace of immigration was uninterrupted by World War I, 4.6 million additional immigrants would have landed in America by that time – boosting the immigrant share of the population to somewhat less than 17.7 percent of the total population and the second generation by a smaller amount too. Combined, the first and second generations would have been equal to around 40 percent of the American population. Supporters of immigration restrictions might have understood this and known that immigration from Europe was about to rapidly accelerate, meaning that they only had a narrow window to approve restrictions before the changing nativity of the population made that more politically difficult.
Several reasons would have made it more difficult to achieve the 1921 vote to restrict immigration if there were that many more immigrants.