The desirable size and characteristics of current immigrant inflows into the United States, numerically larger than those experienced by any other country in history, are the subject of vigorous debate. This debate has striking antecedents, not only in its passionate intensity but also in the specifics of the arguments enlisted. Reprinted below in full is an especially articulate expression of anti-immigration sentiments and reasoning written by the eminent late-nineteenth-century economist and statistician Francis Amasa Walker. It appeared, under the title “Restriction of Immigration,” in the June 1896 issue of Atlantic Monthly (Volume 77, no. 464, pp. 822–829).
In the 1880s, as Walker notes in this article, more than 5 million foreigners entered US ports. Immigration was accelerating. The 1890 census recorded a total US population of 62.2 million; 9.2 million of these were foreign born. More than 97 percent of this immigrant population came from Europe and Canada. But the composition of immigrants by country of origin, hence by ethnic background, was changing, with southern and eastern Europe taking an increasingly larger share of the total. Regulations on the admissibility of immigrants did bar entry to some persons with personal characteristics deemed undesirable. Walker notes “gross and scandalous neglect” in enforcing even these rules, but his concern is not with the numerically small effect their strict application would entail. He argues for restricting immigration at large—for “protecting the American rate of wages, the American standard of living, and the quality of American citizenship from degradation.” He recognizes that “the prevailing sentiment of our people [is] to tolerate, to welcome, and to encourage immigration, without qualification and without discrimination,” but seeks to refute the rationale underpinning those sentiments. To counter the notion that immigration represents “a net reinforcement of our population,” he sets out the thesis, perhaps most memorably associated with his name, that sees immigration as “a replacement of native by foreign elements”—because it is a cause of the diminishing fertility of the receiving population. He also rejects a second pro-immigration argument, that immigration is necessary “in order to supply the country with a laboring class…able and willing to perform the lowest kind of work,” which native-born Americans now refuse to perform. Such refusal, Walker argues, is the consequence rather than the cause of large-scale immigration.
Walker's positive argument for restricting immigration emphasizes four factors. With the closing of the frontier, land is no longer free for new occupants; mechanization of agriculture now requires less labor for farm production; immigration creates a general labor problem, including unrest and unemployment, formerly unknown in America; and the character of new immigrants is inferior to that of the native population. Walker's main concern is with this last factor. In earlier times, “the average immigrant…was among the most enterprising, thrifty, alert, adventurous, and courageous of the community from which he came,” and immigration was “almost exclusively from western and northern Europe.” With cheap railroad fares and ocean transport, this is no longer so. The new immigrants, increasingly from southern and eastern Europe, “have none of the inherited instincts and tendencies which made it comparatively easy to deal with the immigration of the olden time….They have none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government.” Immigration, thus, is menacing to America's “peace and political safety.” Communities are formed “in which only foreign tongues are spoken, and into which can steal no influence from our free institutions and from popular discussion.” On immigration, Walker concludes, “we should take a rest, and give our social, political, and industrial system some chance to recuperate.”
Walker's advice was not heeded until the 1920s. Immigration to the US in the first decade of the twentieth century amounted to nearly 9 million. In recent decades there has been a resurgence in numbers, and in the decade of the 1990s immigration exceeded 9 million. With that influx came a reinvigorated immigration debate. In the arguments for restriction, immigration from Asia and especially Latin America now substitutes for that from southern and eastern Europe.
Francis A. Walker (1840–97) had a distinguished career as a Union officer in the Civil War, reaching the rank of brigadier-general, as a civil servant in the federal government, and, most notably, as an economist and educator. He was superintendent of the 1870 and 1880 US censuses and served as professor of political economy at Yale (1872–80), president of the American Statistical Association (1882–96), first president of the American Economic Association (1885–92), and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1881–96).