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The Refugee Crisis, The UK and US Elections and the Birth of Restriction
From Suella Braverman's adherence to Rwanda, to white anxieties about Asians in the gold rush, the history of immigration restriction is relatively short, but thick.
Miss Braverman seems immunised from consequences and busily pulling up the snaky ladder of immigration behind her. Britain’s first Home Secretary to have served two terms in less than a week has insisted that she will maintain the long term plan to temporarily house refugees to the UK in luxury hotels in Rwanda. Do they have luxury hotels? How we got here is a messy discussion, spanning four continents, and nearly 150 years, but it might frame things better if we examine how new and unique immigration restriction is to our society.
Back in the good old days of the early 1870’s, you know, when cheap labour meant children, it was relatively unheard of to need permission to travel somewhere. The very concept of immigration or migration rules was non-existent. Rule Britannia! The British were especially peripatetic. The Victorians travelled at will. But not just the British, migrants from across Europe took advantage and travelled not just around their own continent, but into the abundant territories and prosperity offered by the New World. And not the Orwellian version - or not quite yet…
The post civil-war years of US history were in particular marked by an explosion of European immigration, not only did continuing flows of Irish and Scottish migrants bulge the East Coast of the young nation, but now large groups of Italians, Germans, Greeks and Jewish migrants were making their way to the country’s Eastern Seaboard.
But this ‘mongrel’ potpourri of European immigrants were not the only group looking to join the fledgling Republic for which its manifestation of destiny was still a work in progress. The very same California gold rush that drew thousands of American adventurers to the far Western shores of the nation, proved similarly attractive to a whole new kind of US immigrant. Chinese migrants crossed the Atlantic, visiting Hawaii, Alaska, and most importantly California to take advantage of the gold rush, the labour on offer, and made a solid living in only a few years before retiring home to China comparatively wealthy. Like a long cruise holiday with gold nuggets as souvenirs.
The Chinese “Coolies” represented a unique immigrant group for the United States. Previously the largest immigrant group had been Irish, certainly not considered desirable immigrants on their arrival, but undeniably European in ancestry and eventually willingly admitted into the white identity that entitled Americans to become a part of the national fabric. You know, like Dwayne Johnson.
The Chinese immigrants were not white though, and nor could they be folded into the Euro-American understanding of whiteness as Southern Europeans and Irish were eventually allowed. This presented Americans, now settling the West Coast, with an issue, namely, a competitive labour force they felt endangered their race, and threatened their economic position. The original people ‘coming to take our jobs’. Plus ca change…
The result of the new reality was violence and rioting. Political participation in the American project suddenly became increasingly attractive. California, Oregon and Nevada had become important states by the 1880’s, representing a form of swing region in the US that was accessible to both the Northern Republicans who were detested in the post-Reconstruction south, and the Southern Democrats who were untenable in the abolitionist north.
The key issue to the voters of these states? Chinese immigration and white control of the American borders. Eventually one of the parties adopted this position, and jockeyed to claim West Coast votes. Turns out a party selling out their principles to win populist voters is not just a 21st century phenomenon. Northern Republicans renewed their Nativism, this time targeting the Chinese migrant worker rather then their traditional Northeastern enemy, the Catholic Irish. ‘Invader’ indeed…
In 1882 the US passed the first Restriction law in it’s history, the Immigration Act which aimed to prevent the migration of supposedly “forced” labourers from China. This was followed up with the 1888 Scott Act which further toughened the border to Chinese migrants, and the political capital behind it would also power the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan preventing Japanese migration to the US, and the 1924 Immigration Act which ended Asian migration to the US, and began putting restrictions on European migrants as well. Stay with me.
The bountiful shores at either end of America meant there was a growing list of candidate countries to exclude. You were lucky if you managed to float in without checks previously. You know, a bit like bus hopping before the bus pass.
What does this have to do with the UK though?
As we get reminded so often Britain, at the time, was in the heyday of the “Empire”. The Americans provided the first example of migrant restriction in a major Western Economy - but just got the ball rolling. They acted first on the nativist fears, but British Canada was not free of West Coast anxieties about Asian migration. Threatened by both East Asian immigrants and the substantial movement of British subjects from South Asia to the white settler colony, Canadian and British legislators followed US legislators in regulating their new Asian immigrants.
Just 3 years behind the US, in 1885, Canada implemented a head tax on Asian immigrants, requiring them to pay $50 to enter Canada. The charge rose to $500 by 1903. Nice money if you can get it. When charging failed to prevent enough Chinese migration to the nation, British Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923, and banned the entry of new Chinese migrants to Canada. In the 24 years the Act was in place just 50 Chinese immigrants entered Canada.
Back in merry England, the first immigration restrictions were being put in place as well.
In 1905, reflecting concerns over growing Jewish immigration from Europe, the British Parliament passed the Aliens Act, refusing entry to those perceived to potentially produce a burden on the state. Apparently we do, though, let absentee Prime Ministers burden our state. The interestingly named Aliens Act provided the justification Britain would use to turn away the significant numbers of Jews desperate to escape Germany in the 1930’s. Despite the Act or maybe because of its effectiveness migrant restriction was not a significant concern of the UK (outside its white settler colonies) for a very long time.
In fact in 1962, having issues with a depleted male workforce following the Second World War, Britain passed the opposite of a restriction act. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act invited migrants from its vast empire to come to the UK, and help the nation recover from the wartime destruction. The goodwill did not last long, by 1968, a Second Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed to restrict the migration of British Kenyan Asians, who had fled the newly independent state for fear of Africanisation campaigns eradicating them. Instead, these talented people had to expand their long distant running skills to get away.
But perhaps the 1962 Act is most famous for the group of immigrants who most significantly met Britain’s call for colonial subjects to help rebuild the metropole. The Windrush generation were rushed (sorry) from the West Indies to rebuild the British nation, and in so doing gain British citizenship and the chance at a successful life in the empire’s capital.
It is this group who have been most publicly punished for this decision, with the previous (somehow despite it being just 6 years since she left the position) Home Secretary, Theresa May, taking the chance to question and arguably harass the community of West Indies migrants who had come to Britain upon request, and done so swiftly and without thought of modern ideas of immigration papers and proof of their right to remain.
Closer to our timeline, 1981 saw Britain vastly turn around this open immigration policy, with Thatcher’s government putting in place the British Nationality Act, which restricted British Citizenship to just those with a close connection to the UK, with those born in the empire now either British Overseas Citizens or British Dependent Territories Citizens, gaining harsher restrictions on their ability to travel in and out of the UK. Where once they had invited the vast skills and talents of the British Empire to help rebuild the UK, Britain was now choosing to prevent the loss of a “British” identity to the centre of the largest multinational empire in Global history.
That brings us to today. Scandals in the Windrush have opened eyes to the willingness of the British government to turn away even rightful immigrants, while the Rwanda Plan reflects on the last ten years of increasing Conservative anxiety on the character of immigrants to the UK, and the insistence that we keep immigrant numbers below seven figures.
The Rwanda plan is just another in a long line of British and Euro-American schemes to restrict immigration to supposedly white societies, even when the people trying to come are those displaced by decisions that often those same nations made to bomb, destabilise and depose governments in African and Middle Eastern nations.
Now we have an Anglophone world where immigration is the topic of political fascination. America’s obsession with immigration will surely form a major factor in the midterm elections, with the focus of exclusion now being the apparent hordes flooding through the Southern border, and much less attention now paid to Asian immigrants arriving in the west.
Will climate change become the new shepherd of migrants and people traffickers?
Immigration is becoming a topic of increasing importance given the currently expanding climate migration crisis. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an annual average of 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related events - such as floods, storms, wildfires and extreme temperatures - since 2008. These numbers are expected to surge in coming decades with forecasts from international thinktank the IEP predicting that 1.2 billion people could be displaced globally by 2050 due to climate change and natural disasters.
We had better design the optimal immigration policies before the new ‘climate induced flooding’ becomes people, not water!
In the UK, our Home Secretary, of Asian/African descent, describes refugees as invaders of the South Coast. You wait! There once was a time where free movement ruled in our island. Now, Albanian criminals are accused of helping funnel “illegal refugees” into our nation. And somehow, this is becoming an increasingly typical topic of our politics.
We must understand the changing history of our immigration to understand how white supremacy and anxiety has turned a world where any person can go anywhere into a world where immigration numbers are tracked like a worrying inflation chart. Britain can be proud to have a daughter and son of immigration as Home Secretary and Prime Minister. Yet, it seems, those very souls and families who benefited from Britain’s previous generosity of spirit are determined to make criminals of the new immigrants.
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