Still Closing the Gates

Russian Jews arriving in Grimsby (image courtesy of Manchester Jewish Museum)

At the end of October 2012, under the banner headline “The Tories’ barmiest policy”, The Economist’s front page carried a colour photograph of the white cliffs of Dover dwarfed by massive signs proclaiming “IMMIGRANTS KEEP OUT”, “NO TALENT BEYOND THIS POINT” and “Short Stay Only”. Closed-door policies always come at a price. Britain’s first moves to seal its borders, just over one hundred years ago, sent out a message of hostility to refugees and economic migrants and, as a result, the vast majority of East European migrants chose to bypass Britain altogether and travel on to the United States — a major loss to a country that had once prided itself on its liberal ideals. The numbers of immigrants arriving in Britain fell steadily after the 1905 Aliens Act began to restrict entry, while in the United States — where no comprehensive system of immigration control was introduced until the mid-i920s — the annual figures rose to a peak of over one million in the years before the First World War. The immigrant contribution to the US is widely known and, of course, these are countries with very different histories. But today, as the US debates the possibility of liberalising its immigration policies, while in Britain political discussion frequently turns on the question of how best to control migration, it is worth asking whether history is repeating itself.

Why did Britain’s first immigration control legislation matter? The most important answer is that the 1905 Aliens Act permanently changed the country’s political culture. For most of the nineteenth century, Britain took freedom of movement for granted and — while it lacked the ideological importance of free trade, freedom of speech or freedom of conscience—there was no official attempt to discourage foreign labour or political exiles. Indeed Britain liked to think of itself as “the asylum of nations”: as The Times editorialised loftily in 1853 “there is no point whatever on which we are prouder or more resolute.” Certainly extremist political views were no bar to entry — anarchists like Kropotkin and Bakunin settled in the UK in the 1860s and 1870s — and nor was there a compulsory system of passports to regulate the flow of travellers in and out of its territory. This liberal political culture did not vanish overnight, but its principles became less confident, less acceptable, at least as far as immigration was concerned. After 1905 it became possible to write the history of immigration policy in terms of what political scientist Desmond King has called “the tension between liberal and illiberal elements” or political ideas, ideas that have long been common to both American and British societies, yet which have taken different forms at different times. This tension goes to the heart of the 1905 Aliens Act which was a panicked response to exaggerated fears that the country would soon be swamped by millions of “destitute” migrants—especially Jews — as social, economic and political conditions in Russia and Poland rapidly deteriorated. The government’s response was a compromise: on the one hand, it put in place measures designed to keep poor migrants out while, on the other, under pressure from its parliamentary opponents, it reluctantly retained the older liberal approach to those fleeing religious or political persecution at home. From the 1840s, but particularly after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, and then on a rapidly increasing scale in the 1890s, the mass movement of people presented a new challenge to British society. However, in practice—as in subsequent 20th and 21st century migration crises — there was no neat dividing line between the refugee and the so-called “economic migrant.” The potent mix of discrimination, violence and declining employment opportunities meant that Russia, even for those not directly affected by the pogroms, was being radically destabilised and “emigration without return”, to use Theodor Herzl’s pithy phrase, seemed an extremely attractive option.

The British press fuelled public resentment with its increasingly belligerent tone: “THE ALIEN INVASION”, “NO PAUPER IMMIGRATION”, “KEEP THE ALIENS OUT!” were typical headlines at the turn of the century. Their aggressive tone and phraseology paradoxically imagined the migrant as an aggressor, someone unworthy to be granted rights of asylum or entry. As early as May 1891 a new pressure group, the revealingly named Association for Preventing the Immigration of Destitute Aliens, was able to bring an Anglican bishop, a dockworkers leader, a Tory landowner, and a populariser of eugenics on to the same platform to call for border controls, but it would take another 10 years and the foundation of the more proletarian British Brothers’ League in London’s East End before the anti-migrant cause took off. Under the leadership of Major William Evans Gordon the restrictionist lobby successfully campaigned for a Royal Commission on “alien immigration” and by August 1905 the Conservative government had brought in an Aliens Act that tried to filter out the deserving from the undeserving poor at the dockside — denying access to what one MP dubbed “the scum of Eastern Europe”.

To enforce the state’s ability to police its borders the 1905 Aliens Act created a brand new public figure — the now familiar “immigration officer”— and it limited the legitimate points of entry to fourteen ports. Arrivals would be inspected by the officer in charge — in consultation with a medical inspector — to decide who should and should not be permitted to enter the UK. Migrants deemed “undesirable” on the grounds of ill-health, penury or criminality could appeal to a local Immigration Board which met in closed session, but these three men (persons with experience as a magistrate or in business) constituted the only body that could address their grievance: immigration matters were deliberately kept out of British courts. Yet the Act did grant one important exception. Anyone who was destitute, but could show that he or she was in “danger of imprisonment or danger to life and limb” because of prior political offences or their religious beliefs could claim asylum. This was the main concession that the Liberal opposition to the act were able to wring from the Government. However, this was no automatic right; then, as now, anyone seeking asylum had to prove their case and could be refused.

In one respect Britain’s new immigration Act could be said to be more “liberal” than the tradition of immigration control that developed in the United States. For unlike the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in the United States in 1882 or the elaborate racial hierarchy and system of quotas subsequently written into America’s major 1924 Immigration Act, Britain’s 19 05 Alien Act refrained from identifying its targets in ethnic terms. But it did bring the old notion of the “alien”— anyone born outside the jurisdiction of the Crown and therefore not a British subject — into line with the new circumstances of mass migration; the “immigrant” was defined as an alien who could not afford a cabin and was forced to travel in steerage. As in all immigration law, numbers were key and the figures specified in the Act could be varied at the Home Secretary’s discretion. However, in developing this novel terminology the Act did also implicitly address popular understandings. For while the law contained no more precise guidance as to who counted as an “alien” or “immigrant”, the clamour for immigration control made it abundantly clear that it was the Jew who represented the archetypal outsider. This social and political context indicates that the distinction between what was liberal and what was repressive was not always as clear-cut as it seemed at first sight, blurring the division between the letter of the law and everyday prejudices. In the 1890s, for campaigning newspapers, like London’s Evening News and Post, the word “alien” was anything but a neutral legal concept; phrases like “undesirable aliens”, “destitute Jewish immigrants”, “alien Jews” and “Russian Jews” were used as if synonymous and, while the fear of an “alien invasion” never really needed to be specified as a “Jewish invasion”, it often was. The non-Jewish German anarchist Rudolf Rocker recalled an encounter with a down-at-heel peddler in 1901 who doggedly explained to him that he must be a Jew in spite of his denials because he was obviously a foreigner and “all foreigners are Jews.”

Beyond these narrow national preoccupations the movement of East European Jews should be seen as central to the history of international migration in the modern era. Given the seismic shift that this involved — between 1815 and 1915 around 60 million people left Europe for the Americas, the Pacific, and eastern and southern Africa — it makes sense to think of this unprecedented change as an early phase of globalisation, although very few contemporaries would have fully recognised the emergence of a world-wide development in this era. One man who did was Herbert Samuel, a newly-elected Jewish MP and a rising star in the Edwardian Liberal Party. In September 1905, just one month after the Aliens Act had received the Royal Assent, Samuel published a remarkably prescient piece in the Economic Journal entitled “Immigration” in which he imagined the complex flow of population from “a single bird’s-eye view”, taking in both past and present. What made this a truly visionary essay was the way in which Samuel picked out the tensions between questions of state policy and the global population movements, even if he was finally unable to reconcile them. Only “in our own age”, Samuel argued, do “we see so broad a current of peaceful migration, steadily carrying a million persons from one continent to another year after year, and at the same time so many separate streams slowly but continuously modifying the ethnological character of so many different countries”, “a force which is… moulding the future of vast portions of the world.” Paradoxically, Samuel’s own views were a living embodiment of the contradiction between the two sides of the 1905 Act. His article combined a cautious enthusiasm for global migration, while worrying about the “non-assimilation” of those, like the Chinese, whom he thought belonged to “a different race-family from the native population” — a line of thought that anticipates the racial hierarchy that was to inform America’s restrictionist law some twenty years later. Yet he also strongly believed that any attempt to regulate immigration was “in its nature an invasion of freedom.” As for so many twentieth-century liberals, the problem of aligning the necessary role of the state with the rights of the individual lay at the core of Samuel’s political thought.

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