IDEAS home Printed from
   My bibliography  Save this paper

Racism, Xenophobia or Markets? The Political Economy of Immigration Policy Prior to the Thirties


  • Ashley S. Timmer
  • Jeffrey G. Williamson


Contrary to conventional wisdom, the doors did not suddenly slam shut on American immigrants when Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of May 1921. Rather, the United States started imposing restrictions a half century earlier. Argentina, Australia, Brazil, and Canada enacted similar measures, although the anti-immigration policy drift often took the form of an enormous drop in (or even the disappearance of) large immigrant subsidies. Contrary to conventional wisdom, there wasn't simply one big regime switch around World War I. What explains immigration policy between 1860-1930? This paper identifies the fundamentals that underlay the formation of immigration policy, distinguishes between the impact of these long run fundamentals and short run timing, and clarifies the difference between market and non-market forces. The key bottom line is this: Over the long haul, immigrant countries tried to maintain the relative economic position of unskilled labor, compared with skilled labor, landowner and industrialist. The morals for the present are obvious.

Suggested Citation

  • Ashley S. Timmer & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1996. "Racism, Xenophobia or Markets? The Political Economy of Immigration Policy Prior to the Thirties," NBER Working Papers 5867, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
  • Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5867
    Note: LS DAE

    Download full text from publisher

    File URL:
    Download Restriction: no

    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Verdier, Thierry, 1994. "Models of political economy of growth: A short survey," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 38(3-4), pages 757-763, April.
    2. Williamson Jeffrey G., 1995. "The Evolution of Global Labor Markets since 1830: Background Evidence and Hypotheses," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 32(2), pages 141-196, April.
    3. Williamson, Jeffrey G, 1997. "Globalization and Inequality, Past and Present," World Bank Research Observer, World Bank Group, vol. 12(2), pages 117-135, August.
    4. Magee,Stephen P. & Brock,William A. & Young,Leslie, 1989. "Black Hole Tariffs and Endogenous Policy Theory," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521377003, March.
    5. Alberto Alesina & Dani Rodrik, 1994. "Distributive Politics and Economic Growth," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 109(2), pages 465-490.
    6. Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1974. "Migration to the new world: Long term influences and impact," Explorations in Economic History, Elsevier, vol. 11(4), pages 357-389.
    7. Marvel, Howard P & Ray, Edward J, 1983. "The Kennedy Round: Evidence on the Regulation of International Trade in the United States," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 73(1), pages 190-197, March.
    8. Mayer, Wolfgang, 1984. "Endogenous Tariff Formation," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 74(5), pages 970-985, December.
    9. Wong, K-Y. & Cheng, L.K., 1988. "On The Strategic Choice Between Capital And Labor Mobility," Discussion Papers in Economics at the University of Washington 88-12, Department of Economics at the University of Washington.
    10. Taylor, Alan M. & Williamson, Jeffrey G., 1997. "Convergence in the age of mass migration," European Review of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 1(01), pages 27-63, April.
    11. Benhabib, Jess, 1996. "On the political economy of immigration," European Economic Review, Elsevier, vol. 40(9), pages 1737-1743, December.
    12. Wood, Adrian, 1995. "North-South Trade, Employment and Inequality: Changing Fortunes in a Skill-Driven World," OUP Catalogue, Oxford University Press, number 9780198290155.
    13. George J. Borjas, 1994. "The Economics of Immigration," Journal of Economic Literature, American Economic Association, vol. 32(4), pages 1667-1717, December.
    14. Marilyn Young & Michael Reksulak & William F. Shughart, 2001. "The Political Economy of the IRS," Economics and Politics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 13(2), pages 201-220, July.
    15. Wolfgang F. Stolper & Paul A. Samuelson, 1941. "Protection and Real Wages," Review of Economic Studies, Oxford University Press, vol. 9(1), pages 58-73.
    16. Perotti, Roberto, 1992. "Income Distribution, Politics, and Growth," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 82(2), pages 311-316, May.
    17. Richard B. Freeman, 1995. "Are Your Wages Set in Beijing?," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 9(3), pages 15-32, Summer.
    18. Timothy J. Hutton & Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1995. "The Impact of Imigration on American Labor Markets Prior to the Quotas," NBER Working Papers 5185, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    Full references (including those not matched with items on IDEAS)


    Citations are extracted by the CitEc Project, subscribe to its RSS feed for this item.

    Cited by:

    1. Jeffrey G. Williamson, 1998. "Globalization, Labor Markets and Policy Backlash in the Past," Journal of Economic Perspectives, American Economic Association, vol. 12(4), pages 51-72, Fall.
    2. Michel Beine & Brian B. Burgoon & Mary Crock & Justin Gest & Michael Hiscox & Patrick McGovern & Hillel Rapoport & Eiko Thielemann, 2015. "Measuring Immigration Policies: Preliminary Evidence from IMPALA," CESifo Economic Studies, CESifo, vol. 61(3-4), pages 527-559.
    3. de Carvalho Filho, Irineu & Monasterio, Leonardo, 2012. "Immigration and the origins of regional inequality: Government-sponsored European migration to southern Brazil before World War I," Regional Science and Urban Economics, Elsevier, vol. 42(5), pages 794-807.
    4. Anna Maria Mayda, 2006. "Who Is Against Immigration? A Cross-Country Investigation of Individual Attitudes toward Immigrants," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 88(3), pages 510-530, August.
    5. Solimano, Andres, 2001. "International migration and the global economic order : an interview," Policy Research Working Paper Series 2720, The World Bank.
    6. Conconi, Paola & Facchini, Giovanni & Steinhardt, Max Friedrich & Zanardi, Maurizio, 2012. "The political economy of trade and migration: Evidence from the US Congress," HWWI Research Papers 136, Hamburg Institute of International Economics (HWWI).
    7. repec:ilo:ilowps:373388 is not listed on IDEAS
    8. Michel Beine & Anna Boucher & Brian Burgoon & Mary Crock & Justin Gest & Michael Hiscox & Patrick McGovern & Hillel Rapoport & Joep Schaper & Eiko Thielemann, 2016. "Comparing Immigration Policies: An Overview from the IMPALA Database," International Migration Review, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 50(4), pages 827-863, December.
    9. Mayda, Anna Maria, 2005. "Who is Against Immigration? A Cross-Country Investigation of Individual Attitudes Towards Immigration," CEPR Discussion Papers 5055, C.E.P.R. Discussion Papers.
    10. Giovanni Facchini & Cecilia Testa, 2009. "Who Is Against a Common Market?," Journal of the European Economic Association, MIT Press, vol. 7(5), pages 1068-1100, September.
    11. Facchini, Giovanni & Mayda, Anna Maria & Mishra, Prachi, 2011. "Do interest groups affect US immigration policy?," Journal of International Economics, Elsevier, vol. 85(1), pages 114-128, September.
    12. Kenneth F. Scheve & Matthew J. Slaughter, 1999. "Labor-Market Competition and Individual Preferences Over Immigration Policy," NBER Working Papers 6946, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    13. William J. Collins & Kevin H. O'Rourke & Jeffrey Williamson, 1997. "Were Trade and Factor Mobility Substitutes in History?," NBER Working Papers 6059, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.
    14. Giovanni Facchini & Anna Maria Mayda, 2009. "The Political Economy of Immigration Policy," Human Development Research Papers (2009 to present) HDRP-2009-03, Human Development Report Office (HDRO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), revised Apr 2009.
    15. Ager, Philipp & Hansen, Casper Worm, 2017. "Closing Heaven's Door: Evidence from the 1920s U.S. Immigration Quota Acts," Discussion Papers of Business and Economics 11/2017, University of Southern Denmark, Department of Business and Economics.
    16. Philipp Ager & Casper Worm Hansen, 2016. "National Immigration Quotas and Local Economic Growth," Discussion Papers 16-11, University of Copenhagen. Department of Economics.
    17. Solimano, Andres, 2003. "Development Cycles, Political Regimes and International Migration: Argentina in the Twentieth Century," WIDER Working Paper Series 029, World Institute for Development Economic Research (UNU-WIDER).
    18. James Dolmas & Gregory W. Huffman, 2000. "The dynamics of immigration policy with wealth-heterogeneous immigrants," Working Papers 0006, Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
    19. Facchini, Giovanni, 2002. "Why Join a Common Market? The Political Economy of International Factor Mobility in a Multi-country Setting," Working Papers 02-0121, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, College of Business.
    20. Solimano, Andrés, 2003. "Globalization and international migration: the Latin American experience," Revista CEPAL, Naciones Unidas Comisión Económica para América Latina y el Caribe (CEPAL), August.
    21. Murard, Elie, 2017. "Less Welfare or Fewer Foreigners? Immigrant Inflows and Public Opinion towards Redistribution and Migration Policy," IZA Discussion Papers 10805, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).

    More about this item

    JEL classification:

    • F22 - International Economics - - International Factor Movements and International Business - - - International Migration
    • F13 - International Economics - - Trade - - - Trade Policy; International Trade Organizations


    Access and download statistics


    All material on this site has been provided by the respective publishers and authors. You can help correct errors and omissions. When requesting a correction, please mention this item's handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:5867. See general information about how to correct material in RePEc.

    For technical questions regarding this item, or to correct its authors, title, abstract, bibliographic or download information, contact: (). General contact details of provider: .

    If you have authored this item and are not yet registered with RePEc, we encourage you to do it here. This allows to link your profile to this item. It also allows you to accept potential citations to this item that we are uncertain about.

    If CitEc recognized a reference but did not link an item in RePEc to it, you can help with this form .

    If you know of missing items citing this one, you can help us creating those links by adding the relevant references in the same way as above, for each refering item. If you are a registered author of this item, you may also want to check the "citations" tab in your RePEc Author Service profile, as there may be some citations waiting for confirmation.

    Please note that corrections may take a couple of weeks to filter through the various RePEc services.

    IDEAS is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis . RePEc uses bibliographic data supplied by the respective publishers.