Let me get straight to the point: There’s no difference in principle between a “national border” and the turf claim of a street gang.
None. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
“National borders” and “gang turf lines” are imaginary lines drawn on the ground in order to assert baseless claims of territorial authority. The only thing which differentiates them is that most governments are better-armed than most street gangs. Not better-behaved, just better armed.
The passage of a Jim Crow/police state law in the US state of Arizona last week, based on alleged threats to that state’s civil order and economic health, is a fitting hook on which to hang a brief history of travel over the “national borders” claimed by the United States. To hear the Know-Nothings complain, you’d think that the US has a history of strict border control and that the federal government has only recently begun to lie down on the job.
Nothing could be further from the truth. For close to a century, the federal government exerted precisely zero control over immigration. People decided where they wanted to be and then they went there, with no need to request permission.
It was a quintessentially anarchic process — and it worked. Westward expansion and industrialization over the course of only a couple of generations would have been impossible without an unrestrained flow of immigrant labor. America’s resident population couldn’t breed fast enough to transform itself from an agrarian society to an industrial society.
The framers of the US Constitution didn’t even bother to enumerate a federal power to control immigration, choosing only to provide for regulation of naturalization of immigrants — i.e. how they might go about becoming citizens. While some assert an implied original intent to allow for immigration regulations, there’s no such intent alluded to in The Federalist Papers, while a complaint about the lack of such an intent is found in the anti-federalist literature of the time.
The US Congress passed four naturalization laws between 1790 and 1870, none of which purported to regulate immigration in any way.
It wasn’t until 1875 that the Supreme Court conjured up a federal power to control immigration (because the states had started doing so themselves and resurgent federalism needed to be nipped in the bud).
It wasn’t until 1882 that the first restriction on immigration (the Chinese Exclusion Act) became law.
It wasn’t until 1891 that a federal Bureau of Immigration was created, its main job being to collect a “head tax” of 50 cents from each person passing through Ellis Island.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the federal government created a formal policy of regulating immigration for protectionist economic purposes.
Passports for entering and leaving the United States weren’t regularly issued until 1941. Prior to that, a few had been issued to US envoys during the Revolution, and temporary passport schemes had been put into operation during the Civil War and World War One, ending when those wars ended.
It wasn’t until 1952 that Congress passed the first comprehensive set of regulations on immigration.
The history of US immigration regulation is part and parcel of the history of expansion of government power in America. In its form of the last 60 years, it represents the tail end of New Deal social engineering and the front end of “the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores” which “conservative” activist William F. Buckley, Jr. called for pursuant to the Cold War.