Uncontrolled immigration? A burden on the taxpayer? Terrorists in our midst? The current immigration crisis echoes events of 100 years ago which led to the passage of Britain’s first piece of immigration law. From the 1880s onwards, increasing numbers of Russian and Polish Jews sought refuge from pogroms in their homelands. With its long tradition of admitting refugees, Britain was a favoured destination. Germans, Americans and other nationalities also came in their thousands. Between 1891 and 1901, Britain’s alien population grew by nearly 70,000, to reach a total of 286,000. Of these, 135,000 lived in London.
At this time, there was no British legislation on immigration. Britain was the only country in Europe which had no means of excluding any foreigner who wished to enter. Passports were not required until 1914. The only provision regulating entry was an Act from the reign of William IV which required that the master of a ship arriving in Britain should declare to the chief officer of Customs at the port of arrival the number of aliens on board.
Many viewed the new arrivals with alarm. It was alleged that immigrants, who would work for lower wages, undercut British workers, and that their presence led to overcrowding in accommodation. About a quarter of the immigrants arrived destitute and required support from public funds. Some needed medical treatment. There was also a higher incidence of criminality (mostly among the American immigrants) and bankruptcy than in the indigenous population. And there were terrorists, who took advantage of Britain’s tradition of granting asylum to political criminals.
In 1894 Lord Salisbury introduced a Bill in the House of Lords to empower the state to prevent the immigration of dangerous aliens, but the Liberal government rejected it. Other Bills followed. In 1903 the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, which had been set up the previous year, issued its report.