It was a balmy day last Sunday as I strode past the palm trees and the flowering “drunk stick” trees into Buenos Aires’ Hotel de los Inmigrantes—the Ellis Island of Argentina. Unlike Ellis, the Hotel is not actually an island; it’s a gated complex of buildings and quays sitting on the waterfront just opposite the modern ferry building. But both were major immigrant processing centers for their respective countries during what Americans would call the Great Wave, from 1880 through the 1920s or 30s, when tens of millions of impoverished, persecuted South and East Europeans streamed out of their homelands to build new lives in the New World. It’s easy to forget now, but at the start of the 20th century, Argentina was one of the ten richest countries in the world and on an upward trajectory. It was a very attractive destination for newcomers.
It’s common for (United States of) Americans to view immigration as a uniquely American story, and often the same goes for other immigrant nations: While references to the United States as an alternative destination could be found in the Hotel de los Inmigrantes, the exhibit was focused on Argentina’s story. This is natural. We are telling the story of our ancestors—literally in many cases, and metaphorically for us all—so it feels quite personal. But to understand immigration, both at the turn of the 20th century and now, you need to understand it as a global as well as national phenomenon. Then as now, tens of millions of people were on the move, driven not only by poverty and/or oppression but also by increases in global wealth, changes in technology, the societal disruption those changes wrought, and increased awareness of opportunity abroad, as well as welcoming laws.
And then as now, host countries faced similar problems and opportunities. It’s remarkable how much Ellis and the Hotel look alike on the inside, with images of processing lines, rows of bunk beds, and rooms where boards would meet to apply the best techniques of the day to screen—and assist—immigrants. Despite how rough (not to say pseudoscientific and bigoted) these techniques could be, both countries admitted the vast majority of those who came to their shores, because they sought to use immigration to populate their underdeveloped interiors (the U.S. frontier would not be officially “closed” until the 1890 census) and feed the industrial revolution’s ever-growing hunger for labor. Both also had ideological commitments to the welcoming of immigrants. And both countries managed the demographic transformation this wrought on their countries fairly well, by global standards.
But America and Argentina also had to deal with similar issues created by the Great Wave. Anarchist and communist violence was a greater problem than is now remembered: in Buenos Aires in 1919, anarchist attacks during the Semana Trágica (Tragic Week) left up to 700 dead, while in 1920, to take one example, Italian anarchists were suspected in the (still unsolved) bombing of Wall Street that killed 38. Then as now, violence committed by a small subset of immigrants was held against the whole; backlash at the turn of the 20th century was a considerably greater and bloodier phenomenon than we have fortunately had to deal with so far. There were differences, of course: Argentina was already a Catholic country when it started accepting large numbers of Italian and Spanish immigrants, so there was nothing like America’s crisis of (Christian) religious identity, for instance.
But the similarities loom, and the biggest of them, with the most instructive parallels for our present situation, is the global nature of the immigration phenomenon. This had a dark side: precisely because the movement was global, once one nation started to shut its borders to immigrants, the pressure on the other destination nations, in terms of inflow, grew proportionately greater—leading to more shut-downs in a vicious cycle. This is exactly what happened in the ’20s and ’30s, and is one of the underestimated dangers in the global order right now.
Just as we tend to view immigration history through a national, rather than global, lenses, so do we view today’s immigration controversies. Americans by and large think of our current immigration issues as being about about us and Mexico (even as that grows further and further from reality.) Europeans see theirs as specifically about Syria and Libya. The flight of the Rohingya from Burma, the boat people headed to Australia, and intra-African and intra-South American migrations are usually reported on as unique phenomena. And all of that is true to an extent—but it’s also part of a global moment like the great wave. If we realized we were living in one, our immigration policies and debates might make a bit more sense.
The Argentines are having an immigration fight of their own right now, as they clamp down on immigration from elsewhere in Latin America. Like here, there are accusations of bigotry (the Argentine constitution says the government “will encourage European immigration”). And also like here, some of those charges are accurate. But as in the United States, and Europe, and Australia, and so on, they are trying to deal with a large movement of people caused by a multitude of factors. The best policies are probably to be found in thinking about how to manage it in a sustainable way rather than thinking about black hats and white hats.