Two aspects of federalism undermined these efforts. First, immigration control was the domain of the national administration, yet the federal government had neither the administrative resources nor the inclination to undertake such a project. The federal government, and especially the State Department, saw the limitation of immigration from specific nations as an imposition on the conduct of foreign policy. Port cities might try to restrict admissions, but the immigrants could enter elsewhere.
Local governments that indirectly received immigrants were helpless to limit immigration. Once immigrants had entered legally, they could move wherever they could afford to go. The regime provided means for local governments to articulate their dissatisfaction with uncontrolled immigration, just as it made local governments responsible for relieving immigration costs. A more considerable barrier to effective immigration control on the local level was that the federal courts undermined such efforts.
The Constitution itself is not particular about the power in regulating immigration. The only mention of this subject is on the article I, section 9, clause 1, and it applies only to the period prior to 1808, when immigration restriction by the federal government was prohibited. Nonetheless, immigration inherently concerns the nation as a whole. The decisions of the federal courts about immigration were based on the primacy of the federal government in matters of sovereignty and the regulation of commerce (Reynolds 1928, 64-65; Kelso 1922, 133-35).
In a series of cases between 1849 and 1892 the federal courts struck down efforts of state and local government to regulate immigration using taxes or qualifications. This, as a result, left the states in the uncomfortable position. They had to bear all the immigration costs – including those aggravated by economic busts – devoid of the right of financing them through taxes directed at immigrants or their importers. In a bitterly approach, the predicament was summed up in 1922 by Kelso about one state’s relief efforts.
Kelso (1922) said that “It was, then, the incapacity of the State – itself a subordinate sovereignty – to exclude undesirable aliens, and the incapability of selfish, factional interests to agree, which on the one hand, opened the door to a willing nation across the sea to renovate her almshouses at our expense, and, on the other, rendered all the authorities of our government, state, county, and town, helpless in the face of a burden of pauperism more rapid and malignant in its growth than the like problem in any other civilized country under the sun” (p.
135). The ineffectiveness of the centralized state meant that there was no national political forum that could structure national political debates. The only exceptions, according to Skowronek (1982), were the federal courts and the locally organized political parties. In the same way as the labor unions, the political parties were unable to formulate coherent and nationally uniform standpoint toward immigration. Notwithstanding its less dramatic impact, immigration was an issue similar to slavery for the parties.
Its impact on localities and regions varied considerably. Viewing that parties were a convention of locally based organizations, a national response was proved to be impossible. Support from immigrants in the realignment of the 1890s broke the Republicans’ brief anti-immigrant position. Democrats remained more divided between their dry, nativist, Protestant, and agrarian southern and western supporters, and the wet, immigrant, Catholic, and urban industrial supporters in the East (Hays 1967; Burnham 1967).
Immigration was a crosscutting issue that failed to play a key role in any realignment. Another regime characteristic was the absence of a labor-dominated political party. The lack of this resource inhibited a unified working-class response to immigration. According to Mink (1986), the immigration of cheap labor was an important impetus for labor mobilization, while the racial differences between old and new immigrants barred labor solidarity.
Cultural differences divided workers between newly arrived and older immigrants, unskilled and skilled, Northern European and other ethnic and racial groups. This effect of immigration, as shown by Ira Katznelson (1981), interacted with the geographical development of the industrial cities and the political institutions workers constructed there. Ethnic and linguistic diversity and the lack of nationalized political institutions kept the politics of work and neighborhood separate. Patronage politics organized on ethnic lines prevailed (Handlin 1973; Holden 1966; Katznelson 1981).
While periods of unemployment encourage collective action for relief through increased patronage (with recent immigrants being among the clients of the party-run city machines), labor was divided internally. Its lack of political organization left labor unable to coordinate action with political parties concerning immigration (Mink 1986; Engels 1959). The Socialist Party, though not a workers’ party, achieve substantial electoral support in turn-of-the-century elections. In the first part of this century, its position toward immigration exemplifies the difficulty of immigration politics for the working class.
Since the politics of work and neighborhood were separated and labor itself was divided, the Socialists tried to take the “high road” in their efforts of building a link with the working class. They courted the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and deserted the radical and immigrant-filled industrial unions. This strategy led them to adopt the AFL’s anti-immigrant stance, thereby cutting themselves off from one of their few sources of potential recruits. Unsurprisingly, they failed to make inroads into the AFL (Leinenweber 1968).