The History of Immigration Legislation

or Why Immigration Controls are Racist

by Suke Wolton

In the 1990s it is taken for granted that racism is immoral, associated with thuggishness and ignorance, and should generally be discouraged. Half a century ago racial discrimination and violence was the norm in most of British and America. Today these two countries try to present a new image. The change in outlook on the issue of racism is not, however, all that it seems. While racist attitudes and language have become increasingly unacceptable, the laws that discriminate against black people entering the country have become harsh and brutal.

Prior to the Second World War, racial discrimination was largely seen as "normal" behaviour. For example, in setting up the founding charter of the League of Nations in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson dismissed the Japanese request for a racial equality clause.1 The common-sense of the time supposed that there were distinct races of man, some inferior and others superior. For example, in Africa, much of the Colonial administration in the British Empire of the 1920s was based upon the idea of a "racial separate path" and the "preservation" of "race purity".2 In the Southern states of America, black and white were segregated in all walks of life. As black people moved North during the depression of the 1930s the New Deal economic policies just reconstructed segregated housing areas.3

Immigration policies prior to the Second World War discriminated unashamedly. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was copied by Canada in 1885.4 In 1905 the Aliens Act was introduced in Britain to restrict the immigration of Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe.5 The British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act of 1914 introduced a "good character" criteria for those applying to become British citizens and allowed only the first generation of those born in the Dominions to naturalise. To keep Australia, New Zealand and Canada white, the British government encouraged the Dominions to introduce a literacy test for those who did not come from Britain.6 This condition had been copied from the South African Natal Immigration Act of 1897. In America Japanese immigrants were banned from owning property and only their descendants, born in the United States, were permitted to become citizens. At this time all other Asians were refused entry under the US 1917 Immigration Act. These examples illustrate just how pervasive, in both Britain and America, the practice of colour discrimination was at this time. More importantly, immigration controls were seen as simply the extension of the colour bar to the borders. It is only now, it seems, that many people assume that immigration controls have higher motives than racism. This article aims to question that presumption.

By the Second World War three elements, broadly speaking, came together to shift opinion on the issue of racial discrimination. These were: black people's political challenge to their treatment, a growing lack of confidence in the "white rule" of the Colonies, and the association of the notion of white superiority with the Nazis.

During the war, the BBC directed its overseas service to edit out the word "nigger" and "native" from its broadcasts.7 By the end of the war, the American army was beginning to experiment with desegregated platoons, the Red Cross had stopped segregating blood, and the British Colonial Office was trying to present colonialism as a "partnership" aimed at developing the colonies.8 But, despite the new Charter of the United Nations, with its preamble of equal rights and an end to racial discrimination, the British Foreign Office only accepted it after seeing that it "commits us to nothing more than we have always stood for." Sir Alexander Cadogan, in negotiations with the Americans prior to the San Francisco conference for the launch of the United Nations, cabled London to say that there was nothing to worry about, talk of racial equality was not going to stop the use of colour bars at ports of entry:

"Argument strongly advanced is that it would be against our interest and tradition as a liberal power to oppose the expression of a principle denial of which figures so predominantly in Nazi philosophy and is repugnant to the mass of British and foreign opinion...there might be a revival of the quite unfounded fears of 1919 that immigration problems are involved. These are, of course matters of domestic jurisdiction and would be covered if a satisfactory solution of this question is reached. We may be sure that if it were thought that such question were involved by the recognition of the principle, the United states Delegation would oppose it."9

In 1948, the British Nationality Act introduced a new criteria for naturalisation; "close connection" (Clause 12 (6)) which meant that no one with less that "75% European blood" could register and migrate to Britain. On the 22 June that year the SS Empire Windrush arrived with 492 Jamaicans on board. Eleven Labour MPs promptly complained to their prime minister, Clement Attlee, that "an influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life". Attlee reassured the MPs that he would modify immigration rules if it resulted in, as he put it, "a great influx of undesirables".10

Although many people were encouraged to come to Britain to fill menial jobs in the post-war economy, the British government was already discussing how it could put a stop to a "significant change in the racial character of the English people".11 The post-war Labour cabinet was concerned to present an equal-opportunity image while making sure that discrimination took place:

"Any solution depending on an apparent or concealed colour test would be so invidious as to make it impossible for adoption... Nevertheless, the use of any powers taken to restrict the free entry of British subjects to this country would, as a general rule, be more or less confined to coloured persons."12

The British government realised that the introduction of laws that discriminated between people on the grounds of race would have caused outrage. In the post-Nazi world, racial discrimination and "colour bars" were no longer seen as morally justifiable. But the private concern of government ministers was to preserve the status quo. As the Conservative Secretary of State for the Commonwealth, Lord Swinton, in 1954 admitted in a cabinet meeting:

"I appreciate the force of the contention that, if we are to legislate for restrictions on the entry of British subjects and their employment here, the legislation should be non-discriminatory in form This will not, however, conceal the fact that the problem with which we are in fact concerned is that of coloured immigration for colonial territories."13

The fear that the government would be exposed as having a racist interest in the issue of immigration meant that the tightening of immigration controls in Britain began gradually. As to opposition failed to challenge the view that "resources are limited", "people are about to arrive in floods", and more generally that "black people are a problem and unwelcome here", so the Government introduced more and more restrictive controls. Every new piece of legislation has simply reaffirmed the fear of the "problem of immigration".14

In 1962 employment vouchers were introduced for those brought to work in Britain while the Commonwealth Immigrants Act took away the right of Commonwealth citizens to enter and live in Britain. The Immigration Act of 1968 amended the 1962 Act to prevent expelled Kenyan Asians with British passports from entering Britain. Even the right-wing commentator Auberon Waugh, writing in the Spectator, remarked that it was "one of the most immoral pieces of legislation".15 The 1971 Immigration Act allowed only those, called partials, who had a "close connection" (ie "75% European blood") with Britain to live here. And the 1981 Nationality Act renamed those who had the right live here (defined racially by the 1971 Immigration Act) as British citizens. Others, who had been British subjects, were reduced to British dependent territories citizens. This meant, as a last means of immigration, that only family members could join existing citizens. In 1988, however the British government introduced an "independent of public funds" test requiring people to demonstrate that they would not need to seek housing benefit or income support before joining a spouse living in Britain.

What is particularly noticeable is that as soon as the formal right to free movement became practically possible for people from the Third World, the government acted systematically to withdraw that avenue. Despite continuing net emigration from Britain,16 the government insisted that immigrants (read black people) were a "drain on resources". Not content with the increasing racial violence against black people in Britain that has been encouraged by this message, the British government now attacks the few refugees who apply here.17 Over recent years legal aid has been removed for immigration cases and made more complex for asylum cases.

The 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act encouraged the imprisonment of many of those waiting for asylum, a principle that had begun with the 1971 Act which permitted "illegal immigrants" to be detained. Across Britain, in prisons, detention centres and police cells, there are roughly 700 people imprisoned at any one time awaiting a decision by an Immigration Officer. The 1996 Immigration and Asylum Act will create a "fast track" system where individuals cases of refugees are not even considered if they have arrived from certain countries. Moreover, refugees used to be able to claim income support and housing benefit while their asylum claims were being processed - as sometimes this can take two years. Since the new 1996 Act, however, social security rules have been changed. Refugees who do not apply for asylum at the port of entry have no right to benefits - leaving them starving and homeless.

On the argument that Britain is a small country with no money, the British government has repeatedly introduced measures to stop black people staying in Britain. The Acts do not mention colour but they have been written with one idea in mind: to prevent people from Britain's ex-colonies coming to live here. Britain grew rich from the colonial relationship and still continues to hold a world status from that association. But the people that Britain was once proud to call "subjects" are not given any welcome today. On Christmas Eve 1994 immigration officials imprisoned an entire plane load - 169 West Indians - in Campsfield House and stopped them visiting their friends and families for Christmas. The Home Office complained of "untrustworthy" people likely to "outstay" their visas. The practice of interrogation at the airports, the photocopying of passports,18 questions from the police and checks in social security offices continually serve to remind black people that their position is subordinate in Britain. The British government may have lost its empire - but it is yet to lose its imperial outlook of racial arrogance.

The tragedy of the legislation on immigration is that it has entrenched the view that "foreigners are a problem". British newspapers regularly print scare stories about "illegal immigrants". This has been mirrored by Parliament passing yet more Immigration Acts. With little opposition, the anti-immigrant brigade have formed a new consensus. But the new language of limited resources only justifies old fashioned racial discrimination. And that discrimination has been entrenched by an educated elite in power - not, as it is often supposed, by the ignorance of those out of power.

The Campaign to Close Campsfield believes that it is time for us to question the idea that immigrants create a problem. It is time to ask why asylum-seekers and immigrants are treated like criminals. It is time to stop not just the racist rhetoric but the laws that enforce discrimination.


1. Paul Lauren, Power and Prejudice: the Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination, Colorado, 1988, p.93
2. Sir Frederick Lugard, author of the "bible" of colonial administration in the 1920s The Dual Mandate, in his article: "The Problem of Colour in Relation to the Idea of Equality", Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol.1, No.2, April 1926, p.213
3. Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles, Vintage, 1992 (orig 1990), p.163. The Federal Housing Authority sanctioned restrictions on who could move into which neighbourhood because they supposed this was the way to maintain house prices (and thereby their mortgage repayments). They also developed a formula for developers to use in their subdivision contracts which maintained the policy of segregation. See also John Denton, Apartheid American Style, Berkeley, 1967 and Marc Weiss, The Rise of the Community Builders: the American Real Estate Industry and Urban Land Planning, New York, 1987
4. Hugh Tinker, Race, Conflict and the International Order: From Empire to United Nations, Macmillan, 1977, p.19
5. Richard Skellington, "Race" in Britain Today, Sage, 1996 (orig 1992), p.66
6. Hugh Tinker, Race, Conflict and the International Order: From Empire to United Nations, Macmillan, 1977, p.20
7. Minute by NJB Sabine, Head of Publicity department, 24 March 1941, CO 859/40/4
8. The Colonial Office wasted no time in incorporating Hailey's concept into its evolving vocabulary. During a Commons debate on 24 June, Harold Macmillan, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary, stated that it was his intention to develop the idea of `partnership'." J M Lee and Martin Petter, The Colonial Office, War and Development Policy, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, 1982, p.126
9. Cited in Paul G Lauren, Power and Prejudice: the Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination, Colorado, 1988, p.148
10. Minute 5 July 1948, CO 876/88
11. Cabinet minute, 3 November 1955, CAB 128/29 cited in Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society, Macmillan, 1996, p.20
12. Cited in Shirley Joshi and Bob Carter, "The Role of Labour in the Creation of a Racist Britain", Race and Class, Vol.25, No.3, 1984
13. Cited in Keith Tompson, Under Siege, Penguin, 1988, p.64
14. Cited in Richard Skellington, "Race" in Britain Today, Sage, 1996 (orig 1992), p.64
15. Spectator, 1 March 1968, cited in Kenan Malik, The Meaning of Race: Race, History and Culture in Western Society, Macmillan, 1996, p.24
16. Figures from Office of Population and Census Surveys, 1982: Population change due to immigration and emigration:
Decade 1951-61 +12,000
Decade 1961-71 -320,000
Decade 1971-81 -391,000 Cumulative total: -699,000. Cited in Keith Tompson, Under Siege, Penguin, 1988, p.159
No figures for 1981-91. But "Research complied by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys in London and the European Commission in Brussels suggests that emigration is running at its highest level for more than 10 years." Guardian, 9 May 1995
17. The number of racist murders has a strong correlation with the number of deportation orders issued. See Keith Tompson, Under Siege, Penguin, 1988, pp.169-171
18. Independent, 10 November 1995
These pages last updated 25/2/98 by Tim Lattimer