The Migration Business, 1824-1876
Between 1824 and 1876, almost ten million immigrants came to the United States. The onset of mass immigration posed a logistical problem: how to process, aid, and regulate a large influx of newcomers. State and federal governments, caught up in conflicts over state sovereignty and slavery, proved ill-equipped to manage the influx of migrants. The states enacted their own individual policies to control mobility, but there was no national immigration policy before the Civil War. Where state and federal governments failed to come up with a comprehensive solution, an ad hoc group of shipping merchants, passenger agents, aid organizations, runners and swindlers responded to the onset of mass migration by turning migration into a commercial enterprise. Taken together, these various actors, which I term the “migration business,” formulated an institutional response to the problem of mass immigration in the US. The passenger trade was a side business for many merchants in 1824, when the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had power over interstate commerce. But by 1876, the migration business had become a vast commercial enterprise, according to the Supreme Court, that was so important to the national interest as to require federal regulation. This dissertation explains how the migration business became a commercial enterprise worthy of federal regulation and how it influenced immigration policy on the local, state, and federal level. Through its control of transportation costs, charitable aid, and state and federal immigrant organizations, the migration business held regulatory power over immigrants, as well. By regulating immigration, the migration business formed its own kind of immigration policy—one that was led by merchants and entrepreneurs, and one that exploited foreign-born people in the US.