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Immigration restriction: rethinking period and place from settler colonies to postcolonial nations*

  • Alison Bashford (a1)


Immigration acts have long been analysed as instrumental to the working of the modern nation-state. A particular focus has been the racial exclusions and restrictions that were adopted by aspirationally white, new world nation-states: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States. This article looks again at the long modern history of immigration restriction in order to connect the history of these settler-colonial race-based exclusions (much studied) with immigration restriction in postcolonial nation-states (little studied). It argues for the need to expand the scope of immigration restriction histories geographically, temporally and substantively: beyond the settler nation, beyond the Second World War, and beyond ‘race’. The article focuses on the Asia-Pacific region, bringing into a single analytical frame the early immigration laws of New Zealand, Australia, the United States, and Canada on the one hand and those of Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Fiji on the other.



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The author extends thanks to Sunil Amrith, Paul Kramer, Jane McAdam, and participants at the World History Seminar, University of Cambridge, as well as the editors of, and anonymous readers for, this journal. This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council.



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1 United States Congress, Act to regulate the time and manner of administering certain oaths, chap. 1, stat. 23, 1789.

2 Commonwealth of Australia, Immigration Restriction Act, no. 17, 1901;

Timor-Leste, Republic of, Immigration and Asylum Act, no. 9, 2003.

3 Lake, Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, Drawing the global colour line: white men's countries and the international challenge of racial equality, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. For Canada, see

Ward, W. Peter, White Canada forever: popular attitudes and public policy towards Orientals in British Columbia, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1990. For New Zealand, see

O'Connor, P., ‘Keeping New Zealand white, 1908–1920’, New Zealand Journal of History, 2, 1968, pp. 4165. For Australia, see

Yarwood, A. T., Asian migration to Australia: the background to exclusion, Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 1964; Sean Brawley, The white peril: foreign relations and Asian immigration to Australia and North America, 1919–1978, Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales Press, 1995. For the US, see

Gyory, Andrew, Closing the gate: race, politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1998;

King, Desmond, Making Americans: immigration, race, and the origins of diverse democracy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000. See also

Peberdy, Sally, Selecting immigrants: national identity and South Africa's immigration policies, 1910–2008, Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 2009.

4 For example, Manning, Patrick, Migration in world history, New York: Routledge, 2005;

Freitag, Ulrike and Smith, William G. Clarence, eds., Hadhrami traders, scholars and statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s to 1960s, Leiden: Brill, 1997;

Hatton, Timothy J. and Williamson, Jeffrey G., Global migration and the world economy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008;

McKeown, Adam, ‘Global migration, 1846–1940’, Journal of World History, 15, 2, 2004, pp. 155189;

Hoerder, Dirk and Moch, Leslie Page, European migrants: global and local perspectives, Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1996;

Amrith, Sunil S., Migration and diaspora in modern Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011;

Lucassen, Jan and Lucassen, Leo, ‘From mobility transition to comparative migration history’, Journal of Global History, 6, 2, 2011, pp. 299307.

5 International and comparative studies include Cornelius, Wayne A., Martin, Philip L., and Hollifield, James F., eds., Controlling immigration: a global perspective, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992. This book covers North America, Europe, and Japan, but fails to recognize the great uptake of immigration restriction in decolonized nations. Eytan Meyers examines Western nations (Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States) in ‘The causes of convergence in Western immigration control’, Review of International Studies, 28, 1, 2002, pp. 123–41. See also

Böcker, Anita et al., eds., Regulation of migration: international experiences, Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis, 1998. Adam McKeown has brought these strands together most influentially in his monumental study of border control that also analyses patterns of mass migration:

McKeown, Adam M., Melancholy order: Asian migration and the globalization of borders, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

6 McKeown, Adam, ‘Chinese emigration in global context, 1850–1940’, Journal of Global History, 5, 1, 2010, pp. 95124. Lake and Reynolds also end their study with post-war ‘universal rights’ apparently ensuring ‘individual rights without distinction’: Global colour line, pp. 352–56.

7 McKeown, Melancholy order, pp. 320–348, 368. See also

Moya, José C. and McKeown, Adam, ‘World migration in the long twentieth century’, in Michael Adas, ed., Essays on twentieth century history, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2010, p. 11.

8 Gozzini, Giovanni, ‘The global system of international migrations, 1900 and 2000: a comparative approach’, Journal of Global History, 1, 3, 2006, pp. 321341.

9 For example, Huttenback, Robert, Racism and empire, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1976;

Markus, Andrew, Fear and hatred: purifying Australia and California, 1850–1901, Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1979.

10 Daniels, Roger, ‘The growth of restriction immigration policies in the colonies of settlement’, in Robin Cohen, ed., The Cambridge survey of world migration, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 3944;

Ngai, Mae M., ‘Chinese miners, headmen, and protectorates on the Victorian goldfields, 1858–68’, Australian Historical Studies, 42, 1, 2011, pp. 1024;

Lake and Reynolds, Global colour line, ch. 1.

11 Victoria, Act to make provision for certain immigrants, no. 34, 1855, section 1.

12 South Australia, Act to make provision for levying a charge on Chinese arriving in South Australia, Act 3, 1957.

13 McKeown, Melancholy order, pp. 126–129.

14 McAdam, Jane, ‘The right to leave any country: an intellectual history of freedom of movement in international law’, Melbourne Journal of International Law, 12, 1, 2011, pp. 2756.

15 For Japan's later history of border control, see Morris-Suzuki, Tessa, Borderline Japan: foreigners and frontier controls in the postwar era, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

16 United States of America, Proclamation by the President: additional articles to the treaty between the United States and China of June 18 1858, 1868, article 5. See also

United States of America, Act to prohibit the coolie trade by American citizens in American vessels, chap. 27, 1862. For important discussion, see

Lake, Marilyn, ‘Chinese colonists assert their “common human rights”: cosmopolitanism as subject and method of history’, Journal of World History, 21, 3, 2010, pp. 375392.

17 Treaty between the United States and China concerning immigration, 1881, article 1.

18 Price, Charles, The great white walls are built: restrictive immigration to North America and Australasia, 1836–1888, Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1974;

Zolberg, Aristide R., ‘The great wall against China: responses to the first immigration crisis, 1885–1925’, in Jan Lucassen and Leo Lucassen, eds., Migration, migration history, history: old paradigms and new perspectives, Bern: Peter Lang, 1997, pp. 291315.

19 Bois, W. E. B. Du, The souls of black folk, New York: New American Library, 1903, p. 19; Lake and Reynolds, Global colour line.

20 Queensland, Immigration Act, Act 7, 1882.

21 The act aimed to facilitate an infrastructure to bring immigrants to New Zealand, ‘from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland or elsewhere with the exception of the Australian Colonies’. New Zealand, Immigration Act, Act 42, 1868, section 2.

22 See, for example, Nugent, Walter, Crossings: the great transatlantic migrations, 1870–1914, Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1992;

Calavita, K., U.S. immigration law and the control of labor, London: Academic Press, 1994;

Zolberg, Aristide R., A nation by design: immigration policy and the fashioning of America, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006;

Ngai, Mae M., Impossible subjects: illegal aliens and the making of modern America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004; Donna R. Gabaccia, Foreign relations: American immigration in global perspectives, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012. Arab immigration to the US has also been examined, in

Gualtieri, Sarah M.A., Between Arab and white: race and ethnicity in the early Syrian-American diaspora, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

23 For Mexican and Canadian borders, see Lee, Erika, ‘Enforcing the borders: Chinese exclusion along the US borders with Canada and Mexico, 1882–1924’, in Donna R. Gabaccia and Vicki L. Ruiz, eds., American dreaming, global realities: rethinking U.S. immigration history, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2006, pp. 158189;

Tichenor, Daniel, Dividing lines: the politics of immigration control in America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002. For a short overview, see

Reimers, David, ‘Explaining migration policy: historical perspectives’, in Marc R. Rosenblum and Daniel F. Tichenor, eds., The Oxford handbook of the politics of international migration, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 274300.

24 Canada, Immigration Act, chap. 27, 1910, section 38.

25 ‘Landing in Canada of Dukhobors, Hutterites and Mennonites Prohibited’; proclaimed under section 38 of the Immigration Act. See Canada Gazette, 52, 1919, p. 3824.

26 The New Zealand Chinese Immigrants Act of 1881 was amended and strengthened in 1901; the 1899 New Zealand Immigration Act functioned quite separately. New Zealand, Chinese Immigrants (Amendment) Act, no. 3, 1901.

27 United States, Act to regulate the immigration of aliens to, and the residence of aliens in the United States, chap. 29, 1917.

28 Martens, Jeremy, ‘A transnational history of immigration restriction’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 34, 3, 2006, pp. 323344.

29 Bashford, Alison and Gilchrist, Catie, ‘The colonial history of the 1905 Aliens Act’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 40, 3, 2012, pp. 409437.

30 Bashford, Alison, ‘Insanity and immigration restriction’, in Catherine Cox and Hilary Marland, eds., Migration, health, and ethnicity in the modern world, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013, pp. 1435.

31 In Hong Kong, for example, the protection of women and abuses of emigration came under the same ordinance in 1873. Hong Kong, Ordinance for the better protection of Chinese women and female children, and for the repression of certain abuses in relation to Chinese emigration, ordinance no. 6, 1873.

32 Alison Bashford and Jane McAdam, ‘The right to asylum: Britain's 1905 Aliens Act and the evolution of refugee law’, Law and History Review, 32, 2014.

33 McKeown, Melancholy order, pp. 41–42, 324–6, analyses medical inspection mainly as part of the diffusion of border control in the interwar years, after the fact of race-based immigration restriction. However, as far as legal history is concerned, it is more correct to invert this sequence.

34 New South Wales, Quarantine Act, no. 1, 1832, preamble.

35 Rosenberg, Charles E., The cholera years: the United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

36 Newfoundland, An Act to Render Perpetual … Quarantine, chap. 17, 1843.

37 Hong Kong, The Chinese Passengers Act, chap. 104, 1855.

38 Hong Kong, An Ordinance for Chinese Passenger Ships, no. 13, 1858, section 1.

39 Hong Kong, Asiatic Emigration Ordinance, no. 30, 1915, part III.

40 Consolidated Statutes of Canada, Act respecting emigrants and quarantine, chap. 40, 1866.

41 Canada, Chinese Immigration Act, chap. 8, 1903.

42 Canada, Immigration Act, chap. 19, 1906, section 27.

43 McKeown, Adam, ‘Ritualization of regulation: the enforcement of Chinese exclusion in the United States and China’, American Historical Review, 108, 2, 2003, pp. 377403;

McKeown, Melancholy order, pp. 121–133.

44 Kramer, P. A., ‘Empire against exclusion in early 20th century trans-pacific history’, Nanzan Review of American Studies, 33, 2011, pp. 1332. See also

Gabaccia, Donna R., ‘The ‘Yellow Peril’ and the ‘Chinese of Europe’: global perspectives on race and labor, 1815–1930’, in Lucassen and Lucassen, Migration, pp. 177–196.

45 Gabaccia, Foreign relations, pp. 127–129.

46 Amrith, Sunil S., ‘Indians overseas? Governing Tamil migration to Malaya, 1870–1941’, Past & Present, 208, 1, 2010, pp. 231261;

Moya and McKeown, ‘World migration’, p. 13. For a response to McKeown's work and on indenture, see

Mazumdar, Sucheta, ‘Localities of the global: Asian migrations between slavery and citizenship’, International Review of Social History, 52, 1, 2007, pp. 124133.

47 See Saunders, Kay, ed., Indentured labour in the British empire, 1834–1920, London: Croom Helm, 1984;

Northrup, David, Indentured labor in the age of imperialism, 1834–1922, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995;

Kale, Madhavi, Fragments of empire: capital, slavery, and Indian indentured labor in the British Caribbean, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

48 Fiji, Ordinance to regulate and control the conveyance and recruiting of Polynesian immigrants, no. 24, 1876.

49 Fiji, Immigration Ordinance, no. 11, 1877.

50 Fiji, Indian Immigration Ordinance, no. 6, 1878.

51 Mar, Tracey Banivanua, Violence and colonial dialogue: the Australian–Pacific indentured labor trade, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai'i Press, 2007;

Hempenstall, Peter J. and Rutherford, Noel, Protest and dissent in the colonial Pacific, Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies of the University of the South Pacific, 1984.

52 Fiji, Emigration Ordinance, no. 1, 1892.

53 Departure and the right to leave have been analysed in Green, Nancy L. and Weil, Francois, eds., Citizenship and those who leave: the politics of emigration and expatriation, Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

54 Amrith, ‘Indians overseas?’, pp. 231–261.

55 Act no. 8, 1898. See Manson, Edward, ‘The admission of aliens’, Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, 114, 1902, p. 122.

56 Queensland, Pacific Island Labourer's Act, no. 17, 1880.

57 Campbell, Persia Crawford, Chinese coolie emigration to countries in the British empire, London: P.S. King & Son, 1923;

Willard, Myra, A history of the white Australia policy, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1923;

Mackenzie, Norman, ed., The legal status of aliens in Pacific countries, London: Oxford University Press, 1937.

58 Malaysia, National Registration Act, Act 12, 1956; National Banishment Act, ordinance 11, 1959; Immigration Act, no. 12, 1959; Immigration Act, Act 27, 1963; Immigration (Amendment) Act, Act 15, 1965.

59 Ee, Joyce, ‘Chinese migration to Singapore, 1896–1941’, Journal of Southeast Asian History, 2, 1, 1961, pp. 3337, 39–51.

60 Singapore, Immigration Ordinance, no. 12, 1959. This replaced Colony of Singapore, Immigration Restriction Ordinance, no. 5, 1952; Aliens Restriction Ordinance, no. 37, 1952.

61 Published 3 January 1966 and commenced March 4 1966.

62 For example, the Quarantine and Prevention of Disease Amendment Ordinance (1946); Leprosy Ordinance (1949); Deportation (British Subjects) (1952); Registration of Persons Ordinance (1955); Singapore Citizenship Amendment Ordinance (1959); Banishment (1960); Extradition Act (1968).

63 Union of Burma, Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act, Act 31, 1947.

64 Ceylon, Immigration and Emigration Act, no. 20, 1948.

65 Brunei, Immigration Act, no. 17, 1986.

66 Guinea, Papua New, Migration Act, chap. 16, 1978.

67 For example, United States of America, Act to deport certain undesirable aliens and to deny readmission to those deported, chap. 174, 1920;

Fiji, Act to consolidate and amend the law relating to immigration, chap. 88, 1971;

Hong Kong, Immigration Ordinance, chap. 115, 1989.

68 The Philippines, Immigration Act, no. 613, 1940, section 29(a). See

Kwok-chu, Wong, The Chinese in the Philippine economy, 1898–1941, Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999.

69 Fiji, Act to consolidate and amend the law relating to immigration, chap. 88, 1971, section 11(2).

70 United States, Act to regulate the immigration of aliens to, and the residence of aliens in, the United States, chap. 29, 1917, section 3.

71 Republic of Singapore, Immigration Act, 1970, section 8(2)(a)–(g).

72 Section 3 of the 1953 Ordinance also listed the usual definitions of prohibited immigration: likely to become a public charge; mental disorder or defective; refuses medical examination; convicted of an offence; prostitute or living on proceeds of prostitution; vagrants; political criteria (for example membership of an unlawful organization, or anyone advocating overthrow of government). Immigration Ordinance, no. 102, 1953.

73 Harper, T. N., The end of empire and the making of Malaya, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 23.

74 Ibid., p. 195.

75 Blackburn, Kevin, ‘Disguised anti-colonialism: protest against the white Australia policy in Malaya and Singapore, 1947–1962’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, 55, 1, 2001, pp. 101117.

76 Ken Rivett to Sripati Chandrasekhar, 13 March 1964, Box 14, Folder 14, Chandrasekhar Papers, University of Toledo Library, Toledo, OH.

77 Commonwealth of Australia, Immigration Act, no. 17, 1901, section 3.

78 Malaysia, Immigration Act, ordinance no. 12, 1959/63, part 2, section 8(3).

79 Tim Harper, End of empire, p. 317, explains the debates about ethnic Chinese being granted jus soli in Malaya.

80 Malaysia, Immigration Act, ordinance no. 12, 1959/63, part 2, section 8(3)(i)–(j).

81 Hong Kong, Banishment of dangerous characters, ordinance no. 4, 1871; Hong Kong, Surrender of fugitive criminals from the Malay States, ordinance no. 4, 1903.

82 Canada, Immigration Amendment Act, chap. 26, 1919, section 41. See also

Canada, Immigration Amendment Act, chap. 25, 1919, section 6.

83 Malaysia, Immigration Act, ordinance no. 12, 1959/63, part 2, section 6(3).

84 This might be claimed in other regions too, or even generally. That is, as a new kind of nationalism, post-war and postcolonial independence was often accompanied by policies that either excluded (or forcibly repatriated) diasporic communities or newly restricted a flow of people and money that had long been relatively open. See for example, Lekon, Christian, ‘The impact of remittances on the economy of Hadhramaut’, in Freitag and Clarence-Smith, Hadhrami traders, pp. 272–273.

85 Canada, Act to amend the Immigration Act and to repeal the Chinese Immigration Act, chap. 19, 1947.

86 United States of America, Act to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the parts of other Acts relating to the exclusion or deportation of persons of the Chinese race, chap. 344, 1943. For a counter-argument see

Ly, Son-Thierry and Weil, Patrick, ‘The antiracist origin of the quota system’, Social Research, 77, 1, 2010, pp. 4578.

87 United States of America, Immigration and Nationality Act, chap. 477, 1952. This Act abolished the 1917 Asian Barred Zone, but, an expression of the Cold War era, it also created the Asia-Pacific Triangle, delineating the exclusion of and right to deport any alien who has engaged in or has had purpose to engage in activities prejudicial to the public interest or subversive to national security.

88 United States of America, Act to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, and for other purposes, no. 89, 1965, section 15–18.

89 Gabaccia, Foreign relations, pp. 225–264. Historians recognize that the 1965 Act was a triumph of liberal pluralism but that it sustained major problems in US immigration history. See, for example,

Lau, Estelle T., Paper families: identity, immigration administration, and Chinese exclusion, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006, pp. 155156;

Ngai, Impossible subjects, pp. 225–264.

90 Bashford, ‘Insanity’, p. 29. See also

Luibhead, Eithne, Entry denied: controlling sexuality at the border, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002;

Canaday, Margot, The straight state: sexuality and citizenship in twentieth-century America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.

91 Banerjee, Sukanya, Becoming imperial citizens: Indians in the late Victorian empire, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010;

Karatani, Reiko, Defining British citizenship: empire, commonwealth, and modern Britain, London: Frank Cass, 2003;

Daniel Gorman, ‘Wider and wider still? Racial politics, intra-imperial immigration and the absence of an imperial citizenship in the British empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial Citizenship, 3, 3, 2002, online edition.

92 New Zealand, Aliens Act 1866, section 2.

93 New Zealand, Immigration Restriction Act, act 33, 1899, section 3(1).

94 This allegiance is examined in Lake, ‘Chinese colonists’.

95 Colony of Singapore, Act to consolidate the law relating to and further to regulate immigration into the Colony, chap. 102, 1953, section 7.

96 Commonwealth of Australia, Migration Act, no. 62, 1958, section 5.

97 United Kingdom, Commonwealth Immigrants Act, chap. 9, 1968; See

Paul, K., Whitewashing Britain: race and citizenship in the postwar era, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997.

98 UK Border Agency, ‘UK Ancestry’, (consulted 6 July 2013).

99 Lee, Erika, ‘Orientalisms in the Americas: a hemispheric approach to Asian American history’, Journal of Asian American Studies, 8, 3, 2005, pp. 235256;

Lesser, Jeffrey, Immigration, ethnicity, and national identity in Brazil, 1808 to the present, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013;

Cook-Martin, David and FitzGerald, David, ‘Liberalism and the limits of inclusion: race and immigration law in the Americas, 1850–2000’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 41, 1, 2010, pp. 725.

100 See, for example, Ticktin, Miriam, ‘Medical humanitarianism in and beyond France: breaking down or controlling borders?’, in Alison Bashford, ed., Medicine at the border: disease, globalization and security, 1850 to the present, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006, pp. 116135.

* The author extends thanks to Sunil Amrith, Paul Kramer, Jane McAdam, and participants at the World History Seminar, University of Cambridge, as well as the editors of, and anonymous readers for, this journal. This research has been funded by the Australian Research Council.

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