Immigration Policies

views updated


Less is known about the sources and consequences of immigration policies than about the dynamics of migration flows and the behavior of migrants. Political science, the discipline best suited to explore the role of the state in stimulating, regulating, and preventing migration, long declined to take up this challenge but is making progress elucidating one of the most contentious political issues of our time.

States in the developed world are much alike in facing largely similar migration challenges and opportunities, but have had different migration histories. The majority of the world's 120 million or so voluntary and involuntary international migrants (a stock figure derived from data by country on the numbers of foreign-born residents around 1990) are in the developing world (about 66 million of the 120 million), but many seek to enter countries with more advanced political liberties, better political stability, robust economies, and generous welfare programs. These countries have aging populations that may threaten their economic and financial viability and are integrated into highly competitive regional and global economic networks. Important domestic interest groups, which have emerged in these countries, support the recruitment of the highly skilled. Furthermore, these interest groups tolerate unskilled, often illegal, migrants as a necessary feature of modern capitalism because they fill jobs disdained by natives. Liberal democratic governments, however, are loath to concede control of their borders and are accountable to electorates that consistently express unhappiness with immigration, especially from ethnically or culturally distant areas. Immigration policymaking entails managing these conflicting attitudes and deciding whether to cater to economic imperatives or to cultural and political preferences.

National Immigration Regimes

There are three types of national immigration regimes in the developed world. The United States, Canada, and Australia are the most important traditional countries of immigration. Founded by European settlers, they have long experience with immigration and allow acquisition of citizenship through naturalization or birth within their territory. The United States received about 850,000 legal immigrants per annum in the middle to late 1990s. Australia and Canada admit more immigrants in proportion to their size, however, and the foreign born make up a substantially larger share of their total populations (in 2000, 23% and 17% respectively, compared to 10% for the United States). Annual admissions in all three countries are allocated among family, economic, and refugee/humanitarian categories. The family category dominates U.S. flows; both Australia and Canada admit more skilled migrants, selected through a points system that favors individuals assessed as likely to contribute to economic growth. The United States distributes visas through a range of preference categories, only one of which is tied to skills. All three countries ceased to discriminate on the basis of national origin by the early 1970s. This last policy has produced a major shift to Third World source countries and is gradually changing the ethnic composition of their populations. Canadian and Australian policy does not consider nationality while the United States limits the number of visas granted to immigrants from any single country in a given year. Even so, because many illegal immigrants benefit from amnesty, regularization, and family reunion, Mexicans receive a disproportionate share of U.S. permanent residence visas. With the inclusion of illegal residents, the Mexican-born population in the United States was estimated to be about 8 million in 2000.

The refugee system in these countries, based on the 1951 Geneva Convention and premised on selective acceptance of stateless persons from overseas, is being altered by the sheer number of onshore asylum claimants and the court-driven expansion of the basis for asylum claims. Canada has one of the most expansive refugee systems in the world. Australia's relative geographic isolation has not prevented sizable influxes of asylum seekers and that country's efforts to deter ships bearing potential claimants and its strict policy of mandatory detention of unauthorized arrivals has drawn international opprobrium. While legal migration ordinarily provokes little controversy, illegal migration and on-shore asylum seeking are highly contentious issues. In the United States, legislation in 1986 granted amnesty to nearly 3 million undocumented migrants and imposed employer sanctions against hiring persons without legal status. In 1996 substantial new resources were concentrated at the border with Mexico to deter unauthorized entry. Nevertheless, by 2001 the illegal population had grown to an estimated 7 to 8 million. The estimates for Canada (20,000 to 200,000 overall) and Australia (about 6,000 entering per year) are much lower both absolutely and proportionately.

European countries that recruited temporary labor (guest workers) or received substantial colonial migration during the post—World War II economic expansion have a second type of immigration regime. Migrants came primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, North Africa, Turkey, South Asia, and the West Indies–countries of close proximity or with colonial ties to host countries. They were the first significant influx of non-Europeans into Europe in modern times. Germany developed the prototypical guest worker program, but most other Northern and Western European countries also recruited temporary labor. Colonial migration was especially important in Britain, France, and the Netherlands and differed from guest worker programs in that many colonial migrants possessed or easily obtained citizenship and enjoyed preferential treatment with respect to admissions and residence.

Little thought was given to the difficulties of enforcing temporary contracts, but when the global slowdown prompted a Europe-wide recruitment halt during the period 1973–1974, only a small percentage of the immigrant workforce returned home. Employers were reluctant to lose experienced workers, and welfare institutions and courts dispensed entitlements largely without regard to citizenship. In the first fifteen years after the recruitment halt, migration declined very little since workers sent for their families, producing a secondary migration that liberal governments were unable to stem. By the 1980s most of the countries in Europe had substantial foreign-born populations and numerous second-generation "immigrant residents" who often did not or could not obtain citizenship. Discontent over the failure of governments to control foreign entries and concern about the difficulties of integrating these new populations put immigration on the political agenda in the 1980s and helped spawn right-wing political movements that became particularly strong in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, and Austria. With the admission of new primary immigrants effectively ended and the family reunion process largely complete, by the 1990s the only legal route into Europe for most prospective migrants was via political asylum. Asylum claims in the European Union (EU) member states rose dramatically, briefly peaking in 1992 at about 600,000, but then rising again in 1997. Germany received the bulk of the applications, over 438,000 in 1992 alone, according to the Continuous Reporting System on Migration of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (SOPEMI) (acronym is derived from the French name of the Organization) in 2000, but subsequently revised its liberal asylum provisions. Refugee-processing systems were overwhelmed by numbers and costs, and long backlogs developed. Most applicants were eventually rejected, but the majority of these stayed in the host countries anyway.

The final category of immigration regimes is found in Southern and Eastern European countries that have recently become states that are more likely to receive than to send immigrants, in particular Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Gateways for illegal migrants seeking entry into the EU, these countries are evolving immigration programs and bureaucracies in reaction to a rapidly escalating situation. Over a million illegal migrants may have been living in Greece in 2001, with Spain, Italy, and Portugal having smaller but substantial numbers as well.

By 2000 there were approximately 18.5 million foreigners in the EU, or about 7 percent of the total population. Children of migrants make the foreign origin population much larger. Some 12 million Muslims live in Western Europe, most of recent immigrant origin. After long ignoring settlement issues, states began to grapple with political incorporation. The traditional immigration countries embraced formal (Australia and Canada) or informal (United States) multiculturalism with a degree of enthusiasm; the European countries, however, have had more difficulty. Even access to citizenship has been problematic. Nevertheless, an authoritative review shows that there is almost complete convergence among European states "on extending a citizenship entitlement to second-generation migrants…[and]…a more limited, but nonetheless clear, convergence in northern Europe on an inclusive definition of nationality law for first-generation immigrants" (Hansen and Weil, p. 19).

Explaining Immigration Policy

Immigration scholars are in sharp disagreement over both empirical and analytical issues. Is immigration policy pervasively restrictive or surprisingly open? Are policies converging or diverging? Have states lost control of their borders or is control capacity greater than ever? Does the scale of illegal migration reflect ineluctable pressures or absence of political will? Has immigration been a boon to the host societies, giving them new vitality, or has it created dangerous ethnic and religious tensions? Does migration pose security threats? Do anti-immigrant parties and popular prejudice endanger the rights of minorities and threaten to erode liberal constitutions? There are few commonly accepted evaluative standards, thus, researchers analyzing the same data can, and do, draw contradictory conclusions. Often, research is unacceptably shaped by the subjective values of the researcher.

The prevailing opinion of experts in this area is that immigration policy in Europe is predominantly restrictive in intent, as represented by the image of "Fortress Europe." Many researchers also describe the policies of the traditional immigration countries as prejudiced, exploitative, and hypocritical, despite the great number of admissions. Ironically, scholars who criticize restrictive policies often also argue that national states have lost control of their borders. Most specialists resist linking migration to security threats or crime, considering that argument to be politically inspired rhetoric. (The conclusions of Weiner and Guiraudon and Joppke are notable exceptions to this prevalent approach.)

Some scholars are undertaking systematic research to uncover the causes of empirical outcomes. A promising line of inquiry proceeds from the observation of a gap between the intentions and outcomes of immigration policies as noted by Wayne Cornelius, Philip Martin, and James Hollifield in 1994. Several theoretical models have been employed to address this and related questions, not one of which has yet emerged as the most persuasive.

Globalization theory, as it bears on migration, takes two forms. One perspective, focusing on the economic transformation of the world economy, holds that intensifying patterns of trade in goods, services, and capital create pressures that make mobility of labor inevitable. Traditional notions of national sovereignty and secure borders are, in this view, obsolete as states are driven by their economic goals to accommodate mass migration. Another school of thought, focusing on the growth of transnational human rights norms, argues that the traditional idea of citizenship has been transcended by more general concepts of personal rights. Embodied in treaties, endorsed by courts, and espoused by international organizations and other transnational actors, these rights are granted to long-term residents (denizens) as well as citizens and create an international norm that liberal states cannot ignore. An alternative view, described by Randall Hansen in 2002 as "embedded realism," is that the nation state is alive and well but its sovereignty is, as Christian Joppke described it in 1999, "self-limited." Subscribers to this theory stress the importance of domestic political forces. Hollifield (2000) contends that there is a "rights-based discourse" in which national courts are critical participants that legitimize migrant claims and constrain policy options. Other analyses focus on the groups that have direct interests in policy outcomes and the incentives to organize and agitate around immigration issues. The distribution of costs and benefits of immigration, in this view, gives organizational advantages to its proponents, typically producing client politics, in which well-organized interest groups negotiate policy with the authorities with minimal public participation. In 1999 Jeannette Money derived various hypotheses linking the territorial distribution of the costs and benefits of immigration to the decision of political parties to take up immigration issues. Historical institutionalists have demonstrated that contemporary migration policy decisions are path dependent, that is "a decision limits the range of available options at subsequent points and, in so doing, encourages continuity in the form of a retention of the original choice." (Hansen, p. 270) Finally, many scholars approach immigration politics from cultural perspectives. No book has had a greater impact on the field than Rogers Brubaker's Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (1992), which explores how deeply-rooted national traditions of citizenship and nationhood yield divergent immigration and citizenship frameworks that are resistant to change.

There is a substantial body of research on anti-immigrant parties, movements, and opinion, but less on the larger question of how party systems have shaped and been transformed by immigration. There are a great number of studies analyzing the reasons why people choose to vote for extreme-right parties. Support for these parties comes predominantly from voters in the declining sectors of economies that are in the process of transforming from manufacturing to knowledge-based industries. Mainstream parties have alternated between ignoring anti-immigrant sentiment and catering to it to outflank parties on the right. Generally, discontent over immigration has harmed the electoral prospects of parties of the left more than those of the center or right. The failure of governing parties to handle immigration in a way that satisfies democratic majorities has arguably contributed to the decline of support for democratic institutions.

Toward Regional Immigration Regimes?

There is a trend toward development of multilateral immigration and asylum policies. Nowhere is this more evident than in the EU where, since 1986, the development of immigration and asylum policies has been closely tied to the effort to create a single market. Free movement for the purposes of work and relocation has been achieved for citizens of the member states, although that same freedom is denied to third-country nationals living in the EU. Border controls have largely been eliminated inside the EU, but this has required strict controls at external frontiers and necessitated an unusual degree of cooperation. In 1997 the EU adopted a convention on a common asylum policy, but harmonization in this and other areas has been difficult to achieve. The 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam contained important advances toward the "communitarization" of immigration and asylum policies by moving them into the Community "pillar." A key challenge facing migration scholars at the beginning of the twenty-first century is explaining when and why regional immigration regimes emerge, and how they differ from regimes regulating trade and finance.

Students of the politics of immigration policy have made considerable headway in understanding this complex subject, but exciting empirical, theoretical, and normative issues remain unresolved. Progress is most likely possible only if these separate aspects of the problem are kept analytically distinct.

See also: Asylum, Right of; International Migration; Labor Migration, International; Population Policy.


Baldwin Edwards, Martin, and Martin A. Schain, eds. 1994. The Politics of Immigration in Western Europe. Newbury Park, Eng.: Frank Cass.

Betz, Hans-Georg. 1994. Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Brochmann, Grete and Tomas Hammar, eds. 1999. Mechanisms of Control: A Comparative Analysis of European Regulation Policies. Oxford: Berg.

Brubaker, Rogers. 1992. Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cornelius, Wayne, Philip L. Martin, and James F. Hollifield, eds. 1994. Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Freeman, Gary P. 1995. "Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States." International Migration Review 112: 881–902.

Geddes, Andrew. 2000. Immigration and European Integration: Towards Fortress Europe? Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Guiraudon, Virginie, and Christian Joppke, 2001. "Controlling a New Migration World." In Virginie Guiraudon and Christian Joppke, eds. Controlling a New Migration World. London: Routledge.

Hammar, Tomas, ed. 1985. European Immigration Policy: A Comparative Study. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

Hansen, Randall. 2002. "Globalization, Embedded Realism, and Path Dependence." Comparative Political Studies 35(3): 259–283.

Hansen, Randall, and Patrick Weil, eds. 2001. Towards a European Nationality: Citizenship, Immigration and Nationality Law in the EU. Houndsmills, Basingstoke, Eng.: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hollifield, James F. 2000. "The Politics of International Migration: How Can We Bring the State Back In?" In Migration Theory: Talking Across Disciplines. ed. Caroline B. Brettell and James F. Hollifield. New York: Routledge.

Joppke, Christian. 1999. Immigration and the Nation State: The United States, Germany, and Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Money, Jeannette. 1999. Fences and Neighbors: The Geography of Immigration Control. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Sassen, Saskia. 1996. Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. New York: Columbia University Press.

SOPEMI (Continuous Reporting System on Migration). 1999 and 2000. Trends in International Migration. Paris: OECD.

Soysal, Yasemin. 1994. Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tichenor, Daniel. 2002. Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Weiner, Myron, ed. 1993. International Migration and Security. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Zolberg, Aristide. 1999. "Matters of State: Theorizing Immigration Policy." In Becoming American, America Becoming. ed. Douglas Massey. New York: Russell Sage.

Gary P. Freeman

About this article

Immigration Policies

Updated About content Print Article


Immigration Policies