Why do nation-states choose certain immigration policies over others and what accounts for the varying degrees of restrictiveness? Despite the pressing interest among scholars and policymakers, there remain significant gaps in our understanding of the new ways in which nation-states have sought to manage and control increased international migration. The following provides a brief overview of the immigration policy literature and discusses the small, but growing library of cross-national empirical studies.
Beyond Economic Booms and Busts
While the immigration policy literature has rapidly grown in recent years, it is still dominated by political economy accounts. Existing theories explain immigration policy as a function of macroeconomic factors (Borjas 2001; Rodrik 2002), welfare state politics (Bommes and Geddes 2002; Freeman 1986), and economic competition between natives and immigrants (Borjas et al. 1996; Scheve and Slaughter 2001). At their most basic level, political economy models predict that immigration policy oscillates in tandem with economic booms and busts. As an economy grows, immigration policy becomes more permissive as the demand for labor increases; as an economy contracts, immigration policy tightens and becomes more restrictive. This “conventional wisdom” has been widely critiqued, as countries have been shown to respond differently to immigration despite similar macroeconomic characteristics (Money 1997, 1999; Meyers 2000). Moreover, these models have been criticized for not adequately specifying the motives that underlie state actions with respect to immigration policymaking (Freeman and Kessler 2008).
Client Politics: Interest Groups and Immigration Policymaking
The client politics model (Freeman 1995) offers a more nuanced political economy explanation for immigration policy, as it attempts to specify the interests of key economic and political actors. The basic logic underpinning the model is that the more strongly a group’s interests are affected by immigration, the greater incentive it has to organize. As the costs or benefits of immigration become concentrated to particular groups, these groups will attempt to exert greater influence over immigration policymaking. Employers thus typically have incentives to lobby in favor of more permissive policies while those negatively affected have fewer incentives to lobby against them, as the costs of immigration (either real or perceived) are systematically diffuse. As a result, immigration policy is generally more permissive than publics prefer, as their diffuse costs create collective action problems among those with more restrictive preferences.
The client politics model has been critiqued on three important levels. First, in focusing on the agency of interest groups, it neglects the role that institutional factors play in either facilitating or dampening their influence (Boswell 2007). A second critique centers on the empirical plausibility of the model, as questions about how groups define their interests and what determines the influence of certain groups over others remain under-specified. The model also privileges economic over political interests and underestimates the incentives that political candidates and parties have to use anti-immigrant rhetoric, xenophobic appeals, and restrictive policies in order to appear “tough” on immigration and to attract votes (Wong 2011).
Political Geography and the Spatial Context of Immigration
The client politics approach takes the benefits of immigration as systematically concentrated and its costs as systematically diffuse. Political geography explanations for immigration policy posit instead that the impact of immigration is mediated by immigrant settlement patterns and these patterns, in turn, shape immigration policy outcomes (Money 1997).
Immigration network theory locates the causes of increased immigration in the reduced risks and lower social, economic, and emotional costs of relocation due to the formation of migration networks (Massey et al. 1993). Accordingly, traditional destination patterns are such that immigrants tend to locate in areas of co-ethnic settlement or cluster at different destinations (Portes and Manning 2005). The resultant growth pressures caused by this spatial context pose unique challenges for policymakers as they impact how societal resources are used (Bommes and Geddes 2000; Rodrik 2002) and may lead to increased economic competition between natives and immigrants (Borjas et al. 1996; Scheve and Slaughter 2001). These growth pressures are inversely related to the benefits of immigration; as they intensify, the gains localities obtain from immigration diminish. This may include perceptions that immigrants displace native workers, cause overcrowded schools and housing, and negatively impact the provision of healthcare and other social services. To the extent that these growth pressures swell and localities disproportionately bear the costs (real or perceived), national and sub-national preferences over immigration policy diverge. When the spatial contexts of immigration are particularly acute – higher levels of native unemployment where immigrants concentrate, for example – demand for tighter immigration control in these localities increases, leading to more restrictive policies.
“Politicized Places” and the Politics of Immigration Policy
Whereas political geography accounts emphasize the role that immigrant settlement patterns play in immigration policy outcomes new research suggests that while immigration may be necessary, it is not a sufficient condition for explaining the restrictiveness of immigration policy (Ramakrishnan and Wong 2010; Hopkins 2010). The “politicized places” approach suggests that hostile responses to immigration require that conditions interact in such a way that immigrants become construed as threatening. This can occur when national rhetoric reinforces the “threat” of immigration (Hopkins 2010) or when partisanship and political incentives align over policy restrictiveness (Ramakrishnan and Wong 2010).
The identity politics approach downplays the effects of exogenous factors and focuses instead on how immigration policies are shaped by societal definitions of citizenship and belonging and the meanings members attach to these identities (Meyers 2000; Huntington 2004). The racial and ethnic composition of immigrant flows may thus matter for immigration control policy, as who immigrants are and how they are imagined vis-à-vis shared understandings of what it means to be a member of society bear directly on how identities are constituted.
Cross-national Analyses and Theory Development
Despite the growth of the literature, the refinement and further development of existing theories of immigration policy have been hindered by the lack of systematic cross-national studies. As one analyst has commented, existing empirical studies, with some notable exceptions (for example, Cornelius et al. 2004; Sunderhaus 2006; Thielemann 2004), tend to be country specific or there has been a tendency to collect individual case studies, bind them together, and call them comparative (Hollifield 1992). This has made sorting between idiosyncratic factors and more widely applicable theories difficult, as the theorized determinants of immigration policy have rarely been systematically tested across countries, institutional levels, economic configurations, groups, or time.
There is certainly no dearth with respect to the number of studies on the subject. As another analyst has commented, the number of migration studies “has grown even more rapidly than the number of migrants themselves” (Martin 2003, p. 5). Indeed, a small, but growing library of studies have sought to address methodological and substantive gaps in other areas of immigration, including citizenship policies (Howard 2009; Aleinikoff and Klusmeyer 2002), immigrant incorporation (MIPEX), anti-immigrant sentiment (Givens 2005; Kitschelt 1995; Norris 2005; Arzheimer 2009; Arzheimer and Carter 2006; Carter 2005; Golder 2003a, 2003b), and regularizations (Kraler 2009; Sunderhaus 2006). However, why nation-states choose certain immigration policies over others and what accounts for the varying degrees of restrictiveness remain open questions whose answers can benefit from further theoretical specification and greater empirical scrutiny.
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