Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

Is Immigration Good or Bad for Democracy - Panelist Essays

P.J. Brendese

CONTEMPORARY IMMIGRATION DEBATES ARE FREQUENTLY STUDIED AS POPULATION FLOWS across spatial borders, with relatively less scholarly reflection on how the stakes of those debates are framed and contested in terms of time. The insufficiency persists despite the glaringly obvious temporal dimensions of neo-nativist arguments in the U.S. on behalf of reclaiming a past of patriarchal, white-governed, national greatness—partisans plainly seeking to turn back the clock. Such right-wing rallying cries articulate a broader desire for protection against a future of empowered minority groups who are simultaneously perceived as advancing too fast and whose respective differences are stigmatized as being backward, less evolved or behind the times.

The problem is only accelerated by queue-jumping foreigners who refuse to either wait their turn for citizenship or accept indefinite banishment—the latter being the stated preference among those who frequently invoke the epidemiological rhetoric of an “infestation” or military invasion. From the standpoint of time, then, it follows that calls to “build the wall” should also be heard as temporal desires expressed in spatial terms. On the left, pro-immigration advocates frequently, and uncritically, valorize the indispensability of immigrant labor. The logic that immigrants do the jobs that Americans will not, or cannot do, perpetuates an already enduring biopolitics whereby the extended lifetimes of dominant populations are leveraged on the foreshortened lifespans of racial others. Either stated or implied, a working premise is that a steady supply of cheap and plentiful immigrant workers is necessary to provide citizens with the accoutrements of twenty-first century digital capitalism, even if it means that immigrant others toil in conditions evocative of the nineteenth century.


Elizabeth F. Cohen

Published in Politico, 03/01/2017

THERE ARE MANY REASONS TO BE CONCERNED about Trump’s executive order on border security and memoranda on immigration policy. He is clearly set on sealing the country’s southern border and indiscriminately deporting large numbers of people, a toxic combination of nativist policies with ominous implications for the U.S. economy and society.

For all the deserved criticism of Trump’s proposal, one big thing has been taken for granted: that it would actually succeed in reducing the undocumented population. In fact, walling off the southern border and throwing out residents who have been working in U.S. for extended periods of time could yield the exact opposite result. Turning ourselves into an anti-immigrant police state could actually increase the population of long-term undocumented people in the U.S.


Ariane Chebel d’Appollonia

ON BOTH SIDES OF THE ATLANTIC, current debates about immigration (broadly defined) are divided into two opposing controversial perspectives. Proponents of restrictive policies argue that immigration is bad—for the economy, the safety of citizens, and national identity. From their perspective, immigrants pose a socioeconomic and an ethno-cultural threat to Western societies. They are perceived as stealing native workers’ jobs, reducing their wages, and vastly consuming social benefits. Immigrants reputedly threaten national identity and societal cohesion, especially the newcomers whose perceived distinctiveness challenges the assimilative capacity of their host societies. These claims fuel populist movements, nativist agendas, and anti-migrant sentiments.

Conversely, proponents of liberal policies argue that the socio-economic and cultural contributions of immigrants are largely positive. They praise immigration as improving “diversity” (also broadly defined) while noting that newcomers actually assimilate faster than prior generations of immigrants, including those (such as Muslims and Hispanics) often suspected of being unable to assimilate at all. They provide evidence that immigration is unrelated to delinquency, criminality, or terrorism—natives being more likely to commit these acts than newcomers (as illustrated by evidence regarding domestic terrorists both in Europe and the United States).

I argue that these debates are sterile for at least three reasons. The first relates to a lack of clear definitions and the subsequent distortion of migration scale. Immigrants are basically defined as persons who, at some stage, have crossed a border. Yet, how should people born in their country of residence be defined when they do not have access to citizenship? Or how should nationals who are perceived as immigrants on the basis on their foreign origin be defined when they are citizens? Furthermore, definition of the category constituting “the others” has been expanded by the conflation of the notions of legal immigrants, illegal immigrants, foreigners, foreign-born nationals, asylees and refugees. This residual category lacks both analytic clarity or policy acuity. This large scale terminological confusion and statistical uncertainty fuels, and is fueled by, the politicization of debates over immigration issues. It allows restrictionists to claim that Western societies are “invaded” by immigrants, which in turn leads public opinion (and often media coverage) to overestimate the size of migrant communities—and by extension the level of threat they allegedly pose in their country of residence.

The second reason that I suggest these debates are sterile relates to the tendency to use simplistic dichotomies in discussing the issues raised by immigration—such as bad or good immigrants, closed or open borders, pull or push factors, and nationalistic realism (justified by the ethics of responsibility to protect the nation) in contrast to idealist cosmopolitanism (based on the ethics of conviction and the need to protect human rights). Such a binary approach ignores the “grey zones” that characterize many aspects of the decision-making process in the fields of border controls, socio-economic policies, and integration policies. For example, the focus on “selective immigration policies”—a euphemism for the pro-active import of highly-skilled workers—may be good for Silicon Valley, but it irrelevant (if not bad) for other parts of the country, where there is a labor shortage in low-skilled occupations. The cosmopolitan ideal of open borders is unsustainable for political, economic, and security reasons; yet, increased border controls do not curb the number of illegal immigrants, nor solve the roots causes of migration in sending countries. The ethics of responsibility requires prioritizing the interests of the state and its citizens; yet, it does not require the infringement of the human rights and civil liberties of “others”—notably in the current context of a “permanent state of emergency” in which native citizens are also targeted by discriminatory security measures. Conversely, proponents of the ethic of conviction tend to underestimate the issues raised by the minority integration process, taking for granted the idea that “diversity” will produce more tolerance. Moreover, the belief that global redistributive justice would be served by a global freedom of movement has actually normalize forced migration—instead of addressing critical push factors in that process (such as poverty, civil war, and effects of climate change).

This leads to the third limitation of these current debates: neither restrictionist nor liberal perspectives adequately address the core relationship between immigration and democracy. Both approaches are abstract. They remain vague about immigration (what kind of immigration? What kind of immigrants?) and unclear about the aspects of democracy actually involved (access to citizenship and voting rights? State sovereignty? Composition of the demos? Civic culture?).

Instead of asking whether immigration is good or bad for democracy, I thus advocate analyzing what kind of immigration policies are democratic and which are not. Addressing this question requires defining the contours and substance of a democratic governance of immigration. In doing so, I provide a critical evaluation of two main common assumptions. The first relates to the belief that immigration, like other “dark forces” of globalization, poses a threat to the traditional Westphalian state. Such a belief is used to legitimize “extraordinary measures” such as the reestablishment of border controls within the Schengen area in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis; the erection of fences in Central and Eastern Europe; the violation of the Dublin regulation in Europe and of the Geneva Convention elsewhere; and the stationing of military troops at the US-Mexican border. Consistent with those scholars “bringing the state back in,” I argue that immigration policy remains one of the few bastions of state sovereignty. States have the full authority to select who is allowed to enter the country, apply for asylum, and be granted citizenship. The inability of Western democracies to manage the dynamics of the migratory process should therefore not be interpreted as an indicator of their limited capacity to rule. Failed policies are rather the result of poor political assessments of migratory processes, ideological planning, and debilitating controversies.

The second assumption I address deals with the perception of immigration as a challenge to societal cohesion and political stability. This assumption relates to the suspicion that immigrants are either unable to subscribe, respect or apply key values (such as patriotism or secularism in some European countries) or that they are forming lobbies in order to infiltrate the political system and promote their own agenda to the detriment of the (native) common good. This suspicion, in turn, is used by most democratic governments to justify the racialization/ethnicization of border controls and visa policies, as well as a “return to assimilation” via more exclusive citizenship regimes.

The arrival of newcomers, as well as ethno-racial diversity, is neither good nor bad for democracy. Some aspects can be positive, others can be negative. There is strong evidence, however, that the impact of immigration on democracy depends on the fairness and effectiveness of integration policies. Issues raised by the integration of migrants have to be addressed by policies respectful of basic democratic principles. Otherwise, undemocratic policies are not only counterproductive but also damage the core principles of democracy—as illustrated by the negative consequences of the “lesser evil” agenda. Discriminatory policies based on security concerns do not provide more security. Instead, they fuel a sense of alienation and resentment—leading to undemocratic behavior of behalf of those excluded.

Attempts to improve the democratic governance of immigration should therefore focus on three consequential aspects: Who is allowed to enter the country and on what basis others are excluded; the availability and effectiveness of institutional structures allowing newcomers to join mainstream society; and the management of minorities’ integration over time.