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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Do Inclusive Societies Need Closed Borders?

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

11 March 2022 | Research

Some political theorists argue that democracies must provide a path to citizenship for all immigrants to uphold the democratic standard of inclusion. Instead, future citizens should be selected through restrictive immigration policies. If border control was abolished, so these theorists assume, citizenship would have to be made exclusive. Other theorists resolve the dilemma in favour of open immigration policies. For them, exclusive citizenship is the price we should pay to enable more immigrants to increase their welfare in prosperous democracies. Still other theorists deny this trade-off assumption and maintain that democracies can and should embrace both inclusive citizenship and open borders. In his PhD thesis, Do inclusive societies need closed borders?: The association between immigration and citizenship regimes, Schmid addresses this puzzle empirically: How are the openness of borders and the accessibility of citizenship for immigrants related across democracies in the real world?

To answer this question, Schmid combines existing data measuring immigration policies with an original dataset on citizenship policies across 23 Western democracies from 1980 to 2010. The data show that more and more – and overall, most – democracies have combined relatively open immigration with relatively inclusive citizenship. However, a substantial number of countries have also come to combine relatively open immigration with relatively exclusive citizenship. Schmid argues that these patterns emerge because there are strong economic and liberal constraints for democracies to open their borders, while citizenship policies are exposed to weaker and mostly domestic democratic constraints.

Schmid then shows that the key factor that explains variation in the relationship between immigration and citizenship policies is the politicisation of immigration. Immigration is politicised when political parties make migration-related issues salient in their party manifestos and when, at the same time, radical right-wing parties receive significant vote shares in elections. When immigration is not politicised, immigration and citizenship policies are not systematically related because immigration and citizenship politics follow distinct political dynamics. Once immigration becomes politicised, however, a new and common dynamic emerges, dividing radical right-wing parties seeking closure against cosmopolitan-minded political actors seeking openness in both immigration and citizenship. Schmid’s statistical analyses and qualitative case illustrations reveal that this divide leads to a positive relationship between the openness of immigration and the accessibility of citizenship. This is surprising because it is often assumed that politicisation directly leads to restrictions in both immigration and citizenship. Schmid demonstrates that such parallel restrictions occur only when radical right-wing parties have also held higher shares of legislative power across multiple past elections in which immigration has been politicised.

Schmid concludes that the dominant empirical assumption in political theory can be falsified: There is no general empirical trade-off between the openness of borders and the accessibility of citizenship for immigrants. For theorists that want democracies to be more open and inclusive, it will be illuminating that politicisation alone helps come closer to this vision if it has not provided radical right-wing parties with enough long-term legislative power to suppress strong liberal constraints. This key result of Schmid’s thesis can also elucidate the challenges and opportunities of policymakers when it comes to regulating immigration in democratic electoral arenas.

Take a look at Samuel Schmid's thesis in CADMUS.

Samuel D. Schmid is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland. After completing a doctoral fellowship at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany, he defended his thesis at the European University Institute (EUI) in December 2021. His research focuses on the comparative analysis of migration, citizenship, and democracy. He has published in the Journal of Common Market Studies, Comparative Migration Studies, Global Policy, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and European Political Science. He is among the co-coordinators of the Migration, Citizenship and Political Participation Standing Committee (MIGCITPOL) of IMISCOE, Europe’s largest interdisciplinary research network in the field of migration studies. During his PhD, he also contributed to the Immigration Policies in Comparison (IMPIC) Project and to the GLOBALCIT Observatory at the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute.

Last update: 11 March 2022

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