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date: 19 September 2017

Immigration and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Immigration has taken on renewed prominence in both domestic and international politics. Typical approaches to this pressing theoretical and policy problem, however, focus on either domestic politics (e.g., filling labor needs and integrating migrants into society) or international relations (e.g., international law or norms regarding the treatment of migrants). In this sense, work on immigration has coalesced around two ways of seeing this problem, one micro, one macro, and neither one related to foreign policy. This is particularly unfortunate given that a foreign policy approach—grounded in “mid-range theory,” an “actor-specific” approach, and a sensitivity to factors both above and below the state level—has the potential to add a great deal to our understanding of immigration in IR. A review of the literature reveals two approaches to immigration in IR. The first, largely grounded in the methods and assumptions of political economy, focuses on the “pull” or demand factors that incentivize and regulate migration to a receiving country. The second focuses on “push” factors that drive people from their homelands. This latter approach concentrates on displaced populations, human rights norms, and institutions and cooperation among states. Both approaches contribute a great deal, but are, unfortunately, isolated from each other: an outcome that is at least partly attributable to an arbitrary and politically expedient distinction between “refugees” and “ economic migrants” that countries found it in their interests to make in the aftermath of World War II.

This discussion of immigration and foreign policy thus begins by surveying the theoretical and empirical landscape and providing a framework with which to understand contributions thus far. The following section will highlight three major themes emerging in an innovative new body of research. Fundamentally, these themes revolve around integration: whether it is the integration of security into immigration studies (typically dominated by an economics-based approach), of identity concerns into the public’s immigration preferences, or a focus on the multiple actors located in between the domestic public and international regimes. Suggestions for future research will conclude our discussion.

Keywords: immigration, foreign policy, migration, refugee, international cooperation, human rights


A mere glance at recent elections in the United States, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom suggests the importance of immigration as a political issue. One commentator noted that, for the United States, “the most pressing foreign policy issue facing the nation may well be that of illegal immigration” (Zakheim, 2012). The prominence of immigration as a political issue can hardly keep up with the sheer numbers involved: in 2015, there were about 244 million international migrants, which accounts for over 3% of the world’s entire population (Menozzi, 2016). Unsurprisingly, countries expected to receive the vast majority of these immigrants—for example, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom—are precisely those where the issue has gained political momentum. Yet, immigration, for all its military, economic, diplomatic, and humanitarian implications, has rarely been conceptualized as a foreign policy problem.1

Typical approaches to this pressing theoretical and policy problem focus on either domestic politics (e.g., filling labor needs and integrating migrants into society) or international relations (e.g., international law or norms regarding the treatment of migrants). Work on immigration has thus coalesced around two ways of seeing the problem, one micro, one macro, and neither one centered around foreign policy. Such an observation is no longer novel: Nearly 30 years ago, Mitchell (1989, p. 686) wrote that “discussions of migration as a theme in foreign policy are less theoretically sweeping than those focusing on migration and international relations.” Yet, in many ways, immigration is exactly the type of issue that is well-suited for a foreign policy analysis (FPA) approach. FPA is a particularly useful lens for the study of immigration insofar as it sensitizes people to “mid-range” theory that links micro- and macro-factors, focuses attention on decision makers (rather than a black-boxed state), and identifies the interplay between material and ideational factors (Hudson, 2005).

This article begins by surveying the theoretical and empirical landscape of immigration studies, noting first of all a bifurcation in the literature. On one hand, there are approaches—largely grounded in the methods and assumptions of political economy—that focus on the “pull” or demand factors that incentivize and regulate migration to a receiving country. This body of work tends to be situated at the state level with an attendant focus on federal or local policies that either encourage or restrict immigration in response to labor shortages and public preferences.

On the other hand, there are approaches that prioritize “push” factors that drive people from their homelands and largely focus on displaced populations, human rights norms, institutions, and cooperation among states. While both approaches add to the understanding of the broader issue of immigration, they are largely isolated from each other. Yet the “silo-ization” of immigration into these two approaches is not an accident of history. In fact, it is traceable to a subjective and politically expedient distinction between “refugees” and “economic migrants” that countries found it in their interests to make in the aftermath of World War II.

This discussion of immigration and foreign policy continues by highlighting three major themes emerging in an innovative new body of research. Fundamentally these themes revolve around integration across existing bodies of research. In some cases, scholars have begun to incorporate security concerns into a context traditionally dominated by economics-based approaches. The incorporation of security into immigration research both sheds light on a perennial concept of interest in IR as well as allowing for more subtle inferences regarding the choices facing migrants (which often involve both security concerns in their home country as well as economic opportunity in receiving countries) and host countries (where security concerns are often activated by immigration). In others, the integration comes from incorporating identity concerns into models of public preferences regarding immigration or new actors located between the domestic public and international regimes, such as immigration courts and judges, and regional organizations. The conclusion will make suggestions for future research.

Migrants or Refugees? The Domestic-International Divide in the Study of Immigration

First, is consideration of the state of the field in the study of immigration and foreign policy. What emerges from this article, however, is not one but several parallel research programs that address similar topics but begin from different assumptions, use different methods, and have developed terminology and empirical findings that exist largely in isolation from each other. On the one hand, work in international political economy (IPE) relies on economic models that conceptualize labor as one of several factors of production. These models are largely agnostic about the world outside a country’s borders and view the labor supply as increasing or decreasing in response to economic policies (e.g., opening of trade) and outcomes in the host country. In this sense, then, these are “pull” or “demand” based models, which see immigration to a country as a response to internal economic factors in the receiving state. The immigrants may be “foreign,” but where they emigrated from is largely irrelevant for the purposes of these models. On the other hand, research is found in the area of international law and human rights studies that focuses on “push” (or “supply”) factors that drive people from their home country. These works on “forced migration” focus on refugees and displaced populations, preserving what amounts to an artificial and arbitrary distinction between immigrants who have been “pushed” from their country of origin by violence or injustice and those who have been “pulled” to a receiving country by the promise of economic opportunity.

Pull Factors and the Political Economy of Immigration

Two broad questions underlie what we term “pull-” or “demand-” based approaches to immigration and foreign policy: how immigration affects wages and employment in the native labor market, and how well immigrants may be integrated into a host society (Borjas, 1990). The political economy approach to immigration has been to ask how it relates to the labor force more generally and to other factors of production. Seen in this light, labor is expected to follow demand since wages will be highest where shortages exist.2 An orthogonal approach has focused on the domestic politics of immigration from a cultural and demographic standpoint. These studies have asked whether and where people will migrate and how their relocation impacts society in the receiving area.

Political economists have tended to focus on the broad insight that structural economic forces make states more or less open to immigration or emigration in order to fill the needs of their labor markets. This view builds upon Mundell’s (1957) model in which trade and “factor” movements are generally substitutable. He argued that for overall production to be efficient, states must allow either free trade or the free movement of capital or labor: If trade is restricted, factors such as capital or labor must be able to move to where they are most efficient (e.g., labor will move to where there are available jobs and high wages), while if movement is restricted, trade must be allowed to increase. Subsequent research has built upon this framework to explore the trade-offs between factors of production in light of the politics of globalization (see, e.g., Peters, 2015). With respect to a host society, politics enters into this economic equation in the form of the differential benefits of openness to a factor for different groups in society. An implication of Heckscher-Ohlin trade theory (Heckscher & Ohlin, 1991), for example, is that openness to one factor of production such as labor immigration will benefit the skilled workers in society and harm the less-skilled laborers (see, e.g., Scheve & Slaughter, 2001).

While economic models of factor mobility suggest an explanation for why states would allow or even encourage immigration, scholars have often preferred to address a related question: Why do states restrict immigration? As Hatton and Williamson note in their 2005 study of historical mass migrations, emigration itself is constrained by opportunity (Hatton & Williamson, 2005). While Hatton and Williamson focus primarily on financial constraints to emigration, individual migration decisions are also dependent on permissive immigration policies (Fitzgerald, Leblang, & Teets, 2014), and understanding why people migrate is of little use without also understanding why receiving states might have policies conducive to such decisions in the first place. The domestic sources of immigration restriction have focused on two deeply intertwined categories: economic integration and race. Simply put, if immigration follows labor shortages, the expectation is that it will eventually lower wages. Yet if both labor and capital can vary together, so that the number of jobs in an economy is not fixed, immigration does not necessarily have a negative impact on wages in the long term (Card, 2012). In addition, the concern that immigrants will be a drain on a state’s social welfare system or will not pay their fair share of taxes serves as an effective anti-immigrant or nativist rallying cry, but has not been borne out by the research.3 In fact, many scholars argue that immigrants accept less public assistance than the native-born (Simon, 1984; Tienda & Jensen, 1986). In the United States, for example, immigrants (especially middle-aged and middle- to high-skilled immigrants) have tended to be net contributors to revenue and social security (Storesletten, 2000; see also Gustman & Steinmeier, 2000).

Deeply intertwined with economic concerns about migrants are fears about racial and social integration of newly arrived immigrants. For example, policy makers and citizens might worry that immigration will contribute to racial tensions in densely populated areas, either directly or indirectly via increased pressure on the labor market (Olzak, 1989). Immigration might thus exacerbate existing racial tensions conditional on economic circumstances or if labor market divisions in an immigrant-receiving area are related to race. Because low-skilled immigration in particular has a small but significant impact on wages and employment for existing low-skilled workers, it may heighten conditions of racial inequality between groups who tend to be employed in the high- versus low-skilled sectors (Reimers, 1998).4 In this sense, racial tensions are not necessarily an independent consequence of immigration, but are intertwined with its economic impact (real or perceived) (Waters & Eschbach, 1995). With this in mind, research such as that by Altonji and Card (1991, p. 202) arguing that “immigrants are not sufficiently concentrated in the industries that employ less-skilled natives to have large effects on the less-skilled native groups” should be encouraging.

Of course, the impact of immigration on host communities is hardly limited to the economic realm, and there can be no doubt that perceptions of immigrants as racial or ethnic “others” affect their reception in receiving countries. In his discussion of immigration and race, Jaynes (2000) makes the point that on “the subject of immigration, African Americans may be the most ambivalent group in America, reflecting a powerful tension between a widespread belief that increased immigration is detrimental to blacks’ economic well-being and a moral commitment to equality and the rights of dispossessed peoples” (Jaynes, 2000, p. 3). Reflecting this notion of “ambivalence,” scholars of immigration caution against a simplistic interpretation of the clashing of immigrant and native cultures producing inevitable conflict. In the European context, Dancygier (2010) has shown that conflict between immigrants and natives is far more reflective of the former’s position in the local economy and their electoral influence, rather than inherent cultural dissimilarities. Recent research by Kaufmann and Harris (2015) revisits the classic debate between threat and contact theory5 by assessing the notion that individuals respond to an increase in diversity at the local level more positively than at broader geographic levels. They find evidence that contact with racial minorities on the local level does reduce hostility to immigrants, even when controlling for the possible selection effects caused by “White flight” (Kaufmann & Harris, 2015).

This review of the research in political economy and comparative politics reveals the contributions of domestic policies on the entry, categorization, and integration of immigrants for shaping how states treat foreigners. After all, whether a migrant is understood to be a temporary worker, high-skilled immigrant, family reunification immigrant, or even a refugee is in large part a matter of receiving state policy. Demand-side approaches to immigration studies thus focus on the internal politics of such destination states. For issues such as national identity and integration, this is surely warranted (see, e.g., Goodman, 2014). Yet when it comes to the domestic politics of globalization, in which immigration restrictions are bundled with a range of foreign policy issues related to international openness,6 attention to international factors may also be warranted. The next section examines the international legal category of “refugee” as an approach that may have gone too far in divorcing itself from domestic politics.

Push Factors and the International Politics of Forced Migration

While the previous section surveyed the political economy and comparative political approaches that focus on factors that “pull” immigrants into new countries and territories, another cluster of research has focused on what pushes those migrants to leave in the first place. Broadly, these approaches cluster around themes of international cooperation and law while emphasizing the plight of refugees and migrants forced to leave their home countries.

IR scholars often emphasize the new global economic regime created in the aftermath of World War II. What is less often noted, however, is that these institutions did not include any explicit, multilateral mechanisms for cooperation over labor movement. Even refugee protection, which was a pressing issue in the aftermath of World War II and efforts toward European reconstruction, has been the subject of only ad hoc and occasional international cooperation. Legally, little international law governed refugee protection until 1951, and to this day immigration remains a matter of individual state policy.7 This is so despite several regional experiments in international cooperation over immigration or refugee burden-sharing.8 Perhaps as a result, research on international relations has been slow to take up the issue of immigration.

Nonetheless, a broad interest in international cooperation after World War II and the high visibility of several European refugee crises (including the massive displacement that followed WWII and those crises that involved refugees fleeing communism during the Cold War) led scholars to consider refugees as a distinct research program for international relations. For example, scholars concerned with post-World War II European reconstruction offer accounts of the politics of refugee repatriation and resettlement. Such studies tend to highlight the international cooperation problems surrounding the distribution of refugee assistance. Holborn (1965), for example, describes the series of international organizations formed in the 1940s and 1950s to deal with the European refugee problem. These included, in turn, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), the International Refugee Organization (IRO), the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), and finally the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As countries’ initial post-war labor needs began to be filled and states became increasingly reticent to offer permanent homes for European refugees (Gibney, 2004)—a reminder that “push” and “pull” factors rarely operate in isolation—international cooperation over migration became increasingly difficult.

While these and other accounts of cooperation over refugee assistance have offered helpful illustrations of the global politics of immigration, they have been driven largely by events, with an attendant focus on the particular humanitarian crises of the time. As a result, they have coalesced around few generalizable explanations. Instead, much of our understanding of immigration in IR—of forced migration in particular—has taken the political milieu of contemporaneous historic periods to be the primary explanation for state behavior. For example, Western immigration policy during the Cold War is often understood in light of the East-West rivalries of the time (Zolberg, Suhrke, & Aguayo, 1989). As numerous studies have demonstrated, refugee and asylum policy in particular tended to reflect the particular strategic interests of major powers during the Cold War. For example, the United States preferred to admit asylum seekers and refugees from communist countries, while it tended to deny asylum to individuals from right-wing regimes that it identified as partners in the fight against communism (Loescher, 2001; Loescher & Scanlan, 1986; Zolberg et al., 1989). The explanation for such a policy derives from research on the effects of emigration, arguing that encouraging emigration from adversary states might deprive those states of human capital and undermine the regime’s credibility both with its own public and with the international community (see, e.g., Bhagwati & Dellalfar, 1973). By contrast, when it came to aiding refugees from anti-communist conflicts, European countries sometimes preferred to direct their assistance to leftist sympathizers (Terry, 2002).

Migrants vs. Refugees: A False Dichotomy?

The above discussion has highlighted one significant axis along which immigration research has been divided and siloed off. On the one hand, there are approaches—such as the political economy of immigration and cultural/demographic research—that see the choices of policy makers with respect to immigration primarily in terms of factors within the receiving country. A complementary yet distinct strand of research has focused on factors that push migrants out of their home country and how this is reflected through international cooperation in refugee assistance. This axis corresponds closely to variation in whether scholars focus on the domestic consequences of immigration (e.g., how it impacts the income and welfare of natives) or the international (e.g., how migration affects international security and the welfare and safety of migrants themselves). However, this distinction serves only to emphasize the delicate balancing act between domestic and international outcomes that policy makers must face, as well as the interactive effects of economic and security concerns faced by immigrants themselves (Gibney, 2004).

In addition to this broad difference in focus, a survey of the literature reveals that the very terms used—whether “migrant” or “refugee”—to discuss the issue of immigration have likely played a role in slowing the accumulation of knowledge. The concept of “refugee” and refugee protection by states has a long history.9 However, the legal distinction between refugees and migrants has much more recent origins in the post-World War II migration crisis in Europe (Long, 2013). States approached the problem of widespread displacement following World War II through a combination of unilateral or bilateral labor migration programs (Gibney, 2004; Peters, 2016) and international institutionalization of refugee protection (Skran, 1995).10 While the newly formed United Nations considered a unified international regime for migration to be essential for maintaining peace and stability, individual states—the United States in particular—feared that delegating too much power to an international body would undermine its ability to select which and how many immigrants to admit.

The fragmentation of migrant categories in legal and policy usage can be traced to this divergence between international efforts to institutionalize a uniform migration policy and states’ short-term political and economic interests (Karatani, 2005). As a result, the early post-war refugee institutions defined “refugee” in a highly constrained way by limiting its geographic scope (to the European continent)11 and its definition (to individuals outside of their country of origin who could not return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution; Zolberg et al., 1989).12 Rather than establishing a uniform legal status that would protect individuals who had been forced from their homes, both this geographic specificity and the vagueness of the term “persecution” have served to give states considerable discretion over who they would recognize as refugees in need of protection.

What is crucial to understand here is that states’ immigration policies and legal interpretations were made as a result of political choices rather than reference to any crucial distinction between the categories of migrants and refugees. For example, labor shortages in Western countries made post-war immigration desirable, but only for those who could work in industry and integrate easily into Western society. The European Volunteer Workers (EVW) program to the United Kingdom, for example, recruited laborers directly from the refugee population in Displaced Peoples camps on the European continent (Kay & Miles, 1988). These were individuals who had been forced from their homes by persecution and war and now had nowhere to return to due to the destruction of the war, and in many cases found themselves effectively stateless due to post-war shifts in national borders (Loescher, 2001). Yet, the British government still categorized these migrants—who numbered over 90,000 and were employed in a variety of sectors from industry and farming to health care—exclusively as “economic” migrants.

In other cases, however, foreign policy makers have found it expedient to strategically categorize groups as refugees or migrants for political purposes. For example, the United States refused to acknowledge Cold War-era migrants from El Salvador and Guatemala as refugees, while offering widespread resettlement opportunities for migrants from communist-controlled Cuba. Such behavior allowed officials to send a signal both to allies and to their domestic public that only rule by certain regimes was “legitimate.” During this period, the United States’ Department of State and Department of Justice took the legal position that because Salvadoran and Guatemalan migrants passed through Mexico en route to the United States, they must in fact be economic migrants interested in finding employment in the United States (Stanley, 1987). Otherwise, so the argument went, they would have been satisfied with taking refuge in the first safe country they reached. This logic reappears today in discussions about asylum seekers in the EU, with Western European countries arguing that individuals who seek asylum at their border undermine their claim for asylum by not staying in the first safe country they had reached. Yet Schuster (2011) argues that the assumption that these migrants are unworthy of protection hardly seems warranted simply because geographic necessity compels them to bypass countries where they are unlikely to receive a fair, much less successful, asylum hearing.13

These practical obstacles to the neat categorization of migrants versus refugees is reflected in an academic discipline that struggles to define the nature and scope of population movements. For scholars, the conceptual distinction between refugees and migrants is just the beginning. In recent years, researchers have moved to relabel “refugee studies” as “forced migration studies” or the study of “survival migration” (Betts, 2013), acknowledging the narrowness of the category of “refugee.” The focus on forced migration has the important effect of addressing the vast number of individuals who have been forced to leave their homes but have not crossed international borders. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) have long been excluded from the study of refugees, despite their sharing many of the same characteristics and political implications, and so this is a welcome change (Betts, 2009b; Moore & Shellman, 2006). Yet this rhetorical shift has not seen a corresponding meeting of forced migration studies with migration studies more broadly, and it preserves many of the structural and, according to some, imperialistic aspects of previous waves of refugee studies (Chimni, 2009). What is more, the recognition that cross-border flows of people tend to be “mixed,” including some individuals who meet the legal requirements for refugee status and some who do not (van der Klaauw, 2009), throws further doubt on the utility and even possibility of analyzing refugee groups as distinct from other migrants.

While it is not this article’s intention to argue that international protection for individuals who have been forced to flee their homes is not normatively desirable, it is wise to caution scholars against constraining their analyses of immigration to one or the other of these legal categories. Not only are these distinctions the product of a particular history of the international politics of migration, but they also lead to bias in the scope of scholarly inquiry in that “economic migration” is often analyzed only with respect to pull factors and the movement of refugees with respect to push factors. As described, a foreign policy analysis approach to the topic of immigration creates space for reconceptualizing population movements in a less fractured way. For the actors who determine foreign policy, the distinction between migrant and refugee is often only relevant insofar as it can be strategically employed to justify the admittance of certain groups over others. Instead, they determine immigration policy through consideration of various foreign policy goals such as national security and economic growth, while remaining beholden to a domestic public. Taking immigration as a foreign policy problem allows for the observation of this strategic decision making as it cuts across the boundaries of traditional IR subfields and implicates a wide variety of political decision makers and audiences.

The Contemporary Politics of Immigration: Policy Making in Context

Having surveyed the state of the literature, this section examines the present “state of the art” in the study of immigration and foreign policy. In particular, it addresses the approaches, theories, and research that represent substantial innovations over past work. Each of the areas highlighted is notable for its attempt at integration; the first two bodies of work innovate by broadening the range of factors considered in immigration studies beyond the traditional focus on economics to encompass security, identity, and sociotropic concerns, while the third does so by incorporating different and novel sets of actors, such as courts, NGOs, and IOs.

The Integration of Security and Economics

One highlight of current state-of-the art approaches to the study of migration regards the integration of security and economic approaches. Migration flows, particularly flows of refugees, are naturally associated with security problems in sending countries, as political violence forces people from their homes and across borders. Yet a growing literature in political science finds that cross-border flows of refugees also contribute to an increased risk of both civil war in receiving countries (Kathman, 2010; Salehyan & Gleditsch, 2006) and interstate war between both countries (Gleditsch, Salehyan, & Schultz, 2008; Salehyan, 2008), as states are more likely to participate in peacekeeping missions to conflicts that send refugees to their territory (Uzonyi, 2015). This finding regarding the “diffusion” of conflict extends to unconventional warfare, such as transnational terrorism, as well. While overall immigration levels tend to be associated with less terrorism in a receiving state, due to the positive externalities of increased human capital, immigration from terror-prone states does contribute to the diffusion of terrorism in receiving states (Bove & Böhmelt, 2016). In addition, aid influxes in support of displaced populations can create opportunities for terrorist groups and insurgents to engage in violence to capture resources, suggesting that refugee camps exacerbate the moral hazard problems inherent in humanitarian aid (Lischer, 2003). In fact, states have at times capitalized directly on the destabilizing effects of large and rapid migration influxes to coerce potential receiving states into policy concessions (Greenhill, 2010).

Of course, pointing out the importance of security concerns as they relate to immigration is, by itself, not necessarily novel. In fact, Cornelius and Rosenblum (2005) noted over a decade ago that immigration is inherently related to security in at least two ways. First, the causes of immigration often contain a security component, particularly to the extent that our understanding of security includes safety from extreme poverty.14 Scholars are increasingly cognizant of the fact that conceptualizing refugee flows as primarily an outcome of international insecurity and other migrant flows as primarily related to the demand for labor creates an unproductive and unrealistic distinction between the two. To begin with, and as suggested in the discussion of the distinction between refugees and migrants, political violence and economic problems are likely to be correlated (Fearon & Laitin, 2003). Even studies of refugee flows that focus on the link between refugees and war acknowledge that economic insecurity often drives refugee-generating conflicts (see, e.g., Weiner, 1996). This implies that even where individuals are not able to obtain refugee status, or where their claim for asylum cannot be justified given current law, there may nonetheless be a security problem underlying their decision to migrate. Economic inequality, for example, is often used as an early warning sign of forced migration (Schmeidl, 2001). After all, refugees represent only a subset of what might be considered “crisis migrants,” or those who have fled their homes in order to survive (Betts, 2013). In addition, the issue of mixed migration flows is hardly new; as Kumin (2014, p. 308) points out, when it comes to categorizing migrants, “the dividing lines between these categories are not always clear, the groups are not mutually exclusive, and people often have more than one reason for leaving home.”

Second, policy responses to migration must address the fact that the movement of people across borders activates concerns about security in a receiving state. This is due both to bias against foreigners and the expectation that movement across borders may undermine sovereignty and national identity, and may create opportunities for irregular violence (Adamson, 2006). In fact, just as economic inequality and instability can contribute to the insecurity that causes migrants to leave their homes, policy makers bring these same issues to bear when it comes to assessing the security risk that immigrants might pose to their state. The legislators, ministers, judges, and bureaucrats who make immigration policy continue to respond to the age-old fear that enemies of the state may covertly cross the border through civilian migration flows. The debate within the United States regarding resettlement for Syrian refugees in recent years, for example, has been characterized by alarmist rhetoric regarding the potential for terrorists and other enemies of the state to enter U.S. territory via its legal immigration processes.15 This is so despite the comprehensive security checks that refugees must undergo to be resettled in the United States, and in contradiction of the historical record of refugee and even immigrant participation in terrorism in recent years, which has been notably low.16

In fact, as security scholars and policy makers alike expand their understanding of security to include issues such as economic stability and the preservation of a particular national culture, they also expand the range of security “threats” that can be associated with migration. For some, this means developing a conception of sovereignty that takes as its domain a particular society rather than a definitively bounded territory (Joppke, 1998; Rudolph, 2003). This means that the ability of policy makers to control the character, culture, and even racial makeup of their society may come to be perceived as a matter of national security. As scholars expand the scope of security by studying the process through which issues become “securitized” in politics, migration scholars have debated the securitization of migration both in theoretical terms and regarding its policy impact. In her discussion of the relationship between migration and security, Doty (1998) points out that a logic of security that includes societal security or human security as interconnected with national security quite clearly highlights the importance of migration. In more practical terms, the perception of a migration “crisis” in Europe highlights the importance of the ongoing research into the impact of the securitization of migration policy on immigration outcomes (see, e.g., Boswell, 2003; Faist, 2002; Huysmans, 2000). But while security concerns undoubtedly affect immigration, they do not do so in isolation, as recent work examining the security and economic inputs to immigration policy has shown. In fact, as Avdan (2014) argues, the negative effects of security concerns (such as the incidence of terrorism in a sending state) on openness to immigration may be counteracted by the positive influence of economic integration.

This point—that even migration that seems to be caused by the pull of economic opportunity often is the result of a security problem in the sending country, ought to force scholars to expand their understanding of push factors for migration. That a migrant is interested in finding a job abroad is hardly evidence that they lived in a safe and secure sending state and therefore do not need protection. Yet the term “economic migrant” has long been used as an antonym for “refugee,” and a rallying cry for xenophobic sentiment in receiving countries (Zimmermann, 1995). This suggests that a more nuanced understanding of the causes of migration, particularly with respect to push factors, can help to explain the motivations behind policy makers’ treatment of migrants.17

The Role of Economics and Identity in the Public’s Immigration Preferences

The benefits of integrating security into traditionally (mostly) economic approaches to immigration is just as apparent in the context of public opinion. In Heckscher-Ohlin trade theory, immigration is analogous to the movement of labor across borders and an individual’s preferences over immigration depend on the expected impact of an increase in labor on wages in their sector. By this account, immigration is assumed to be beneficial to high-skilled workers and harmful to low-skilled workers (Scheve & Slaughter, 2001): An increase in the size of the workforce offers low-cost labor to the owners of capital while creating more competition among the low skilled.

Fundamentally, this approach sees individuals’ preferences over immigration policy as being affected by the forecasted impact on their livelihood, and there is surely some truth in this. Drawing on survey data in which individuals are asked both about their opinions on immigration and their skill level in the labor market, Scheve and Slaughter (2001) test the implied hypothesis—that low-skilled laborers will be more likely to oppose immigration—and find support for this idea. They argue that individuals believe that immigration impacts wages, and those groups most likely to be affected negatively by this outcome tend to be in favor of restricting immigration. Of course, the economic impact of immigration is broader than its effect on wages in the labor market, and other research has shown that individuals also evaluate immigration through the lens of its potential fiscal impact. High-income natives in areas with generous public assistance and a progressive tax system are therefore less likely to support immigration than those who would not expect to have to contribute to public welfare (Hanson, Scheve, & Slaughter, 2007).18

While intuitively satisfying, this approach to applying economic models to understand public opinion about immigration suffers from a highly constrained view about what constitutes self-interest for respondents. In doing so, it misses several key factors that are better captured by approaches that are flexible enough to allow individuals’ preferences to vary in response to other factors: Individuals may care about not only the economic impact on themselves, but on others as well, and may even integrate non-economic factors such as identity and security into their calculations. For example, an individual may interpret the impact of an economic policy not just in terms of what it does to their own wages and income, but also in terms of how they perceive its impact on the economy as a whole (see, e.g., Mansfield & Mutz, 2009). In addition, neither labor market competition theory nor fiscal burden theory account for how publics interpret heterogeneity among immigrants. In economic terms, immigration has diffuse benefits in that it can contribute to economic growth, and concentrated costs in its effect on wages and employment for particular sectors of the economy. Yet the distribution of these costs does not appear to be the sole determinant of how individuals feel about immigration. Instead, these preferences reflect ideas about who does and does not belong in a society. The recent rise of populism across the United States and Western Europe, for example, is likely related to a potent mixture of economic concerns alongside issues of nationalism and identity. For example, there is evidence that the interpretation of skill level is related to ideas about language, ethnicity, and criminality (Hainmueller & Hopkins, 2015).

In an effort to better understand how both characteristics of a receiving country and of immigrants themselves affect public opinion, Hainmueller and Hiscox (2010) show that the skill level of immigrants is highly consequential for natives’ opinion. Regardless of their own skill level, respondents tend to prefer high skilled immigration to low skilled. This finding has been replicated in subsequent research, yet Goldstein and Peters provide the important caveat that opposition to immigration of people who might compete with you in the labor market is dependent not just on economic conditions but also on how individuals perceive their security in the economy (Goldstein & Peters, 2014). What is more, in an earlier study Hainmueller and Hiscox (2007) find that regardless of the skill level of the hypothetical immigrant, respondents who have achieved higher levels of education tend to be more supportive of immigration. This suggests that the preferences of highly-skilled natives may not necessarily be explained by the impact of immigrants on their direct economic well-being, but rather on those respondents’ more cosmopolitan beliefs regarding the broader good of immigration in society as a whole.

Individuals thus consider the personal characteristics of immigrants when assessing how they feel about them. In so doing, they weight both skill level and where immigrants have come from and often interpret these pieces of information as clues as to the ethnic identity of potential immigrants. In a 2013 study of immigrant naturalization decisions in Switzerland, which for a time allowed such determinations to be made by referenda in certain municipalities, Hainmueller and Hangartner (2013) find that country of origin is the most influential factor driving approval of immigrants, even compared to immigrants’ education level, language abilities, and skill level. There are a number of issues that country of origin could be a heuristic for, but among them is certainly race and ethnicity, as well as the related normative assessment about who is worthy of entry into a society. As Nayak (2015) argues, country of origin is also implicated in how we evaluate the “worthiness” of asylum seekers, where a “worthy victim frame” is used to construct the receiving country as “civilized” in comparison to a particular sending country.

Another strand of this literature reminds us that the public’s beliefs about immigration may be part of a larger constellation of beliefs about foreign policy, isolationism, engagement with the world, and the role of the state. For example, there is a strong association between issues such as trust in foreigners, free trade, and liberal immigration policies (Espenshade & Hempstead, 1996; Wals, Theiss-Morse, Gonzalez, & Gosda, 2015), as well as between ideas about immigration and support for public assistance (Garand, Xu, & Davis, 2015). With respect to the framework employed in this chapter, the interconnectedness of immigration opinion with these other preferences and beliefs suggests several things. First, the domestic determinants of immigration policy are far from limited to the labor needs of a receiving country, but individuals may nonetheless interpret or describe their preferences in terms of economic security even when they are in reality far more complex. Second, individuals are far more outward looking in their assessment of immigrants than a sole focus on pull factors would suggest. Finally, a full understanding of political outcomes (such as the rise of populist movements, to take one salient recent phenomenon) requires asking how economics, culture, and security interact, rather than how each impacts immigration policies in isolation.

A final factor of interest concerns the role of individuals’ own experiences in affecting their beliefs about immigrants. And while there may be many candidates, a new and vibrant strand of research has examined the extent to which one’s own experiences as an immigrant affect broader policy preferences concerning migration. By and large, scholars have found that with respect to immigration policies, immigrants actually tend to be rather conservative (i.e., in favor of restricting entry) compared to natives (Dancygier & Saunders, 2006).19 Just and Anderson (2015) find that new immigrants tend to hold a much less skeptical view of immigration than immigrants who have become naturalized citizens in a receiving country, surmising that with citizenship comes a greater alignment with the preferences of other natives. Other research has also demonstrated that xenophobic rhetoric in a receiving country can contribute to hardening ingroup preferences for members of immigrant groups who identify strongly with their group (Pérez, 2015). In addition, exposure to protests against restrictionist immigration legislation increases support for liberal immigration policies among immigrants themselves (Branton, Martinez-Ebers, & Matsubayashi, 2015).

A Multiplicity of Actors

While the last two sections have surveyed innovative approaches to the study of immigration and foreign policy that integrate new theoretical lenses, to the focus of this section is new studies that address a multiplicity of actors. Of course, the standard political science or IR approach to most issues begins with a focus on states, and to that can be added an IPE approach on the migrants themselves (with a particular focus on the choices and trade-offs they face in considering where to live and work). Yet as innovative new research continues to demonstrate, immigration foreign policy making depends on a dense network of decision makers located both above and below the state level.

Above the state level, both international (IOs) and regional (ROs) organizations have been the focus of research on their ability (and desire) to both aid and constrain states in the domain of immigration. Of course, it is still the case—as described earlier in this chapter—that migration policy making has been only weakly institutionalized at the international level. Yet, research has begun to show ways in which IOs have incrementally expanded their own power to manage migration, particularly in the face of humanitarian crises and forced displacement. For example, with the weakening of the distinction between migrants and refugees, the UNHCR has reinterpreted its own mandate to include protection of internally displaced people, stateless people, and other migrants in humanitarian need (Betts, 2009a). UNHCR diplomats have also used issue linkages to security, trade, and labor immigration to reframe protection for migrants as being inherently in the interests of powerful receiving and donor states (Betts, 2009b).

In addition, regional organizations have become migration policy makers, both internally by liberalizing within-region visa requirements, and externally through more militarized border control. In their discussion of regional migration governance, Lavanex, Givens, Jurje, & Buchanan (2016) describe two types of regional migration regimes, which broadly speaking cover economic integration and security integration. Researchers have tended to focus on the former, noting that efforts to create common markets through organizations such as the EU, ASEAN, NAFTA, and MERCOSUR have encountered difficulties in liberalizing the movement of labor due to the political salience of migration. Even where domestic publics have been receptive or at least ambivalent toward the opening up of trade in their regions, scholars have argued that persistent xenophobia has hindered efforts toward opening up migration through regional organizations (Maguid, 2007). In addition, researchers have linked regional economic integration to populist backlash in domestic politics (Geddes, 2014).

While actors above the state level have attempted to expand their influence in matters of migration, so too have sub-state political actors. In fact, a defining characteristic of immigration as a political issue is that it is an “intermestic” issue, that is, its causes and consequences affect both domestic and international politics, and it is often viewed in the context of other issues of globalization (Cornelius & Rosenblum, 2005). This allows for interest groups and other organizations to influence immigration policy at various levels of governance, including the sub-state level. In an expansive study of interest group participation in U.S. immigration politics, Wong (2006) shows how employer associations, but perhaps more surprisingly ethnic lobbies as well, have been able to convince policy makers to expand immigration. On the international level, humanitarian NGOs have also been influential in lobbying for migrants’ rights and for humanitarian and legal aid to refugee populations. As Betts argues, even NGOs with limited resources can be effective at lobbying on behalf of migrants by employing arguments that link migration issues to other issues of concern for major states (Betts, 2009b). In addition, states may also contribute to NGOs that support refugees as part of a broader humanitarian foreign policy agenda (Brysk, 2009).

Perhaps the most studied of the actors who make foreign policy decisions when it comes to immigration (and yet the least credited as foreign policy decision makers) are the courts. One innovative strand of this research examines the role that judges and immigration officers make in determining who is allowed to enter and stay in a country, particularly with respect to asylum seekers. Adjudicating asylum claims requires attention both to the migrant’s country of origin (in order to determine whether they have truly fled persecution) and the receiving country’s interests (insofar as judges must consider such cases within the framework of immigration law and national security in their country). In practice, this means that individual judges have considerable power over who is allowed to stay. In fact, these decisions often reflect biases against particular ethnic groups; in a 2010 study, Holmes and Keith (2010) find that speaking either Spanish or Arabic decreases the likelihood of an applicant receiving asylum in U.S. courts since 2001. Yet from a foreign policy perspective, judges and immigration officers may also use immigration decisions to further a country’s broader foreign policy goals. For example, U.S. asylum decisions during the Cold War tended to reflect a desire to shore up the legitimacy of refugee-sending regimes that were friendly to the United States, and to lend evidence to the argument that communist regimes were unstable and mistreated their citizens (Rosenblum & Salehyan, 2004).

International courts can act to insulate migration policy from the negative impact of particular states’ foreign policy interests on outcomes for forced migrants, but they are not always successful in doing so. As Gündoğdu (2015, p. 111) highlights in her study of statelessness, bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights can hear appeals of deportation decisions in their jurisdiction, but they are constrained by a broader international legal system that conceives of asylum seekers as “guilty until proven innocent.” This means that, even if international courts are less inclined to use immigration decisions to make foreign policy, they are nonetheless subject to many of the same issues as domestic courts, including a tendency toward skepticism of the claims made by asylum seekers.


With causes and consequences located at several levels of analysis and across substantive issue areas, immigration is both a worthy and a necessary topic of study for foreign policy analysis. Yet as this article has shown, much of the study of immigration has focused on either the factors that “pull” migrants to a receiving country or those that “push” people from their homelands. While we have argued that this division is suboptimal in that it obscures those explanations for immigration policy that traverse subfield boundaries and levels of analysis, it is not divorced from political reality; in fact, it reflects the legal distinctions that states make between designated refugees and other immigrants. Whereas a migrant’s identity as a refugee is viewed by policy makers and scholars alike as being a function of both the objective conditions in their home country and the treatment that they as an individual received from that regime, other immigrants are conceptualized in a manner divorced from their country of origin and focused instead on the opportunities they seek in the receiving country.

The legal category that a migrant is able to achieve in a receiving country is far more of a political decision than it is a reflection of that migrant’s reality, and policy makers have little incentive to clarify their responsibility with respect to migrants in need of protection. Accordingly, a crucial step forward in the study of immigration will be to highlight the multiplicity of actors, not just executives and legislatures, who form foreign policy in this area. This may include municipal governments and local volunteer organizations who determine the size and scope of resettled refugee populations in certain areas, as well as the diplomats and bureaucracies that issue visas for the vast majority of immigrants. Greater attention to who these immigration decision makers are should also take into account the diversity of receiving state regime types, as the bulk of research has focused on democratic receiving country regimes (Freeman, 1994). In addition, efforts must be made to better understand how these actors’ domestic constituencies view immigration.

An additional (and related) path forward for the study of immigration preferences is to pursue the question of mechanisms. That is, to not just ask who will approve of immigration and when, but also why. One potential avenue for such a research program is to utilize methods adapted from psychology and other behavioral sciences. Pérez (2010), for example, uses an Implicit Association Test (IAT) paradigm to separate out immigration attitudes from other traditional attitudes measures (such as ethnocentrism and intolerance to foreigners). He finds that the subjects’ judgments of immigration issues writ large are often substantially influenced by their feelings about a particular ethnic group (in this case, immigrants from Latin America).

While these shifts in theoretical focus and empirical scope provide opportunities for growth in the scholarly examination of immigration as foreign policy, it should be noted that the weakening of the distinction between refugees and other migrants is not necessarily a normative improvement. In a disturbing trend, restrictionist policy makers have begun to apply the disparaging rhetoric of economic greed and domestic insecurity to refugees as well, without denying that they are legitimate refugees, leaving migrants without any protected category even in theory. One example of this is the recent effort by state governors in the United States to prevent the resettlement of Syrian refugees on their territory, despite the paucity of evidence that this group presents a threat to domestic security. Yet this move makes explicit what we argue has been implicit in the study of immigration all along: that with respect to policy, the distinction between refugees and other migrants does not serve to protect the most vulnerable migrants in a systematic way.


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(1.) For a notable exception, see Milner and Tingley (2015).

(2.) Note that we see this as exemplifying a “demand-side” explanation, though it is based on strong assumptions about the decision making of the immigrants themselves. The underlying assumption of this type of model is that labor migration will serve to maximize a potential migrant’s own self-interest (Borjas, 1989), given certain assumptions about the obstacles to movement and the individual’s personal preferences and familial needs (Mincer, 1978). In their classic review of theories of migration, Massey et al. (1993) categorize these as macro versus micro perspectives of neoclassical economic theory.

(3.) Nativism is defined in the literature as an “intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e., ‘unAmerican’) connections” (Higham, 1983).

(4.) While this point primarily refers to employment, researchers have also examined the effects of immigration on other economic indicators for minorities in receiving countries. For example, Fairlie and Meyer show that immigration does not tend to have a large impact on the propensity of African Americans to start their own businesses (Fairlie & Meyer, 1998).

(5.) That is, the question of whether contact between a minority and a majority group reduces prejudice and improves each group’s perception of one another (Allport, 1954), or that it increases tensions and solidifies fears of the other group (Putnam, 2007).

(6.) Specifically, populist political movements in Western states have incorporated immigration into their critique of economic globalization as a whole in various ways (see, e.g., Mudde, 2007).

(7.) While the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was severely bounded in scope, applying only to European refugees from World War II, the 1967 Protocol to the Convention expanded the geographic reach of the treaty. Nonetheless, international refugee law has been subject to increasing criticism over its narrowness, as it continues to define refugees according to “political persecution,” thus excluding individuals fleeing conditions of general violence and poverty or natural disasters.

(8.) The most notable example of cooperation in the area of immigration policy is the Schengen Agreement that governs migration within the EU, though similar arrangements have been proposed in other areas, for example Mercosur in Latin America. Groups of states have coordinated to manage the resettlement of refugees from several major crises in the 20th and 21st centuries, such as the Orderly Departure Program of refugees from Vietnam to Western countries in the 1980s and 1990s.

(9.) See Orchard (2016) for a more in-depth discussion of the history of these terms.

(10.) While efforts were made to establish an international refugee regime during the interwar period, such as the Nansen passport program for stateless peoples (see, e.g., Torpey, 2000), today’s institutions are directly descended from those put in place after World War II.

(11.) This geographic limitation was removed with the 1967 Protocol to the Convention. UN General Assembly, Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, January 31, 1967, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 606, p. 267.

(12.) UN General Assembly, Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, July 28, 1951, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 189, p. 137.

(13.) Instead, this effort to restrict opportunities for individuals to even apply for asylum creates an ever wider population of “illegal” immigrants. Without safe, accessible, and legal pathways to make the case for asylum, individuals often opt for more dangerous and costly methods of crossing borders, such as with the help of people smugglers. Others, denied asylum but unable to safely return to their country of origin, remain abroad without legal status. More generally, the increased securitization of migrants and refugees alike has contributed to a breakdown of the distinction between the two. When the politics of migration labels all population movements as a security “threat,” it undermines both the humanitarian guarantees for refugees and the economic logic of the movement of labor by rendering them as equivalent (Huysmans, 2000; Ibrahim, 2005).

(14.) This reflects a growing tradition in the study of human security, which highlights the interconnectedness of humanitarian outcomes and global peace and security (see, e.g., Hammerstad, 2014).

(15.) Then presidential candidate Donald Trump, for example, took issue with the security processing for refugees to the United States, stating, “We’re letting people come in from terrorist nations that shouldn’t be allowed because you can’t vet them . . . There’s no way of vetting them. You have no idea who they are. This could be the great Trojan horse of all time.” Johnson, J. August 6, 2016. “Donald Trump now says even legal immigrants are a security threat.” The Washington Post.

(16.) Of course, selection and measurement issues complicate any categorical finding regarding risks of terrorism from immigrant populations. Still, it is notable that of the 784,000 refugees resettled in the United States between 2001 and 2015, only three were ever arrested for planning terrorist activities. See Newland (2015).

(17.) For example, recent research has exploited immigration “shocks” caused by refugee flows, particularly the 1980 Mariel Boatlift incident involving Cuban refugees to the United States, to examine the wage impact of immigration (Borjas, 2017; Borjas & Monras, 2017; Card, 1990; Clemens & Hunt, 2017).

(18.) In addition, scholars have provided evidence that individuals working in growing sectors prefer immigration more than those employed in fields with declining economic significance (Dancygier & Donnelly, 2013).

(19.) Nonetheless, immigrants in the United Kingdom are shown to be supporters of the Labour Party, which Dancygier and Saunders suggests is less a matter of issue identification than of a tendency to affiliate with the party that is dominant among their co-ethnics (Dancygier & Saunders, 2006).