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There’s No Hard Right–Soft Left Divide on Migration Policy

Governments’ political orientation does not determine whether they pursue more or less restrictive migration policies. New research from Katharina Natter and Hein de Haas debunks accepted wisdom on the politics of migration.

Written by Katharina Natter, Hein de Haas Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A poster saying “We love refugees not Trump” is seen during the demonstration against U.S. president Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom. Edward Crawford/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

There is a considerable gap between what politicians say and what they do. Research shows that immigration policies enacted by governments on the left or the right do not differ substantially, as differences remain mostly at the level of discourse. Instead, decisions on immigration policy are mainly shaped by economic cycles, or countries’ welfare regimes and political systems.

Many people think that left-wing parties are pro-immigration while right-wing parties are anti-immigration. Media coverage of political discourse around recent events in the Mediterranean seem to confirm this impression. While Matteo Salvini, Italy’s far-right interior minister, forbade the landing of the Aquarius rescue ship carrying 600 migrants, Pedro Sanchez, Spain’s socialist prime minister, offered them refuge. However, reality is more nuanced: Several days later, another boat was in fact allowed to land in Italy, and Spain supported a decision by E.U. leaders at the end of June to create closed centers in and beyond Europe to host asylum seekers.

History also makes us doubt whether left-wing parties are more pro-immigration than right-wing parties. In the 1960s, for instance, it was the right that favored guest-worker immigration from Mediterranean countries to Western Europe under the influence of industry lobbies, as well as family reunification rights because of conservative family values. Left-wing parties were generally more critical of immigration because it was seen as undermining the position of native workers and trade unions. These examples challenge the idea that there is a clear-cut divide between left and right and points to the complexity of party positions on immigration. In fact, parties are often internally divided on immigration.

On the right, supporters of economic market liberalism usually favor immigration while cultural conservatives oppose it. Within the left, cosmopolitans or humanitarian groups typically defend migrants’ rights, while economic protectionists are more cautious. The need for political leaders to compromise can water down initial ideological positions. Common ground must be found between parties in coalitions, between national, supra- and sub-national levels, or with important lobbies such as businesses and trade unions.

These examples challenge the idea that there is a clear-cut divide between left and right and points to the complexity of party positions on immigration. In fact, parties are often internally divided on immigration.

Party positions on immigration thus tend to be highly incoherent, and the need to compromise leads to more nuanced policy outcomes. To improve understanding of the influence of political parties on immigration policy, we analyzed the impact of the ideological orientation of governments on the restrictiveness of 2,300 immigration policy changes in 21 OECD countries in the period 1975–2012. Results show that there is no robust relationship between the political orientation of parties in power and overall changes in immigration policy restrictiveness.

Immigration policy changes did not significantly differ depending on whether left- or right-wing parties were in power. The only exceptions were integration and family migration policies, where the left passed on average slightly more liberal policy changes. Restrictive policies tend to receive more media attention, which creates the misleading idea that immigration policies have been tightened over time.

Our analysis of migration policy data shows that migration policies have consistently become more liberal over time both under left- and right-wing dominated governments. Governments from across the political spectrum have liberalized entry rules and backed policies that generally expanded migrants’ rights. At the same time, the cross-party agreement on restrictive policies toward unauthorized migrants and asylum seekers defies the idea that only right-wing parties push for stronger border controls. Yet, against expectations, the strength of the far-right is not associated with more restrictive changes. This confirms other research arguing that the impact of the far-right on entry policies is generally overstated.

These findings show that there is a considerable gap between political rhetoric and the reality of policymaking on both the left and the right. A myopic focus on what politicians say can lead to overestimating the importance of official party discourses on immigration policy. Our research shows that immigration policy changes are mainly driven by factors unrelated to party ideology.

For instance, immigration policies tend to become more liberal in countries with fast-growing economies and openness to trade, as well as in federal political systems. In contrast, restrictive changes are associated with strong welfare systems and fragmented party landscapes. Interestingly, rising immigration levels have no effect on general immigration policy restrictiveness, although they tend to be associated with tougher policies toward unauthorized migration and liberal changes on integration.

A myopic focus on what politicians say can lead to overestimating the importance of official party discourses on immigration policy. Our research shows that immigration policy changes are mainly driven by factors unrelated to party ideology.

Economic growth is strongly and significantly associated with the adoption of more liberal immigration policies. This echoes the influence of business lobbies pressing for easier entry policies. In economically prosperous times, there might also be less public pressure to contain immigration. Business cycles thus directly affect the political willingness for allowing more migrants into the country – irrespective of the government’s political orientation. Also, countries with presidential or federal political systems, such as Portugal or Germany, tend to enact more liberal changes.

The higher numbers of “veto players” within multilayered political systems seem to increase the necessity for political negotiation between different decision-makers. This explains the adoption of policies that are a compromise of heterogeneous interests and are often a far cry from the harsh political narratives about immigration.

In contrast, countries where the party landscape is split in a high number of political parties tend to adopt more restrictive policies. In such systems, relatively small anti-immigration parties at the right and left ends of the political spectrum can more easily influence policymaking by compelling the whole political spectrum to “show toughness” and adopt more restrictive policies, or through directly participating in governments.

Also, increases in social security spending are associated with more restrictive immigration policy changes as a way to regulate the main pathways into social welfare systems. The restrictive turn in social welfare states such as Denmark and the Netherlands may be partly understood from this perspective. While immigration is subject to heated debates and extensive political bargaining, policies on the ground are driven by factors other than the political orientation.

Party polarization translates into significant policy differences only when it comes to integration. Political parties across the left-right spectrum should be held accountable for their enacted policies, not for their policy discourses and often unrealistic promises. Our research suggests that making the policies themselves the yardstick could lead to very different assessments of party positions on immigration than focusing on political rhetoric.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

This research was made possible through funding by the European Research Council (ERC) for the DEMIG (Determinants of International Migration) and MADE (Migration as Development) projects (grant agreements 240940 and 648496). It draws on the publicly available DEMIG POLICY database that tracks over 6,500 migration policy changes in 45 countries over the 1945-2014 period. A revised version of the paper on which this article is based is currently under review for publication.

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