Research Projects

The Comparative Politics of Immigration Policy: Policy Choices in the United States, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Standard Research Grant #410-2008-00210

Project Summary

The Comparative Politics of Immigration Policy seeks to account for the variety of immigration policies adopted by democratic governments. Why do states that confront comparable immigration challenges oftentimes adopt remarkably different policy solutions? Why does immigration policy change radically at certain points in time, whilst showing striking resilience at others?  Through the comparative study of the United States, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland, the project examines and explains the evolution of immigration policy in these four democracies over the past six decades. By comparing policy choices across countries and, within each country, over time, the study pursues two key objectives. First, the project’s primary purpose is the development of a theoretical framework for the comparative study of the politics of immigration policy making. In a second contribution, the study provides for a more nuanced understanding of the political dynamics that have shaped policy development in these four countries of immigration. Each country case consists of four in-depth policy making case studies ranging from the immediate postwar period to the present, covering policy choices pertaining to temporary foreign workers, permanent economic immigrants, family unification, and immigrant legalization.

The study theorizes both the institutional and ideational drivers of policy preferences and the conditions under which policy makers will be able to translate these preferences into policy. I argue the capacity of policy makers to turn their preferences into policy is contingent on the availability of three types of political insulation. Whereas popular insulation will shield policy makers from public pressure for policy restrictionism, interest group insulation and diplomatic insulation are necessary if policy makers are to enjoy reprieve from demands by domestic lobbies and foreign governments for policy liberalization. Because each type of insulation differs across institutional arenas, immigration policy choices will vary not only across countries but, in contexts where actors can manipulate the institutional locus of policy making, also over time.

Data and Method

For each of the four countries, I have collected data on four major immigration reform initiatives between the 1950s and the present. Given the empirically rich (English, German, and French language) scholarly literature on immigration policy for these countries, I draw on existing data wherever available. To the extent that data gaps remain, I gathered supplementary archival data, in addition to news articles, government reports and other relevant publications. These qualitative data allow me to establish the causal story of immigration reform for each policy episode by means of process-tracing. Process-tracing is widely used for within-case analyses based on qualitative data as it allows for the identification of causal mechanisms that link proposed explanatory variables to a given policy outcome.

The project is currently in the writing stage.

Research Assistants: Matthew Gravelle, Clare McGovern, Aim Sinpeng, Valerie Freeland

Research Output

Book manuscript: The Comparative Politics of Immigration Policy: Policy Choices in United States, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland. The manuscript is two-thirds completed and under contract with Cambridge University Press. Anticipated submission to the press in April 2017.

Ellermann, Antje. 2015. “Do Policy Legacies Matter? Past and Present Guest Worker Recruitment in Germany.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 41(8), 1235-1253

Ellermann, Antje. 2013. “When Can Liberal States Avoid Unwanted Immigration? Self-Limited Sovereignty and Guest Worker Recruitment in Switzerland and Germany.” World Politics, 65(3), 491-538.  Winner of the APSA Prize for Best Article in Migration and Citizenship Studies


The Ethics of Immigrant Admission: Race, Gender, Class and Disability in Immigrant-receiving Democracies

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Insight Grant #435-2013-1065

Project Summary

How do democratic societies select their prospective members? Given the vast pool of would-be immigrants, liberal states have to decide whom to admit, and whom to exclude, from access to their economies and societies. Prominent scholars have argued that, whereas immigrant selection used to be driven by the ascriptive characteristics of race and religion, contemporary admission policies instead are based on the principles of universalism, liberalism, and non-discrimination. Yet, while the use of ascriptive criteria in immigration policy has indeed been largely discredited, once we examine more closely the characteristics of those actually admitted, we find that even in the most liberal of immigration regimes, immigrant selection reflects systematic group biases that run counter to these principles.

This project pursues three related sets of objectives. First, the study seeks to empirically document the prevalence of race, gender, class, and disability biases in immigrant admissions in the Global North. The study will examine the many ways in which admission outcomes depart from the assumption of a universalism that is neutral on matters of social group membership. Second, adopting an intersectional feminist methodology, the study identifies the mechanisms of differentiation through which nominally liberal immigration policies produce illiberal outcomes. The project’s third objective is the development of a normative theory of immigrant admissions that could moderate, if not fully eliminate, discrimination in immigrant admissions.

Data and Method

The study adopts an intersectional feminist methodology that conceives of categories such as ethnicity and gender as central and mutually intersecting elements of social and political life, created and maintained by the dynamic interaction of individual and institutional factors. Public policy cannot be neutral in its impact but, unless self-consciously designed to address existing biases, will replicate social disparities. The project seeks to identify these group biases and their related mechanisms of differentiation through the analysis of statistical data, government documents, and elite interviews.

Research Assistants: Madeleine Page, Camille Desmares, Klaudia Wegschaider, Agustín Goenaga

Research Output

Ellermann, Antje and Agustín Goenaga, “Race, Gender, Class, Disability, and the Ethics of Immigrant Selection” (presented at APSA 2015). Winner of the APSA Prize for Best Paper in Migration and Citizenship Studies


The Impermanence of Permanence: The Precarious Legal Status of Refugees in Canada 

Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Partnership Development Grant #890-2013-0043

Project Summary

This project examines the cessation of refugee status in Canada in order to investigate shifting meanings of “permanent residence.” Permanent residency has been traditionally understood as a “permanent status,” cementing and securing a former refugee’s place in Canada and altering their previously precarious legal status. Cessation is a procedure to strip refugee status from an individual who is found to no longer be in need of protection. In 2012, the Canadian government enacted changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that allowed for the stripping of permanent residency status as a result of cessation. As a result, applications for cessation of refugee status made by the Canadian government have markedly increased.

This study seeks to examine the implications of these changes for the lived experiences of refugees in Canada, in particular understandings of “permanent residence.”  I argue that cessation policy  has made the category of “refugee” simultaneously less stable yet more permanent. Refugee status, intended as a temporary category of status, effectively becomes instead a quasi-permanent status: it is not permanent, because it can be revoked. But it is not temporary either because as awareness of cessation increases, refugees consider the pursuit of citizenship as too risky. Permanent residency thus has become so fragile that it no longer supersedes refugee status, even where refugees have lived as permanent residents in Canada for many years. Instead, the revocation of their old refugee status deprives them of all the rights associated with permanent settlement.

Data and Method

The study draws on two sources of data. First, the study relies on secondary data sources such as government reports, media accounts, and court records. As a second source of data, we are conducting semi-structured interviews in Vancouver with social and political elites – NGOs, lawyers, and government officials – as well as with immigrants subject to cessation.

The project is currently in the data collection stage.

Research Assistants: Geoffrey Underhill, Stewart Prest, Agustín Goenaga, Tania Sawicki Mead, Yana Gorokhovskaia