Nationalism and Immigration: Finding a Balance
Nationalism animates immigration debates and draws voters from across the political compass. Migrants bring with them a complex set of values that shape their ‘deep stories’ and may be altered by migration experiences.
Immigration stakeholders would do well to stop pairing symbolic patriotic-sounding rhetoric with predefined policy conclusions. And they should recognize that prioritizing citizens does not mean ignoring the opportunity costs of restrictions.
Widespread opposition to immigration among educated and racially egalitarian citizens is hard to explain using existing frameworks that attribute such sentiments to prejudice. Our research finds that many voters face a “parochial altruism” dilemma: they want to help people around the world, but they also have a strong moral obligation to assist their own compatriots. As a result, they tend to oppose globally beneficial policies that forgo their national interest.
To overcome this problem, we need to reframe the debate over immigration. Rather than emphasizing the costs that immigrants impose on natives, we need to highlight the opportunities they create for their compatriots.
Such a reframe might compel nationalist skeptics to acknowledge that democratic governments have special obligations to their citizens. It might also convince cosmopolitans that prioritizing citizens does not mean that the economic benefits of restrictions on immigration should be ignored. But this is easier said than done. Nationalist parties need to offer concrete policy proposals that materially advance the nation’s interests in order to gain support for their restrictions.
The cosmopolitan perspective is often contrasted to nationalism in that it is generally seen as being more open to diversity and less concerned with territorial attachments. For example Ulf Hannerz argues that more people coming into contact with each other through transnational migration will lead them to become more cosmopolitan because they will learn to appreciate the fact that others are morally independent from themselves and their national or ethnic identities.
This view of a growing cosmopolitan mindset as a consequence of transnational migration may seem to provide a link between cosmopolitanism and the desire for increased immigration. However, this link is not always clear. For example, a concern for justice beyond one’s own national group may also be created by diaspora political projects such as sending money to family members, building homes or participating in humanitarian activities in the place of origin. However, as Faist shows, these kinds of duties are generally not cosmopolitan in nature since they are concerned with particularist obligations to relatives.
While cosmopolitans tend to criticize nationalists for relying on old loyalties, they can still provide a valuable perspective on immigration. They can help enlightened nationalists minimize their value disagreements about what the national interest is and focus on identifying policies that explicitly benefit citizens.
A genuine enlightened nationalism would acknowledge that democratic governments can and should prioritize the interests of their citizens, including those of future generations. It would also recognize that restricting immigration can have a variety of economic trade-offs, and that national policymakers need to weigh these costs against the potential benefits.
As a result, immigration stakeholders could stop pairing symbolic patriotic-sounding rhetoric with predefined policy conclusions. And if they disagree with each other about whether or not the national interest requires greater selection of immigrants, they can focus on what policies will materially advance the national interest in the long run. This is a principle that both anti-immigration and pro-immigration stakeholders can support.
Nationalists tend to be more concerned with protecting national sovereignty than promoting the rights and well-being of their fellow citizens. They are more likely to see immigration as a threat to the national economy and to support policies that restrict it.
Their views are often misguided, as they overstate the economic costs of immigration and underestimate its benefits. For example, they may be inclined to view immigrants as criminals when empirical studies show that they are actually less prone to crime than natives.
It is possible to find a balance between nationalism and immigration. To do so, we should minimize value disagreements over what constitutes the national interest and focus on identifying policies that benefit citizens in ways that are measurable. This may entail greater selection of immigrants or limiting those who do not meet a certain threshold for societal integration, but it must also include a genuine consideration of the unrealized benefits of freer immigration.