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Autocratic Immigration Policymaking Beyond Autocracies

Comparative Politics
Immigration
Policy Change
Political Regime
Theoretical
Katharina Natter
University of Amsterdam
Katharina Natter
University of Amsterdam

Abstract

Liberal immigration reforms are often cast as a feature of democracy and restrictive immigration policies as a feature of autocracy. This paper shows that the relationship between political regime type and immigration policy change is not as clear cut. Empirical evidence suggests that the substance of immigration policy change — in terms of openness or restrictiveness — does not significantly differ between democracies and autocracies. First and foremost, immigration policy changes are shaped by states’ broader socio-economic and geopolitical interests. However, political regimes shape immigration policy dynamics, with autocracies having usually more leeway than democracies to open (or restrict) immigration according to their economic, geopolitical, or domestic priorities, largely because they do not have to always align with public opinion and do not face democracy-style bureaucratic obstacles. Autocracies thus can more easily enact open immigration policy reforms if they wish to do so, a dynamic I call the ‘illiberal paradox’ and illustrate with empirical examples from across the globe. To move towards more global immigration policy theories, this paper suggests combining analyses that identify ideal types of democratic or autocratic immigration policymaking with studies of real-life political practices. This allows conceptualising immigration policy across the democracy-autocracy spectrum, for instance by capturing authoritarian practices within formal democracies and democratic practices within formal autocracies. Indeed, autocracies also need to secure their domestic legitimacy and are therefore not entirely immune to popular demands; and democracies have policy instruments at their disposal that allow them to take decisions behind closed doors or free from parliamentary oversight or popular scrutiny. Ultimately, the paper suggest that there is no need to artificially separate theories on immigration policymaking in democracies and autocracies. Instead, there is much to gain from transcending predetermined, simplistic and binary regime typologies.