10/2011: Prof John Skrentny


Prof John Skrentny
Director of the Center for Comparative
Immigration Studies (CCIS), University of
California at San Diego


“Key variations in immigration policy in
East Asia, Europe and North America”


Ü Eurasylum: One of the ongoing projects at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies (CCIS) aims to analyze the key variations in specific elements of the immigration policy of East Asia, Europe and North America. In particular, the project has so far looked into the ways in which the three regions deal with opportunities for low-skilled migrants to settle and the ways in which they approach ethnic return migration. Can you guide us through the key aims, methodology and early findings of this project?

Ü Prof John Skrentny: In the study of immigration, I typically find two schools of thought regarding cross-regional comparisons. One is that the dynamics of immigration are the same everywhere, and so cross-regional comparisons are not very interesting. In this view, advanced industrialized states everywhere are facing the same problems—aging populations and more educated populations—and thus shrinking low-skilled workforces. At the same time, the demand for low-skilled labor is constant or even growing. Given these dynamics, it is assumed that all states in all industrialized regions will follow the same path toward more immigration. After all, East Asia has some of the lowest birthrates in the world.

Others take a different view: there is no point in comparing regions because they are too different for meaningful comparisons. These scholars may accept comparisons between the US and Canada with European states (even though the US and Canada are settler states whose populations are largely created through immigration). But they may argue that East Asia is just too different for comparison, pointing out that countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have very small immigrant populations, and in the case of Japan and South Korea, national identities that are squarely based on ethnicity. They may also claim that East Asia lacks liberal political institutions comparable to those in Europe, or an active civil society.

We agree with the first view that if you look very, very broadly, from a distance, so to speak, it is true that industrialized states in Europe, Asia and North America look similar. They have similar demographic problems, and they have similar demands for migrant labor. They also have functioning democracies, courts that are independent enough to make some pro-immigrant rulings, and in some instances thriving civil societies and NGO sectors. This is why we reject the second view: there are a lot of similarities here.

But we also reject the first view: if you look more closely at the two regions, you do see regional variations. Given similar challenges, policymakers have made different choices. There are patterns of policy that are characteristic of East Asia, and policies characteristic of Europe (it’s a bit harder to say there is a “North American” immigration region because there we are really only talking about two advanced, industrialized immigrant receiving states).

Of course, if you look even closer, you can see variation between states within each region. But what is fascinating are the regional commonalities.

Especially important is the role of family reunification rights. These are taken for granted in both Europe and North America for low-skilled migrants, but are nowhere guaranteed in East Asia—even in a multi-ethnic state like Singapore. Family reunification rights are very important because migrants who bring their spouses and especially those who bring children are much more likely to settle than single men and women migrant workers. And when you get migrant settlement, you transform societies: new cultures, new benefits, new dynamism, and new challenges and costs.

Methodologically, at this point, this is a project in comparative-historical analysis, where we amass great amounts of information and seek to make inferences based on the logic of the comparisons, though we hope to add a component based on interviews with policymakers, NGOs, and migrants themselves, as well as a quantitative component.

The early findings, which we have published in International Migration Review, show that there is no simple answer to the question of why there are no family reunification rights in East Asia but they are everywhere in Europe.

Ü Eurasylum: In the article to which you have just referred you argue that, unlike states in Europe, East Asia settles very few migrants and has not developed a European-style multicultural society. You explain this by examining, in particular, the effects of several independent variables, including supranational institutions, independent courts, interest groups, political culture, and the perceptions of migrants themselves. Can you discuss the ways in which each of these variables can facilitate or affect the development of a settlement policy in each of these regions?

Ü Prof John Skrentny: This is where it gets really interesting. There are several variables that social scientists use to predict policy change, including the opening of immigration policy. These variables are present in Europe—but they are mostly also present in East Asia. They just work differently there.

So, for example, there are independent courts in Asia, and they have ruled in favor of immigrants on occasion, but not on family reunification rights or on general rights to settlement. There are interest groups that push for more immigrant rights, but in Asia they have not made family reunification or settlement a priority. Employers in Europe wanted family rights because once they found good workers, they wanted to keep them, and bringing over their families gave them the stability they wanted. In Asia, employers have not made similar demands. Public opinion on immigration in Asia, incidentally, is not particularly hostile to migrant families or settlement.

The EU has promoted family reunification in Europe, and it is true that East Asia lacks comparable, rights-oriented supra-national institutions. But we should not make too much of this—European states provided family reunification rights before the EU promoted them.

Not surprisingly, we also observe that European states are much more open to settling asylees and refugees than their counterparts in industrialized East Asia.

At this point, we believe that there are cultural dynamics that shape policymaking to explain the regional differences. East Asian policymakers appear to exhibit a “developmental state” rationality that leads them to view immigrants differently. They seem to assume that their economies and societies are fragile, and they privilege economic growth and the minimization of welfare costs over human rights. European states, however begrudgingly, are far more likely to take human rights considerations for granted when they make policy – even if migrants with dependents lead to social welfare costs.

Put another way, East Asian states have been far more successful in instituting the temporary worker/rotation model that was part of the original plan in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. Their immigration/emigration policy is like similar to developmental state trade policies. In trade, East Asian states long pursued export-oriented economies while protecting their markets at home, or at least maintaining systems that were formally open but nevertheless difficult for foreign manufacturers to penetrate. The same is true with people: Asian states traditionally had their emigrants work abroad, but it is difficult for foreigners (at least the low-skilled migrants) to establish a permanent presence in them.

Ü Eurasylum: You have also looked into regional comparisons of ethnic return migration policy and have concluded that, while all regions at least implicitly define the nation as existing across borders, East Asian states use co-ethnic preferences instrumentally for economic goals and also offer preferential treatment of co-ethnic foreign investors, while European states offer preferences to coethnics to protect these populations or express symbolic ties. You thus draw the conclusion that, while in Europe the state has an obligation to assist coethnics abroad, in Asia it is the foreign coethnics who tend to assist the state. Can you elaborate on these findings?

Ü Prof John Skrentny: This is similar to the developmental-state logic I described above: In Asia as compared to Europe, migration is closely managed with an eye toward economic development and the minimization of costs. This is not to say that when European states give some kind of visa or naturalization preference to co-ethnics who live abroad, they do not benefit economically, or do not intend to benefit economically from this ethnic return migration. But they certainly leave a lot more to chance: ethnic return migrants may have difficulty finding jobs, and unemployed ethnic return migrants can get state aid. In some cases, such as Germany’s old policies toward ethnic German foreigners, they might be willing to spend a lot of money to aid their settlement. European states are also more likely to give some kind of cultural-familiarity test to those persons hoping to claim co-ethnic preferences.

East Asian states are more strategic. South Korea has created short-term work visas for specific industries open only to ethnic Koreans who live abroad, mostly used by Korean Chinese. It created a much more generous “green card”-like system that was targeted at wealthier, more skilled Korean Americans. When the Korean Supreme Court said it was unconstitutional to discriminate against the Korean Chinese, the program was formally opened to all ethnic Koreans, but since it only allows occupation in skilled occupations, it still rarely benefits the poorer Korean Chinese. South Korea’s policy toward resettling North Korean refugees (still only about 21,000 in a country of nearly 50 million) has become increasingly stingy as those refugees became less skilled.

Ethnic return migration is a big part of the story in Japan as well. Most of Japan’s low-skilled foreign labor consists of ethnic Japanese from Brazil and Peru. Though they can renew their short-term visas, it appears that the majority takes their wage savings and goes back to South America.

Finally, we found preferences for co-ethnics living abroad to invest in their ancestral homelands to be very common in Asia, and government leaders sometimes exhort them to do so as a patriotic duty. This may exist in Europe, but we could not find any examples of it. Instead, states recognize ethnic ties more romantically and with a sense of duty to protect “their” people living abroad, or at least maintain a tie. The larger point here is that what is “rational,” what makes sense to policymakers as sound and smart immigration policy, is not the same all over the world, and it is not simply a matter of a state’s wealth or demographic pressures. There are regional patterns, and it is important to understand these if we are to understand immigration.