National Policies and Local Realities in Immigrant Integration

January 8th, 2013

In Practice to Policy: Lessons from Local Leadership on Immigrant Integration (full report, pdf), we look at what good practices can tell us about the role of local governments in immigrant integration. Four international experts contribute analysis and policy insights on the range of municipal levers available to promote both immigrants and city success.

Jan Niessen
Migration Policy Group

This short essay explores the dynamic interplay between the global and local dimensions of integration policies. It opens with a reminder that mobility is among the main characteristics of city life, and that this calls for comprehensive policy responses. Next, it looks at the distinction between public, civic and private sector policies that cuts across all levels of governance, and argues that these sectors should reflect the diversity of the population in the way they operate. It looks at how national policies can create favourable integration conditions at the local level. Finally, it examines international trends in migration policy.

Modern migration is local, fluid

Integration is about changes in societies and city landscapes, in the lives of individuals and communities. It takes place where people live, interact and must constantly adapt to changing situations. Local communities are safe havens and cities are economic motors in a seemingly borderless world, in which people, capital, goods, services, knowledge, information and ideas move around with varying degrees of freedom and speed. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to locate opportunities and confront challenges in one place alone. They must be prepared to be mobile and to move both long and short distances and for varying periods of time. Faster and cheaper means of transportation enable them to work and live in more than one place and travel frequently within and between countries and cities. Millions of people across the world work and communicate with each other without ever meeting in person. Cultural and scientific exchange, as well as tourism, continue to grow.

Cities of migration are learning to recognize and capitalize on the fact that migration is not necessarily linear but often becomes a circular process. Migration is more than the geographical movement of people because it leads to the circulation of social and financial capital and to cultural exchange. It leads, in many cases, to the upward social mobility of immigrants and their families. Consequently, as a multi-facetted, long-term and rather open-ended process, integration requires a confluence of global and local, general and specific policy interventions.

Public, private and civic sectors all have a role to play

Public policies, as well as policies of civil society and private sector organizations, can create favourable, less favourable or unfavourable integration conditions. As regulator and policy-maker, national governments adopt anti-discrimination laws, review existing general policies and laws through the lens of equality, allocate resources and implement policies facilitating equal access to employment, education, health and other public services, decision-making and citizenship. Civil society and private sector organizations operate at local and global levels as, for example, commercial firms, social enterprises, welfare and community organizations, sports clubs, civic and political organizations, or cultural and scientific institutes. These organizations knit society together. Their social commitment can find an expression in the implicit and explicit acknowledgement of society’s diversity, which inspires compliance with anti-discrimination laws; the screening of internal regulations on provisions preventing or facilitating the participation of specific groups of individuals; the adoption of programs, projects and products from which a diverse population benefit; and the setting of clear targets for specific categories of people within the population. The public, private and civil society sectors can work together and learn more from each other more than they often seem to realize. Cities often function as successful laboratories.

Despite the differences between public, civil society and private sector organizations, they have much in common, not only in what they can do to promote integration, but also in how they go about doing it. As societal entities they can promote integration in the way they operate and reflect the diversity of the population. For the public sector this is a democratic duty, for civil society and the private sector it is a matter of good citizenship. By including diversity considerations in their employment, procurement and service delivery practices, governments at all levels not only demonstrate their social commitment, but also set a powerful example that may attract followers in other sectors.

Political parties’ role to promote the inclusion of immigrants cannot be limited to designing, adopting and reviewing the implementation of public policies. They can also promote the implementation of these policies by political institutions (such as, parliaments, city councils, national and local implementing agencies, etc.) and by parties themselves. Parties can be asked whether as organizations they reflect the diverse population they want or claim to represent. They can also be asked to demonstrate a systemic and pro-active approach to opening up their organizations to people with a migrant background. This entails the application of diversity principles in electoral strategies, in recruitment and trainings for members, leaders, elected officials and employees and in the engagement of suppliers. Cities have demonstrated themselves to be ideal testing grounds for such an approach.

National policy influences local integration

Integration at the local level is made much more difficult when the residence status of immigrants is not secured, their labour market mobility is restricted, they cannot live with their families, they do not have equal access to education, they cannot participate in decision-making or acquire citizenship, and when they are not protected against discrimination. Therefore, city governments have a big interest in the creation of favourable conditions in all of these areas. Many of these areas fall within the authority of national governments, which can be inspired by international standards and practices. That is why in many countries cities are working together to have their voices heard not only at national level, but also at international level.

Global trends in national migration policy

The Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) provides local integration actors very useful contextual information. This web-based tool compares in great detail national integration policies of more than 30 countries across the globe. It shows that integration policies change little by little despite regular calls and plans for more dramatic changes. It finds strong positive correlations between the various policy areas. Most countries that do well (or poorly) in one area of integration do well (or poorly) in the others. With the help of MIPEX, local integration actors can establish how national policies play out on the local level and whether or not they create equal or favourable integration conditions. The comparative index and rating scale helps local actors set targets and influence national policies. The following provides examples of where this can be applied for a number of crucially important policy areas.

Securing immigrants’ residence and protecting family life helps to create stable local communities. What does it take to grant long-term resident status, and therefore the ability to work, study, retire and live in the country just like nationals? In many countries, immigrants must pass many different eligibility requirements and conditions, some of which are more restrictive than others. Many cannot apply, even when they live in the country for five years or more. Countries with restrictive definitions of family tend to also impose burdensome conditions on the sponsor. Those with inclusive definitions often limit conditions out of respect for family life. Normally, applicants must prove a “stable and sufficient” income, but why – as is the case in many countries – does that need to be vague and higher than what nationals need to live on social assistance? Few countries impose language or integration conditions. But as more countries do, they are extending these to spouses before arrival. Once admitted, families must, and indeed tend to, acquire both a secure residence permit and equal rights, but, to get an autonomous residence permit, they face significant waiting periods and conditions.

Getting people to work and contribute to the local economy is a crucial concern. Not all immigrants have equal access to the full labour market, education system or employment services. For instance, national laws often restrict opportunities in the public sector to citizens, who may also have better procedures to recognise their foreign degrees. Most immigrants can use public employment offices. But are these general services able to address specific needs, especially for migrant women and youths? Does allocation of national funds allow city governments to provide the much needed targeted measures?

Education enhances immigrants’ capabilities. Do all children have the right to attend kindergarten and basic education? How many school systems are actually making professional assessments of what newcomer children learned abroad? Are immigrant children able to access general measures to help disadvantaged students? Local authorities and schools often retain broad discretion on whether or not to address the specific needs of immigrant pupils, their teachers and parents. However, without clear, nationally defined requirements or entitlements, pupils do not get the support they need throughout their schooling or across the country, especially in communities with many more immigrants and/or many fewer resources. Few countries have systems to diversify schools or the teaching staff; most schools are therefore missing out on new opportunities brought by a diverse student body. National and local authorities can join forces to change that situation.

Political and civic participation enhances the sense of belonging among immigrant communities. Immigrants have limited opportunities to inform and improve the policies that affect them daily as many countries still have laws denying immigrants basic political liberties and voting rights. However, in many countries consultative bodies exist at local level. These bodies provide some meaningful opportunities for immigrants to improve policies. National and local authorities fund, to a greater or lesser extent, immigrants’ civic activities and inform them of political rights.

Citizenship promotes integration. However, procedures to acquire citizenship often discourage or outright exclude many immigrants from trying. In Europe, for example, an immigrant must wait an average of seven years simply to apply for citizenship. National laws make citizenship conditional upon income and high fees. Applicants are normally required to know the language, often at high or unclear levels. Language and citizenship tests rarely come with the support to pass them. Only after these rather discretionary procedures can applicants enjoy some protection from statelessness and withdrawal.

In conclusion, the question of whether public policy can address the needs of local integration can be answered along the following lines. Integration processes are too complicated to locate policies in one place alone. It is necessary to distinguish between levels of governance and formulate policy responses where they are needed; to address problems and seize opportunities where they arise or originate. Ideally, these responses are complementary: addressing the economic, social, cultural and civic sides of integration; considering the local, regional, national and international dimensions of it; and dealing with its social and legal aspects.

 Jan Niessen is director of the Migration Policy Group, an independent policy organization in Brussels, Belgium. His professional activities include designing and conducting international campaigns and comparative research projects (such as MIPEX, the Migrant Integration Policy Index); undertaking feasibility studies; establishing and managing international expertise networks and authoring , reports, handbooks and manuals for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the European Commission and the European Parliament. He advises public and private sector organizations on matters related to international migration, integration, anti-discrimination and diversity.

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