Immigration, Multiculturalism, and the Welfare State

By Kymlicka, Will; Banting, Keith | Ethics & International Affairs, September 2006 | Go to article overview

Immigration, Multiculturalism, and the Welfare State


Kymlicka, Will, Banting, Keith, Ethics & International Affairs


In most countries today, the general public does not support large-scale permanent immigration, and policies designed to exclude, marginalize, or assimilate immigrants reflect this popular attitude. Some would-be immigrants are unable to gain legal admission and are thus excluded entirely from a country. Others are allowed to enter only as temporary workers or asylum seekers, without any secure right to settle permanently in the country or to take up citizenship, and are so condemned to a marginalized status. Even in countries where (some) immigrants have the right to become permanent residents and citizens, they may be expected to hide their ethnicity and assimilate into the mainstream society; they are not allowed to seek any public recognition or accommodation of their distinct identity and culture. Such policies reflect a widespread perception of immigration as a threat and a burden, which must therefore be contained and minimized.

There have also been experiments with a more inclusive and accommodating approach to immigration, however. In some countries, public policies support large-scale immigration, provide newcomers with the rights needed to participate in and integrate into the larger society, and endorse a more "multicultural" conception of citizenship that seeks to accommodate rather than suppress immigrant ethnic identities. Such policies reflect a perception that--properly managed--immigration can be a benefit and a resource to the country rather than a threat to it.

Of course, these policies and the perceptions on which they are based are ideal types. Most citizens have a more mixed and ambivalent view, and are torn between fears of "the other" and an impulse toward tolerance. And this ambivalence is reflected in the trajectory of public policies in many countries. Hesitant moves toward greater openness to and accommodation of immigrants alternate with periods of backlash and retrenchment. Exaggerated claims about the triumph of new models of postnational multiculturalism alternate with equally exaggerated claims about the resurgence of nativist populism and the death of multiculturalism. In reality, there has been no clear victor in these ongoing debates about immigration, and public attitudes change significantly in response to exposure to new ideas and important local and international events.

Prominent among these new events, of course, are the September 11 attacks and the related actions of violent anti-Western Islamist groups and movements. These events have cast a deep pall over immigration debates in many countries, particularly where Muslims form a majority or significant minority of immigrants. In this essay, however, we want to look at a different issue that has recently emerged in debates surrounding immigration--namely, the impact of increasing ethnic and racial diversity on the welfare state. (1) This is a rather diffuse concern that takes various forms, as we will see below. But the general idea is that a viable welfare state, which commits substantial resources to health care, income transfers, and social services, depends on achieving and maintaining a high level of solidarity among citizens, and that this in turn rests on feelings of commonality among citizens. (2) If this idea is right, then there is a potential trade-off between a more open and accommodating approach to immigration, on the one hand, and the maintenance of a robust welfare state, on the other.

While this issue has not raised the same level of public anxiety as issues of security and terrorism, it has become influential in academic debates and is beginning to shape debates among policy-makers as well. Indeed, the belief that such a trade-off exists is now taken for granted in many circles and treated as if it were a well-established fact, creating a new basis for opposition to attempts to adopt more inclusive and accommodating policies regarding the admission of immigrants, the rights of noncitizens, and multiculturalism. …

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