How Local Contexts Matter for Local Immigrant Policies

By Heather Khan Welsh (Eastern Michigan University), Laura Reese (Michigan State University), and Teagan Reese (Federal Emergency Management Agency)

Local policies related to immigrant attraction and settlement include efforts to attract and support immigrants for economic development purposes (entrepreneurialism and business start-up support, credentialing), smooth transitions (multi-lingual services, ESL, citizenship support), embracing diversity (multi-cultural community events), and providing assistance in accessing needed local services (housing, health care, employment support). Given the lack of consistent national policies, the variety of policy positions at the local level indeed represents a patchwork raising questions about what kinds of local governments are focusing on policies supportive of immigrants. By testing alternate explanations of local immigration policy, the research contributes to the development of theory related to policymaking in this area. Based on a national survey of municipalities across the US there is little evidence that racial threat theory limits local immigrant supportive policies, i.e., greater diversity appears to drive local immigrant attraction and support policies generally and for welcoming and entrepreneurial policies in particular. However, policy determinants differ by the type of immigrant attraction and support policy examined.

Research Questions

The research explores the following questions in the context of local policy:

  1. What are the determinants of local immigrant attraction and settlement policies?
  2. Which extant theory of local immigrant policy best aids in understanding different types
    of local policies?
  3. Are smaller municipalities more likely to support immigration or react with barriers?

A significant body of research has explored the correlates of immigration-related attitudes and policies that can form the basis for hypotheses regarding the array of local policies.  Generally, this body of work can be organized into four larger frameworks or theories: racial threat, resource constraints, contextual variations, and cosmopolitanism.

Racial threat or racial/social diversity theory suggests that areas experiencing increasing racial change or immigration will enact policies to protect the dominant group and/or restrict benefits to minority groups.

Resource constraint theory suggests there are potential negative byproducts of immigration that might lead to resistance to supportive policies: conflicts in communities creating lower levels of trust and less social capital; reductions in wages among non-immigrants; and the production of public goods. Immigration has been opposed due to concerns that newcomers might displace or “crowd out” native workers in the job market. Variations in sectoral employment may also affect attitudes about immigration and local immigration policies. Fears about crowding out may be more prevalent in places where larger percentages of the population are employed in lower wage and skilled jobs such as in agriculture, construction, and services, where immigrants are more likely to be perceived as being in competition with native workers. 

Contextual theory considers variables specific to the context of the municipality including form of government, if it is a city or a county, and regional location. Patterns of immigrant location have been changing in the US over time with more newcomers eschewing traditional large urban gateways and settling in suburbs, smaller communities, and even rural areas. Education has been hypothesized to impact attitudes about immigrants based on the cosmopolitan thesis, i.e., those with higher education levels will be more supportive of diversity and immigration that leads to it. It might be expected that places with greater employment in artistic, information, and professional sectors may have a more welcoming stance toward immigrants. Finally, urbanization has been hypothesized to be related to greater support for welfare benefits to immigrants. 

Data and Methods

The data on municipal immigration policy used in this study come from the International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA) Local Government and Immigrant Communities Survey. The survey was distributed in early 2018 to chief administrative officers of all US municipalities (boroughs, villages, towns, townships, cities) with a population of over 10,000 and to all counties regardless of size (N=7,244); the overall response rate was 17%, leaving 1201 communities in the dataset for analysis.

Overall, the communities responding to the survey are relatively small. The mean population was 69,154; however, the median population was only 21,398, suggesting a number of quite small communities. Data from the 2018 American Community Survey 5-year estimates drawn from Social Explorer were added to the ICMA survey dataset. Data from the survey were also used to indicate the regional location of the community, immigration trends, and form of government.

ACS and survey variables were selected to correspond to the theories presented in the literature review and measure factors that might contribute to both immigration trends and local reactions to them.

Discussion and Summary

Communities with large and/or growing immigrant populations, and more residents that are foreign-born, are most likely to have implemented policy tools that attract or ease the settlement of immigrants. Larger communities with more educated residents also have more immigrant policies, supporting the cosmopolitan argument. Communities with a higher percentage of residents on public assistance also implement significantly more immigrant policies perhaps in an effort to address nontargeted needs. This single relationship does not lend much support to the economic threat thesis since other economic variables did not remain significantly correlated with immigrant policies in multiple regression.   

While smaller communities and those that are classified as micropolitan or undesignated do have significantly fewer immigrant settlement and attraction policies, such localities are not more likely to enact barriers to immigrant settlement in the form of federal cooperation or requiring landlords and employers to check immigration status. Finally, crime was not correlated with immigrant policies in most of the regression models, while the presence of a city or county manager was positively related. Among communities using the highest number of policies, there is wide variation in population size.  The greatest implementation of supportive policies can come from communities of all sizes. 

Which extant theory of local immigrant policy appears to best aid in understanding different types of local policies largely depends on the type of policy at hand. There are some overall patterns. Racial threat theory applies to the most policy types, including the total number of immigrant support policies implemented. But, in almost all cases racial diversity is related to more immigrant supports, not fewer. 

Cosmopolitanism also appears to account for a similar set of policies but again with results that run counter to theoretical expectations. On the one hand, it was expected that larger communities would have more immigrant policies, and this is evident for total immigrant policies and employment and entrepreneurial support. Rural areas are less likely to provide support for accessing social services and cultural diversity policies. Education, however, is either not related to immigrant policies or appears to increase the use of barriers. 

Resource constraints or competition over resources are the primary explanatory factors for employment support and cultural diversity policies and a local commitment to collaborate with federal enforcement. Communities with higher employment in agriculture, manufacturing, and construction—sectors that are more likely to have jobs for the unskilled—have fewer programs to assist immigrants in attainment employment. Competition for these jobs may lessen the local will to help immigrants get them. Communities with weaker economies and greater employment in agriculture are more likely to collaborate with federal enforcement efforts even absent the presence of growing immigrant populations.    

It is clear the presence of larger and growing immigrant communities is a common underlying determinant; in all cases more immigration is related to greater use of immigrant support policies. Location in the South is also related to a number of the policies, reducing the use of total policies and employment supports and increasing the imposition of barriers. Sectoral employment also appears particularly important to the use of policies, with greater employment in lower skilled jobs that immigrants are most likely to be able to get suppressing employment and entrepreneurial programs that would assist immigrants in obtaining jobs and increasing the enactment of barriers.   

While it does seem to be the case that communities with larger populations are more likely to implement immigrant policies, there are municipalities and counties with small immigrant populations that are relatively active in supportive policy. And it does not appear that smaller communities or those with smaller but growing immigrant populations are responding with barriers to their settlement or success. 

Read the full UAR article here.

Photo by Kerwin Elias on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Heather Khan Welsh is a Professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the Department of Geography and Geology at Eastern Michigan University. Her research focuses on local government decision-making and economic and community development processes and policies.

Laura A. Reese is Professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University. She has been the editor of the Journal of Urban Affairs and is currently an editor for the journal Animals. Her main research and teaching areas are in urban politics and public policy, economic development, animal welfare policy, and local governance in Canada and the US. She has written/edited seventeen books and over 100 articles and book chapters in these areas.

Teagan Reese is a Presidential Management Fellow at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She received an M.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University’s Elliott School and holds a B.A. in International Political Economy and French Studies from Fordham University.