Comparison: U.S. and Swiss migration policies


       Recent U.S. Immigration policy overhaul proposals  

       New Swiss proposal to quit Schengen  (NZZ, 15 Sept 2015)

       Aftermath of Swiss immigration vote of Feb. 9, 2014
       Transatlantic Lessons on Immigration Policymaking

               (U-T San Diego, Feb. 2014)

       Debates over immigration in Switzerland and the USA 

           (Tages-Anzeiger, Feb. 2014, in German)


Insights from comparing immigration policy in Switzerland and the United States ?


Holding off on repairing a broken policy without changing it versus scuttling a working policy in order to change it?

Switzerland and the United States, two long-standing pluralistic democracies long reliant on foreign immigration as engine of economic growth, have both actively seeking revision of their countries’ immigration policies. Might there be fruitful possibilities to learn from each other's past experiences in managing mass migration?

   In February 2014 voters in Switzerland narrowly approved  "reversing" a policy of unrestricted immigration from most European Union (EU) countries. The U.S. overhaul bill to regularize past illegal immigration and reduce future illegal immigration (through employer verification, and more feasible legal alternatives to illegal immigration) passed the Senate last June. Republicans who control the House of Representatives, however, prefer a slower stepwise approach (first more curbs on illegal inflows, then limited legalization for past unauthorized entrants), and in February 2014, said they expect to seek legislative action only after next November's midterm elections. 

Historical similarities and differences

The industrialization boom of the late 19th and early 20tth centuries was supported in both countries by largely unrestricted mass net immigration, which however became increasingly regulated in both countries by border controls, and quotas by country or job/immigration category (such as the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act in America) following the First World War. Quantitative restrictions continued to apply for many years as immigration picked up with economic growth after the Second World War. The last major U.S. legislative step was the Immigration Reform and Control Act (or Simpson-Mazzoli Act) of 1986, of which the current U.S. immigration reform effort, in essence, seeks to recast.

   After 2000, however, the immigration policies of Switzerland and the United States diverged, as Switzerland, under “bilateral” agreements with the EU, opened up borders to immigration from most countries in European Union or EU. The recently approved referendum (February 9) mandates roughly-speaking, reversing these changes and returning to an earlier system of specific quotas, mainly based on job and employer categories.

   Differences between the U.S. and Switzerland have a clear geo-political logic. The United States is large and has land borders with only two less populous neighbors. During the heyday of  pre-World War I open borders, America could readily monitor migration coming overwhelmingly by ocean at a small handful of entry ports, most notably New York. Switzerland is much smaller, about the size of the southern half of southern California, and is surrounded by many larger countries and porous land borders, and for many decades relied much more on a system of seasonal labor that could be easy and quite precisely quantitatively managed. How immigration policy is set also differs between the two countries.

   Nearly all major proposals for immigration policy change in Switzerland have in recent decades been decided by national popular vote. In the late 19th century, about half of U.S. states established procedures for popular initiatives, referenda and constitutional amendments, in direct emulation of Swiss practices but nothing comparable was ever achieved at a national level.

   Despite these powerful differences, immigration to both  countries displays inherent contradictions common in modern economically motivated voluntary mass migration: between the right of sovereign control over borders versus the human right to relocate, between the hopes and fear embedded in the migration process, and between the “strange bedfellows” within political coalitions determinng immigration regulations. Immigration policy can also be politically sensitive because of its impacts on the lives and identities of voters.


Long term processes, learning curves and policy choices

An old adage of political caution holds that "if it's not broken, don’t fix it." This is, however, often easier said than done. Switzerland now faces the complicated challenge of shifting  away from a non-broken (though widely disliked) policy, without wanting to seriously disrupt a larger set of Swiss-EU arrangements of which immigration is an intergral part. America, meanwhile, has yet to make substantive progress towards repairing a system which all interested groups agree is “broken.”

    It would be unrealistic to suggest that America look now for a dose of Swiss-style direct democracy in order to push through popularly-supported reforms, whereas Switzerland look for more U.S.-style checks-and-balances upon electoral experimentation. Clearly, however, these polar opposites suggest the possibility of a middle course, governed by long term voter preference but shielded from short term political caprice. Meanwhile, further public debate and decision-making can already be expected. For example, a second Swiss immigration initiative, that would more drastically limit the overalll volume of immigration, could come to a vote as early as this coming Fall.

   In the meantime, though, until stricter limits on immigration are implimented, Switzerland might usefully look at the traditions upheld, and errors made, in America which has generally thought of itself as a "nation of immigrants."

   Mass voluntary migration, is nearly always a long-term process, in influenced, though by no means exclusively, by the uncertainty and controvery typical of immigration policy. The current debates in Switzerland and the United States are nevertheless helpful in building public understanding of a complex social phenomenon and the often difficult policy choices it involves.