How cities and regions are turning immigrants into citizens, whatever the central governments think

Cities and regions are engaging in immigrant-integration policy making, and in many cases they challeng or complement central and federal governments’ policies. - © Unsplash Sébastien Goldberg

In November 2020 the city of Zurich introduced the ‘Zueri City Card’, an urban ID Card for undocumented persons, providing them with a valid identification, access to health care and other social services. In contrast, a Muslim woman living in Ticino finds herself more restricted in her daily life, and cannot wear a Burka – something which would, however, be possible for her in the nearby cantons Uri or Wallis. This is an example of an increasing worldwide trend of cities and regions in the same country (Switzerland in this case) engaging in immigrant-integration policy making, and in many cases challenging or complementing central and federal governments’ policies in doing so. What immigrants receive and what they owe varies substantially within countries, sometimes more so than the variety between countries.

Cities and regions setting the pace

Traditionally understudied by scholars of social policy, migration and territorial politics, the rescaling of socio-economic and cultural policies to the subnational level has, combined with decentralisation reforms, turned immigrant integration, encompassing the socio-economic, cultural-religious and legal-political realms, into a competence of sub-national authorities. While the nation-state is still an important re-distributor of revenue, many local and regional governments are now the key actors responsible for the allocation of public services (such as health care or social assistance). But regional policies affecting, or directly addressing migrants, shape – through a spill-over effect also the political participation, immigrant’s government support and their probability to vote, as well as the likelihood of seeking naturalisation. This is not restricted to federal systems but is equally observable in unitary states.

Health care and labour retention are key areas of regional activity

Based on case studies of regions in Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Germany, USA and Canada we show in a recent special issue that regions have emerged as the most active policy-makers in the socio-economic realm of immigrant integration. Some Spanish and Italian regions, such as Andalusia or Tuscany, provide extensive health care services to undocumented immigrants. Canadian provinces, influenced by the economic competition between them, focus on labour market integration of migrants, which drives the need for more inclusive policies. Regions have so far been less active in the legal-political realm, where their competences remain rather limited, although Switzerland is an exception, where naturalisation is a three-tiered process involving all three governmental levels.

"Rokkan regions " are active in all areas

So-called ‘Rokkan regions’ are active in all three realms, including the cultural-religious domain. These are regions with a distinct history of statehood and/or a distinct cultural and linguistic identity, such as Scotland and Wales in the UK, Catalonia and many others in Spain, or South Tyrol in Northern Italy. Hooghe and Marks named them after Stein Rokkan with reference to the centre-periphery cleavage in his cleavage theory. The link between identity politics and immigration, and hence the cultural-religious domain of integration, is particularly salient in these regions, prompting policies focusing on the protection of distinct identities, such as in Quebec and Catalonia, where assimilationist cultural policies expect immigrants to adopt the French or Catalonian language and culture, and hence French and Catalan language learning programmes are facilitated.

Party politics helps drive regional immigrant integration policy-making

What drives regions to engage in immigrant integration policy making? And why would regions choose to go beyond the minimum standards of social welfare set by national legislation? Regions tend to be more concerned with social inclusion and access to regional labour markets than with grand narratives of national identity and symbolic belonging. Regional politics rather than demographic or economic incentives substantially shape regional policy-making in the field of immigrant integration: regions governed by left-wing parties emerge as particularly active providers of social citizenship.

However, comparing the Rokkan regions with ordinary regions shows that the former place greater emphasis on cultural-religious integration and are more likely than ordinary regions to have assimilationist policies. Heightened concerns with issues of regional identity, culture and language means that Rokkan regions tend to act in more similar ways to the national level, whereas ordinary regions appear to be more similar to the local level of government in their focus on socio-economic integration.

Turning immigrants into effective citizens

There are several benefits that arise from the growing involvement of regions in immigrant-integration policy-making, and regions take up different roles: Regions often become policy laboratories, inspiring policy-making at other governmental levels. Region-to-centre learning occurred in Spain, for instance, where the autonomous community of Barcelona introduced a Plan on Immigrant Integration’ in 1993; and the Spanish government followed with a similar plan in 1994. Region-to-region policy learning occurred in Belgium, where Wallonia followed the Flemish example and recently adopted more assimilative cultural integration policies.

Regions can act as successful mediators between different levels of government within one state: the UK government in Westminster would not finance education for those children waiting in detention centres for the processing of their asylum claim, which de-facto excluded them from the right to education. The city of Cardiff (where a large detention centre was located) demanded that these children be granted access to education in light of their future development – but Cardiff had no financing. The region of Wales jumped in and provided partial funding to overcome the conflict.

Border regions even have the potential to mediate between nation states, as the Euroregion Tyrol-South Tyrol-Trentino, straddling the Italian-Austrian border did, during the migration crisis in early 2016, preventing the border closure by Austria in response to the increasing number of refugees moving north.

Regions may step in where no central policy exists, assuming the function of ‘gap fillers’ For example, the lack of an Italian national strategy for providing health care to undocumented migrants motivated regions such as Tuscany to provide specific services to this vulnerable group within the framework of their general welfare services. The Belgian case shows that although Wallonia and Flanders learned from each other, there is still no Belgian national model of immigrant integration.

Regions have emerged as alternative loci of emotional belonging and identification and they redefine the contours of ‘affective citizenship’: By determining the degree of ease or difficulty of immigrants’ access to certain regional rights, entitlements and benefits, regional policies send both material and symbolic signs of inclusion or exclusion. Surely also the “Zuri City Card” is such an example: by providing undocumented persons with the ability to access certain material benefits, their affection to the city grows, and in turn shapes attitudes and behaviour, turning immigrants into (re-)active regional and urban citizens – which is surely all to the good.

A similar version of this blogpost has been published on 15 December 2020 on The Loop, ECPR’s Political Science Blog and on 13 January 2021 on Global Citizenship Observatory (GLOBALCIT)

Verena Wisthaler

Verena Wisthaler ist Forschungsgruppenleiterin der PACS-Forschungsgruppe am Institut für Minderheitenrecht von Eurac Research. Zuvor war sie Post-Doc-Forscherin an der Universität Neuchâtel. Sie ist externe Dozentin an der Sciences Po Paris, an der Universität Wien und an der Universität Innsbruck. Sie hat einen Doktortitel in Politikwissenschaft von der Universität Leicester (2016).


Wisthaler, V. How cities and regions are turning immigrants into citizens, whatever the central governments think.

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