The Ethics of Immigrant Admission

Completed 2019. Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Insight Grant #435-2013-1065

Project Name:

The Ethics of Immigrant Admission: Race, Gender, Class and Disability in Immigrant-receiving Democracies


Antje Ellermann (PI)


Research Assistants:

Madeleine Page, Camille Desmares, Klaudia Wegschaider, Agustín Goenaga, Salta Zumatova, Alberto Alcaraz


Funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, Insight Grant #435-2013-1065

Project Summary:

How do democratic societies select their prospective members? Given the vast pool of would-be immigrants, liberal states have to decide whom to admit, and whom to exclude, from access to their economies and societies. Prominent scholars have argued that, whereas immigrant selection used to be driven by the ascriptive characteristics of race and religion, contemporary admission policies instead are based on the principles of universalism, liberalism, and non-discrimination. Yet, while the use of ascriptive criteria in immigration policy has indeed been largely discredited, once we examine more closely the characteristics of those actually admitted, we find that even in the most liberal of immigration regimes, immigrant selection reflects systematic group biases that run counter to these principles.

This project pursues three related sets of objectives. First, the study seeks to empirically document the prevalence of race, gender, class, and disability biases in immigrant admissions in the Global North. The study will examine the many ways in which admission outcomes depart from the assumption of a universalism that is neutral on matters of social group membership. Second, adopting an intersectional feminist methodology, the study identifies the mechanisms of differentiation through which nominally liberal immigration policies produce illiberal outcomes. The project’s third objective is the development of a normative theory of immigrant admissions that could moderate, if not fully eliminate, discrimination in immigrant admissions.

Data and Method:

The study adopts an intersectional feminist methodology that conceives of categories such as ethnicity and gender as central and mutually intersecting elements of social and political life, created and maintained by the dynamic interaction of individual and institutional factors. Public policy cannot be neutral in its impact but, unless self-consciously designed to address existing biases, will replicate social disparities. The project seeks to identify these group biases and their related mechanisms of differentiation through the analysis of statistical data, government documents, and elite interviews.


In May 2017, the project funded a two-day international workshop titled Race, Gender, and Class in the Politics of Migration: Empiricist and Normative Approaches, hosted by the Social Science Research Center in Berlin. The workshop brought together an interdisciplinary group of empiricists and political theorists studying the intersection of social group membership with immigration and integration policy. The work resulted in a collection of papers currently under review at the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

Research Output:

Ellermann, Antje (Ed.). (2019). Special Issue on “Discrimination in Migration and Citizenship,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Ellermann, Antje (Ed.). (2019). “Discrimination in Migration and Citizenship,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Ellermann, Antje (Ed.). (2019). Human-capital Citizenship and the Changing Logic of Immigrant Admissions,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Ellermann, Antje and Agustín Goenaga (2019). “Discrimination and Policies of Immigrant Selection in Liberal States,” Politics & Society47(1), 87-116 Winner of the APSA Prize for Best Paper in Migration and Citizenship Studies