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IMPIC: A new and more comprehensive way to measure immigration policies

An increased need for effective migration governance has fueled an interest in building indices to measure and compare countries’ immigration policies. So far, there is no index that allows researchers to systematically analyze immigration policies across a large sample of countries. Several migration-related policy indices exist, but they cover a limited number of policy fields, countries and years. 

Marc Helbling, lead for the the Immigration Policies in Comparison (IMPIC) project, explains how IMPIC proposes a new and comprehensive way to systematically measure immigration policies and the potential it holds for researchers and policymakers.

What is the IMPIC Project?

The IMPIC project provides a set of sophisticated quantitative indices to measure immigration policies in a comprehensive way across time, countries and policy fields. The IMPIC dataset includes information on the degree of restrictiveness of immigration policies in 33 OECD countries for the period 1980–2010 (Helbling et al. 2017). 

How does IMPIC define "immigration policies"?

The IMPIC project defines immigration policies as government’s statements of what it intends to do or not to do (including laws, policies, decisions or orders) in regards to the selection, admission, settlement and deportation of foreign citizens residing in the country. Immigration policies are therefore clearly distinct from integration policies, which deal with migrants that have already crossed national borders and taken up residence. Moreover, the IMPIC dataset only covers legal regulations and thereby excludes information on implementation, which might differ considerably from policy outputs.

What immigration policy fields does IMPIC cover and how are data disaggregated?

The IMPIC dataset covers four policy fields that reflect the main reasons why states accept immigrants: 
•    labour migration (economic reasons);
•    family reunification (social reasons); 
•    asylum/refugees (humanitarian reasons); and 
•    co-ethnics (cultural reasons). 

The co-ethnics policy field concerns policies that facilitate access for groups of people with special historical or cultural ties to their new home country.

IMPIC further disaggregates data into two dimensions. The first dimension looks at states’ regulations, or binding legal provisions that create or constrain rights for immigration, and also controls, or mechanisms that monitor whether immigration policies are followed (Schmid and Helbling 2016). The group of control mechanisms includes various aspects relating to irregular migration such as requirements for airlines to control visa or sanctions for employing irregular migrants. 

The second dimension looks at states’ regulations and controls for immigration not only at their borders (external regulations and controls), but also within their territories (internal regulations and controls). Accordingly, IMPIC takes into account first of all how difficult it is to cross national borders, and second of all how secure the status of immigrants already is in the country, and what rights are associated with a specific status.

As a last differentiation, the IMPIC dataset disaggregates external and internal regulations into four sub-dimensions related to immigrant eligibility requirements, conditions, security of status and rights. Following the Migration Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), the dataset distinguishes between immigration eligibility requirements and conditions that need to be fulfilled within external regulations. Eligibility and conditions belong to the external dimension because they regulate who is given access in the first place. More specifically, eligibility concerns the question of which types of applicants may get access (which nationalities, which kinds of refugees, which family members etc.). Conditions refer to specific requirements which need to be fulfilled by these groups (economic and cultural requirements, formal application procedures etc.). Internal regulations comprise two sub-dimensions, namely the security of immigration status and the rights associated with the respective status. While the former concerns the duration of residence and the possibility to renew permits, the latter includes aspects that go beyond the rights of a special status; for example, vocational training rights for labour migrants or labour rights for refugees.

Following the lead of established projects in the citizenship literature, namely the  European Union Observatory on Democracy (EUDO) citizenship project and the Indices of Citizenship Rights for Immigrants (ICRI), the IMPIC project has collected data on more than 70 aspects of migration policy with the help of national migration experts (mostly legal scholars) (Bjerre et al. 2016). Contrary to other projects in this field such as the Migration Integration Policy Index (MIPEX) project, IMPIC does not evaluate the restrictiveness of specific measures. Instead, IMPIC codes concrete legal regulations to avoid any subjective interpretations. In other words, IMPIC does not code whether policies became more or less restrictive but codes each item individually for each year. Various quantitative analyses were conducted to test the internal and external validity of the IMPIC data (Schmid and Helbling 2016). These tests confirmed the theoretical dimensions of the dataset and showed that the dataset correlates with other datasets that measure immigration policies. Qualitative validity tests for selected countries showed that the development of migration policies can largely be confirmed by case studies or overview reports.

How is IMPIC useful to researchers and policy makers?

The IMPIC dataset will allow researchers and policymakers to describe policy variation across time and space, and to study in greater detail the causes and effects of migration policies. The IMPIC dataset informs researchers’ and policymakers’ specific questions:

•    Which are the most restrictive and most liberal countries? 
•    Have policies become more liberal or restrictive over time?
•    Are there groups of countries whose policies present similar patterns? 
•    What factors lead to more restrictive and, conversely, more liberal policies?
•    Do restrictive policies indeed lead to lower immigration rates? 
•    How great is the impact of immigration policies on immigration rates compared to other factors?

For these and many other questions, IMPIC now makes it easier to find answers.

What do IMPIC results show?

Our first analyses have shown that the conditions and criteria for entering and staying in a country have become more liberal for labour migrants, asylum seekers and people joining their families over the last decades (Helbling and Kalkum 2017). At the same time, however, we observe that more restrictive control mechanisms have been put in place to help monitor whether migration policies are adhered to and to prevent irregular migrants from entering a country. We also find that there is a general convergence trend in the migration policy field that varies, however, in intensity across policy fields. There are only small differences between European Union (EU) and non-EU OECD countries, and thus we may only partially observe any Europeanisation effects. 

We also find that immigration policies have an important effect on immigration rates (Helbling and Leblang 2017). The effect however also depends on other factors in attracting or deterring immigrants. We show that the deterrence effect of restrictive immigration policies increases when unemployment rates are high. We argue that in these circumstances states start to care more to effectively protect their national economy. Moreover, we show that policies are more effective for migrant groups from former colonies or when the stock of this group is already high in a destination country. We argue that in these circumstances information on border regulations are more easily disseminated, which in turn makes them more effective.

For more information visit the IMPIC project and consult the following publications:

Helbling, M., L. Bjerre, F. Römer, and M.Zobel
2017 Measuring immigration policies: The IMPIC database, European Political Science 16(1): 79-98.
Helbling, M. and D. Kalkum
2017 Migration policy trends in OECD countries, Journal of European Public Policy (online first).
Helbling, M. and D. Leblang
2017 Controlling Immigration? Online manuscript.
Schmid, S. D. and M. Helbling
2016 Validating the Immigration Policies in Comparison (IMPIC) Dataset. WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Discussion Paper. SP VI 2016–202.
Bjerre, L., M. Helbling, F. Römer and M. Zobel
2016 Technical Report: The Immigration Policies in Comparison (IMPIC) Dataset. WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Discussion Paper. SP VI 2016–201.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout the blog do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of IOM concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area, or of its authorities, or concerning its frontiers and boundaries.