Why Immigration Policy Should Be Culture-Sensitive

Thinking comprehensively about immigration policy requires considering the impact that high levels of immigration may have on the receiving society’s culture. Immigration is always a socially transformative process whether for better or for worse. Many things that immigrants carry with them—new ideas, new cuisines, new forms of art and music—are welcomed by the native-born. My focus here, however, is on the impact that immigration may have on the cultural bonds that hold a society together. Is there a risk that large-scale immigration will damage solidarity and social and political trust? If so, how should we respond to that danger?

The Importance of National Culture

Let’s begin by noting that most liberal societies have become increasingly multicultural, partly, but not only, as a result of earlier waves of immigration. They are host to a bewildering variety of lifestyles and personal identities—whether ethnic, racial, religious, or gender-based. But I shall argue, it is for this very reason all the more important to nurture inclusive cultural bonds that can unite people with these different identities.

To have a cohesive society, there must be reference points that everyone can recognize and share. These might be symbols (like a national flag or anthem), iconic figures (poets, artists, statesmen, military leaders), institutions (a church, a legislature, a monarchy), or natural features (a lake, a forest, a mountain range). Recognizing and sharing does not mean agreeing about why these things are important, or indeed about whether they should continue to be valued and retained.

Reappraisals are going on all the time: several countries have held votes on changing the national flag in the recent past, the position of the monarchy in places that still have kings and queens as their heads of state is under constant review, and as everyone knows which statues commemorating heroes of the past should be kept standing and which pulled down is a preoccupation of the present day.

The key point is that these debates matter because the cultural objects they refer to are viewed as highly significant. When they are replaced, new ones, equally significant, are put on the vacant plinths.

In most modern democracies, these reference points, along with other ingredients, make up a national culture that co-exists alongside many subcultures. But why exactly is such a national culture necessary? What would be lost if it simply withered away?

Without a national culture, a society’s members would no longer have a shared identity that can bind them together and transcend cleavages such as those of race and religion that would otherwise prove divisive. In particular, such a cultural identity fosters trust, promotes solidarity, and helps to solve collective action problems. Let me speak to each of these in turn.

Social and Political Trust

Cultural commonality is an important source of social and political trust. As several experiments have shown, when people placed in groups of strangers are given cues that they have something in common with other members of their group—even seemingly irrelevant features such as sharing tastes in art—they become more willing to act in ways that demonstrate mutual trust, such as donating their resources to a common pool.

Social trust matters in the wider society for fairly obvious reasons. Where people trust one another, they can cooperate without having to set up costly mechanisms to deter defection. If you and I can seal our deal with a handshake and rely on each other to comply, we won’t need to employ expensive lawyers to draw up a contract.

Even immigration researchers preoccupied with economic efficiency should recognize the value of living in a high-trust society. Following Francis Fukuyama’s pioneering work, the causal link between levels of social trust and rates of economic growth has been confirmed in a battery of empirical studies.


Cultural ties also help to promote a sense of solidarity among those who are bound by them. This means that culturally-tied members become more willing to help any fellow member, not just their kin or coreligionists. Again, this effect has been confirmed experimentally.

An Indian study examined whether Hindus were willing to donate a small sum of money to the victims of a fire accident, depending on whether the fire was reported as having occurred in a Hindu or a Muslim neighborhood. Before making their decision, some subjects were shown a picture of India adorned with the national flag. Doing so eliminated the bias that otherwise existed in favour of their coethnics. Making their shared national identity as Indians salient enabled Hindus to overcome their in-group prejudice and act generously towards their Muslim compatriots.

Solving Collective Action Problems

An identity of this kind can help solve collective action problems by enabling people to see themselves as participating in a common endeavour with fellow citizens who they can expect to reciprocate their efforts.

Collective action problems often arise because people can’t monitor one another’s behaviour directly. In these cases, collective problems can only be solved by the threat of coercion, which is not only unpleasant to experience but often costly to supply.

The coronavirus pandemic provides a good example. If people need to change their behaviour by staying at home during lockdowns or by wearing masks in public places in order to slow down the spread of the virus, it is far better if they do this voluntarily as a way of participating in a common effort than if they have to be forced to comply by threat of punishment.

Global warming is another example. The lifestyle adjustments that people will need to make to combat global warming may be personally quite costly, but people may be willing to make them if they believe that those around them are doing likewise. To create this confidence, the bonds created by a common national identity with cultural components will be an important contributory factor.

Seeking Equilibrium

These reasons show why even people who don’t attach any value to national culture for its own sake should be worried if cultural bonds begin either to atrophy or to fragment (as might happen if a culture war breaks out).

But what has this to do with immigration specifically?

With very rare exceptions, immigrants don’t enter already attuned to the values and reference points that feature in the national culture. Instead, immigrants come to their new homes with the cultural apparatus that they acquired in their countries of origin.

In some cases, their cultural backgrounds may stand in stark contrast to the culture of the society they are moving to. They may initially be quite keen to make the necessary adjustments—to learn about the society’s way of life, its history, political institutions, literature, art, and so forth. But how strongly they are motivated to follow through will depend on their experience after they arrive and how effective the receiving society’s integration policies are.

The number of immigrants entering in any given time period is important here. When immigrants arrive, they are drawn to places where they will find a community of earlier migrants from a similar cultural or national background. The question is whether this community becomes their entire social world, forming what in European debates has been called a ‘parallel society.’

The economist Paul Collier has modeled the interaction between rates of migration and the size of the ‘diaspora’ in the absence of national border controls. (Diaspora is Collier’s term for the subset of immigrants whose social interactions in the receiving country are predominantly with fellow migrants from a similar background.)

Collier assumes that in each time period a certain proportion of those within the diaspora will leave it to integrate into the wider society. With moderate rates of immigration, an equilibrium will be reached in which the number of new immigrants joining the diaspora is matched by the number exiting. Thus the diaspora grows no further.

With sufficiently high rates of immigration, no such equilibrium exists. If the drawing power of a large and concentrated diaspora always exceeds the pull exerted by the wider society, the diaspora will increase indefinitely in size.

What Follows for Immigration Policy?

Why is it a matter of concern if immigrants choose to cluster together in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods? It has been suggested that it is rational for them to do so since, with fewer resources at their disposal, they can benefit from the specific social capital that these milieux provide.

Apart from considerations of social justice, (it is unlikely that such neighborhoods can provide anything to match the opportunity range available to people in the social mainstream), the predictable effect of segregation is to reduce trust between those inside the community and those outside.

When ethnic conflicts occur, they are liable to become inflamed and potentially violent because of the lack of cross-community contacts between people who are used to working together and are therefore able to defuse the situation. This was the main lesson drawn in a report on the ethnic riots that broke out in several cities in northern England in the summer of 2001.

To avoid such outcomes, the state has two policy levers at its disposal. One is simply to reduce the rate of overall immigration, thereby also reducing the inflow of potential diaspora members from various backgrounds. The other is to pursue active integration policies, thereby increasing the rate of exit from each diaspora.

The second strategy might involve, on the one hand, requiring immigrants to disperse throughout the country rather than clustering in a few major cities, thereby keeping the diaspora group in any one place relatively small. On the other hand, it might consist of lowering the cost of integration by incentivising immigrants to learn the national language(s) and familiarise themselves with features of the local culture. (This is one way of understanding the purpose of policies that require immigrants to pass a test showing knowledge of the country’s history and political culture before being eligible for citizenship.)

All of this will of course require significant public expenditure. Those who defend high rates of immigration solely on the grounds of the net economic benefit that immigration brings with it will need to factor in the cost of pursuing integration policies that are effective enough to prevent Collier’s diaspora disequilibrium from occurring.

There might appear to be a third option here: keep immigration rates high overall, but select in favour of people whose background culture is such that they will find it easy to assimilate and are therefore at little risk of forming ever-expanding diasporas. These in general will be groups whose language and culture are already close to that of the receiving society—Canadians moving to the US, for example.

In fact, most countries today do employ selective immigration policies, though without admitting that what they are doing is discriminating on the basis of culture. (In the past they often did so unashamedly: The US Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 is a notorious example).

The option exists, therefore, but is it an ethically acceptable one? Many people, myself included, would answer in the negative. If we reject people for entry because they have the ‘wrong’ cultural background, this discriminates against them on an arbitrary basis. After all, as individuals they may well be willing or even eager to escape that background and embrace the values and other cultural features of the society they are joining. The reactions evoked by President Trump’s so-called Muslim ban suggest that opposition to selecting immigrants on the basis of culture is widespread.


I have explained why immigration policy must be sensitive to the cultural impact that immigration is likely to have on the host society. Immigrants cannot be viewed simply as economic assets (or as economic costs). They are real people whose presence in a society will change its overall character.

The challenge therefore is to build or sustain a high-trust society while still being open to newcomers. The right policy to pursue will depend on the context—on the composition of the immigration stream and on how thick or thin the existing national culture is.

The takeaway message: The higher the rate of immigration, the more pro-active integration policy needs to be. Immigrants cannot be left to sink or swim, not only for their own sake, but also for the health and prosperity of the society they are joining.

CGO scholars and fellows frequently comment on a variety of topics for the popular press. The views expressed therein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Growth and Opportunity or the views of Utah State University.