Center-Right Parties and Immigration: Contours of a Conundrum

Immigration policymaking has attracted a great deal of interest recently. Somewhat surprisingly, there is only limited political science scholarship on the role that political parties play in the process. This might be due to the lingering impression that while the politics of immigration are often colorful, contested, and confrontational, the policymaking process is much more technocratic and thus privileges government bureaucrats over party activists and pundits. However, political parties are clearly more than mere conduits and play a role as a venue of conflicts and cooperation as well as generating new ideas. While much attention has been paid to far-right wing parties,[1] the center right in neither Europe nor the United States has attracted much less scholarly scrutiny.[2] This is odd because center-right parties are much more likely than far-right parties to form the government or at least part of a coalition government.  Conversely, far-right parties are often excluded either on ideological grounds or because their relatively poor electoral performance makes them unattractive as coalition partners. Thus, it is highly likely that conservative parties will shape public policy directly, while the far right usually can only aspire to indirect agenda-setting or “framing” of public discourse. The far right’s influence might thus be fairly limited even in countries in which they are electorally successful, with the electoral system in the U.S. actively discriminating against small parties to begin with.[3]

Immigration is an issue of increasing political salience. The dramatic events of 2015 have only reinvigorated public interest in the issue. In Germany, the questionable decision by the Merkel government to accept in excess of one million immigrants pushing into Germany as asylum seekers, despite many of them being clearly economic migrants, has spawned controversy and tensions. Local communities struggle to accommodate unprecedented levels of immigrants, many of whom are hostile and prone to crime, and the level of political backlash against Merkel increases. In the U.S., the unexpected entry of Donald Trump into the field of Republican contenders for the 2016 presidential elections has brought the immigration issue back into the limelight, as Trump has deliberately courted controversy by advocating a conservative and restrictionist position on immigration. Defying the position of most other candidates has proven highly popular with Republican voters. Conservative parties in both countries are broad churches; on immigration policy they are attempting to placate very distinct constituents, which requires a difficult balancing act.

Political Interests and Immigration

Given the “catch-all” nature of the two main conservative parties in Germany and the United States—the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Republican Party, respectively—the parties endeavor to appeal to a variety of interests.  There is potentially a major conundrum between wishing to appeal to both pro-immigration business groups and a much more nativist voter clientele.  On closer inspection, business itself is often internally divided. Large and multinational companies generally clamor for liberalized and lightly-regulated labor immigration channels, as this helps with ensuring a steady supply of human resources. Broadening the labor supply pool also places downward pressure on wages and working conditions, while forcing native employees to compete harder. Given low wages and poor working conditions, as well as what employers euphemistically call the requirement of “flexibility,” certain employer groups are particularly interested in immigrant labor, especially  agriculture, gastronomy, and information technology.[4] However, smaller and medium-sized companies often shun the bureaucratic effort required to recruit legal migrants and face tougher competition by major businesses who are better positioned to incorporate labor immigrants and might thus be able to push down prices in the market. On another level, an often socially conservative and sometimes nativist voter and grassroots member clientele is deeply skeptical of immigration in general and cannot be easily convinced of its alleged benefits. This is true in both the U.S. and Germany, raising the question how the center right can hold together a coalition of actors that favors social conservatism and traditional views on most major issues of political culture on the one hand, and supports liberal free market positions on socioeconomic matters on the other.[5]

Notwithstanding these inherent internal tensions, over the course of the past fifteen years, many elements of immigration policy, especially that focused on labor immigration, have been liberalized across Europe.  The trend in the U.S., however, has been somewhat more uneven.[6]  As such, this essay focuses on the immigration policy prerogatives of the two main conservative parties in Germany (CDU) and the United States (Republican Party) and examines how these two parties have wrangled with immigration policy since 2005.[7] Given the two countries’ uneven economic performance during this period, the internal cleavage lines outlined above, and past legacies of favoring more restrictive policy, the overall outcome is a tense stalemate, with no clear consensus emerging. In proffering an explanation for the difficulties conservative parties in the U.S. and Germany face in developing a coherent position and consistent strategy in facing the domain of immigration policy, I turn toward the policy framework of James Q. Wilson invoked by Freeman (1995, 2006).[8] Immigration policymaking is thus described by different dominant modes depending on the logic of outcome and the nature of the dominant actor coalitions. These modes are in the process of shifting in both countries.

The Impact of Immigration Policy on Party Changes

Parties’ stances have evolved unevenly because immigration policy in both the U.S. and Germany can no longer be described as largely clientelist, as it once was,[9] with concentrated costs for interest groups lobbying for liberalization and diffused costs borne by the general public. While immigration policy is still set at the federal level and powerful special interest groups have not dissipated, the policymaking process has become more politicized, pluralist, and “messy” and less corporatist, technocratic, and circumscribed. As policy output has become more contested, politics at the state level has grown in significance, voting behavior and public opinion, long largely ignored, are being taken into consideration, and the internal conflict within the center-right parties, described above, grows more tense and heated.  The median voter has not shifted toward a more pro-immigration position in either country[10]; a majority of Americans and Germans favor less immigration and tighter regulation. But unlike an earlier era, when business demands were more muted, their level of vociferousness has increased, while simultaneously, the salience of immigration and the attention of the skeptical center-right voting bloc have also shot up.

In the United States, the most pressing policy issue is how to deal with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the country. Re-regulating this issue cannot be described as being clientelist; instead the predominant policy mode here is majoritarian. Both the benefits and costs of the implications of hosting such a large illegal population are diffuse, not concentrated. Some, but not all business groups might be interested in employing illegal immigrants, though this is not a position that can be readily communicated in public. Business groups focus instead on more palatable demands, such as liberalization of provisions for highly-skilled labor immigrants (beneficiaries of the H1B visa) and a  guest worker program in certain sectors, especially agriculture.

The Republican Party approaches immigration policies from a “majoritarian” perspective. It must placate socially conservative and nativist voters while simultaneously appealing to business interests.  With high birth rates among Latinos and high levels of legal and illegal immigration from Central South America having led to concentrations of Latino voters in parts of the country, an added complication is to attract this clientele without being seen on compromising on immigration. “Latinos” is an extremely broad cultural label that often masks differences between different ethnic groups, notably Cubans, Mexicans, and Puerto Ricans. Some “Latinos” have been Americans for five generations, as is true in the Southwest; others are naturalized citizens. Socially conservative on some policy issues, but not on others, this is a difficult clientele to reach out to without engaging in ethnic pandering and thus putting off black and white voters. Yet a tough stance on immigration might turn away Latino voters because the vast majority of illegal immigrants are Latino. The question of immigration regulation and enforcement is thus an important one for individuals of this cultural background, yet the Republican Party can neither afford to support a liberal policy on the issue that will alienate its other supporters, nor can it easily write off a growing pool of potential voters. However, recent studies suggest that a majority of Latino (and Asian) voters are more left-leaning than is commonly assumed, especially regarding redistributive policies, and that increasing numbers of legal foreign-born immigrants inevitably lead to a declining share of votes for Republicans.[11]  This in turn suggests that a more restrictionist approach is the only sensible strategy in the long term.

In Germany, the most pressing issue is the regulation and treatment of asylum seekers, the number of which has risen rapidly over the course of the past few years (current estimates suggest 1.5 million applications for political asylum in 2015 alone). The matter is highly contentious politically. At first glance, it might appear as though the solution is quite straightforward:  Legally, most asylum seekers should be immediately deported to the first European Union (EU) member state they enter under the auspices of the Dublin Convention. However, with diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, asylum is typically described as being characterized by the entrepreneurial mode of politics. Costs are concentrated, especially for local communities charged with providing accommodation, food, and social assistance payments. A variety of entrepreneurial policy actors are involved, including left-wing pressure groups and the “migration industry” of social workers, translators, and charity groups that benefit financially from asylum seekers. This suggests an opening up of policy space for non-traditional actors and entrepreneurs both from the political Left and Right. For the Christian Democratic Party, dealing decisively with this issue is somewhat difficult: on the one hand, its socially conservative voter clientele would favor a more restrictive stance, including speeding up asylum decisions and deportations of unsuccessful applicants. On the other hand, the party wishes to avoid being perceived as heartless and lacking compassion—and thus alienating centrist voters. Asylum policy, having been categorized as following the “entrepreneurial” mode,[12] poses considerable challenges for a political party to position itself and follow these rules of the game.

Challenges from the Right

The difficulties center-right parties face in positioning themselves on pressing matters of immigration policy regulation and enforcement have led to considerable attrition and internal lack of cohesion. Dissatisfaction with the center right’s position on immigration has contributed to the emergence of a right-wing challenger in Germany, the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD). In the United States, where institutional constraints provide powerful barriers to the establishment of third party candidates or movements, this same development has helped to foment an oppositional movement within the Republican Party: the Tea Party movement. These developments are at least in part nourished by widespread popular dissent with an immigration policy perceived as being excessively liberal and out of touch with the party’s base. At the same time, the emergence and popularity of far-right movements suggest a permanent shift in the logic of immigration politics in both countries. The issue of immigration has become and will continue to be politicized and can no longer be dealt with exclusively at the elite level or in a somewhat less-than-transparent fashion, as was true historically in Europe.[13]

Faced with the dilemma of attempting to placate both more liberally-inclined business interests and a more conservatively-oriented voter and grassroots member base, the mainstream conservative parties have inched uneasily in the direction of a more liberal stance, with the 2005 German immigration reforms opening legal channels for labor migration and various draft bills in the U.S., including the “Gang of Eight” 2013 draft immigration bill entailing a guest worker program. However, this has led to significant backlash in the form of a rebellious movement within the Republican Party and the establishment of a solidified party to the right of the CDU. An interesting question to ponder, though outside of the remit of this essay, is whether this backlash was unanticipated, as seems likely, or whether it was simply accepted as the price to pay for the pursuit of a more liberal stance. In any event, these developments suggest an end to pure clientelist and elite-level policymaking in both countries.


Immigration thus constitutes a major conundrum for conservative parties in both countries. The pro-liberalization bias of the business-friendly wing is checked somewhat by the electoral necessity of wishing to appeal to a more socially conservative electorate. As immigration continues to be a highly divisive and even explosive policy domain, the conflict over the appropriate direction to take for center-right parties is unlikely to be resolved soon. Instead, it seems likely that the mode and the level of immigration policymaking will change significantly in years to come. This might ultimately result in more restrictive policy output in practice with regard to certain groups of immigrants, notably asylum seekers, refugees, and beneficiaries of family reunion. By contrast, it is difficult to see center-right parties reducing, much less abolishing, channels for legal labor migration.

Dr. Georg Menz was a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow in September and October 2015.  He is Professor of Political Economy at Goldsmiths College, University of London.


* This essay was written as part of a research stay at AGI as a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow from September-October 2015. Research involved approximately 25 interviews with academic experts, representatives of think tanks, and staffers of key Congressional offices.

[1]M. Minkenberg, “The Radical Right in Public Office: Agenda-Setting and Policy Effects”, West European Politics 24:4 (2001): 1-21; P. Norris, The Radical Right: Voters and Parties in the Electoral Market (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[2] An important exception is the collection of articles in T. Bale, “Turning Round the Telescope: Centre-Right Parties and Immigration and Integration Policy in Europe,” Journal of European Public Policy 15:3 (2008): 315-330.

[3]  T. Akkerman, “Comparing Radical Right Parties in Government: Immigration and Integration Policies in Nine Countries (1996-2010),” West European Politics 35:3 (2012): 511-28/

[4] J. Hollifield, P. Martin, and P. Orrenius, eds., Controlling Immigration: A Global Perspective, 3rd ed. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014).

[5] H. Kitschelt, The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995).  

[6] A. Wroe, The Republican Party and Immigration: From Proposition 187 to George W. Bush (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[7] This report focuses on the two main conservative parties in both countries active at the federal level and therefore does not consider the position of the Bavarian sister party CSU separately. Instead, CSU initiatives will be considered to the extent that they have shaped the position of the CDU at the federal level.  Immigration policy for purposes of this essay is defined as comprising policy on immigration for employment, family reunion, and political asylum.

[8] G. Freeman, “Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States,” International Migration Review 29:4 (1995): 881-902; G. Freeman, “National Models, Policy Types, and the Politics of Immigration in Liberal Democracies, West European Politics 29:2 (2006): 227-47.

[9] G. Freeman, “Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States,” International Migration Review 29:4 (1995): 881-902

[10] Eurobarometer, “Die öffentliche Meinung in der Europäischen Union,” Standard Eurobarometer 83 (2015), Luxembourg: Eurobarometer, available at: p. 38; Pew Research Center (2015) “On views of immigrants, Americans largely split along party lines,” Washington, DC: Pew Research Center (2015), available at:

[11] A. Gimpel, “Immigration’s Impact on Republican Political Prospects, 1980 to 2012,” Washington: Center for Immigration Studies (2014), available at:

[12] G. Freeman, “National Models, Policy Types, and the Politics of Immigration in Liberal Democracies, West European Politics 29:2 (2006): 227-47.

[13]  G. Freeman, “Modes of Immigration Politics in Liberal Democratic States,” International Migration Review 29:4 (1995): 881-902

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.