Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Minority Regions and Immigrant Integration

Prof. Christina Zuber


The project compares the immigrant integration policies of two minority regions, Catalonia in Spain and South Tyrol in Italy. It seeks to explain why some minority regions make it more, others less difficult for newcomers to become ‘regional citizens’. I argue that historical experiences with members of the majority nation settling in the minority region pre-define contemporary policy responses to immigration via a mechanism of locked-in policy ideas.

In multinational states, immigrant integration constitutes a special challenge, since the host society is already made up of individuals who imagine themselves as members of several different, rather than a single national community. In regions like Quebec, Scotland, or Catalonia, newcomers are confronted with a culture that differs from the state-wide one.

A small but growing number of scholars have begun to address the interaction between immigrants and national minorities, focusing predominantly on the immigration discourses of minority nationalist parties (Franco-Guillén & Zapata-Barrero, 2014, Hepburn, 2011, Jeram, 2012, Jeram et al 2015, Wisthaler 2015). However, minority nationalists in minority regions do not only position themselves rhetorically on immigration. If they govern the minority region, they can in fact decide on integration policies that intend to actively steer the integration processes of immigrants.

“Minority regions and immigrant integration” answers two questions:

  1. Which policy responses do minority regions give to cultural diversity resulting from immigration?
  2. Why do some minority regions use integration policies to create open societies, while others tighten the boundaries of regional identity narrowly around the minority nation?

I argue that these differences can be explained by historical experiences with immigration of members of the majority nation from other regions of the same state that continue to influence contemporary approaches to immigration through a mechanism of locked-in policy ideas. The argument is based on qualitative comparative case studies of integration policy in two minority regions, Catalonia in Spain and South Tyrol in Italy.

The rationale for selecting these cases was the following: I am interested in how minority nationalists in regional government steer processes of immigrant integration. This excludes minority regions without competencies to decide on integration policy (e.g. Corsica). The autonomous community of Catalonia in Spain and the autonomous province of Bolzano/South Tyrol in Italy have almost identical competencies in the area of immigrant integration. In addition, both regions have been confronting similar patterns of immigration.

Whereas they already had experience with 'internal immigration' from the South of Italy and Spain, immigration from outside the state only started to evolve during the early 2000s, but then the number of foreigners rose quickly, and at a particularly remarkable pace in Catalonia. Both regions nowadays host a higher share of foreign-born residents than their states on average, though the absolute number is higher in Catalonia: 8.8 % of the South Tyrolean population are foreigners, a majority of Albanian origin (ASTAT, figure from 2013), compared to 15.34 % in Catalonia, where Moroccans constitute the largest group (IDESCAT, figure from 2013).

In contrast to these similarities, the regions differ sharply in the immigration and integration discourses of minority nationalist parties. South Tyrolean elites have taken a more defensive, and at times exclusionary approach, whereas the dominant Catalan approach welcomes immigration, defining Catalonia as a “land of welcome” (terra d'acollida) (Franco Guillén & Zapata Barrero 2014). In their discourses, Catalan elites de-couple Catalan identity from the idea of common descent, tying it instead to a common territory and the use of a common language. By contrast, South Tyrolean elites question whether it is possible for migrants without South Tyrolean ancestors to become South Tyroleans. The model of regional identity dominant in South Tyrolean discourse“ cannot be described as post-ethnic or intercultural [...] but can rather be characterised by the acronym NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard)” (Medda-Windischer, 2011: 28).

We can therefore learn two things from the comparison: First, whether differences in the policy discourses are reflected in policies on paper in the form of integration plans and integration laws, or whether 'discursive gaps' (Czaika & de Haas, 2011: 21) exist between what minority nationalists say, and what regional governments do. Second, we can explain under which conditions minority regions are defined in more inclusive (emphasising the territory and a common language as the basis for imagining the regional community) or in more exclusive terms (emphasising ethnic descent as the basis for imagining the regional community).

The explanation I advance in the project is that historical experiences with “internal immigration” (that is, members of the majority nation settling in the minority region) explain whether a minority region defines its relationship with contemporary immigrants in more in-, or more exclusive terms. The project underlines that we need to enrich neo-institutional theory with a discursive variant centring on policy ideas (Schmidt 2010) in order to understand how historical experiences can influence contemporary political outcomes. Policy ideas transmitted in discourse are the very mechanism through which the former can have an impact on the latter. During my stay at the Kolleg, I will develop these ideas further in a monograph bringing together the results of the project.