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Borders of Class: Migration and Citizenship in the Capitalist State

  • Lea Ypi


In many recent debates on the political theory of immigration, conflicts between immigrants and citizens of host societies are explored along identity lines. In this essay, I defend the relevance of social class. I focus on two types of conflict—distributive and cultural—and show how class boundaries play a crucial role in each. In contrast to both defenders and critics of freedom of movement, I argue that borders have always been (and will continue to be) open for some and closed for others. The same applies to barriers on integration and civic participation. It is time to revive the connection between immigration and social class and to start carving political solutions that begin with the recognition of class injustice as a fundamental democratic concern.



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1 See Paul Mokuolu, “I Voted to Leave the EU. That Doesn't Make Me an Idiot or a Xenophobe,” Guardian (“Opinion” section), June 30, 2016,

2 See Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, “Nigel Farage's Anti-Migrant Poster Reported to Police,” Guardian, June 16, 2016,

3 Miller, David, Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 159.

5 See, for example, Abizadeh, Arash, “Democratic Theory and Border Coercion: No Right to Unilaterally Control Your Own Borders,” Political Theory 36, no. 1 (2008), pp. 3765; Carens, Joseph, The Ethics of Immigration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), especially ch. 11; Kukathas, Chandran, “The Case for Open Immigration,” in Cohen, Andrew and Wellman, Christopher Heath, eds., Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (Malden, Mass.: John Wiley & Sons, 2014), pp. 376–88; and Oberman, Kieran, “Immigration as a Human Right,” in Fine, Sarah and Ypi, Lea, eds., Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 3256.

6 There is a large literature on both these aspects of the discussion. For good summary and analysis of the standard critiques, see Miller, David, “Immigrants, Nations, and Citizenship,” Journal of Political Philosophy 16, no. 4 (2008), pp. 371–90; Kymlicka, Will and Banting, Keith, “Immigration, Multiculturalism, and the Welfare State,” Ethics & International Affairs 20, no. 3 (2006), pp. 281304; and Pevnick, Ryan, “Social Trust and the Ethics of Immigration Policy,” Journal of Political Philosophy 17, no. 2 (2009), pp. 146–67.

7 The idea that immigration creates new obligations for citizens of host societies is central to a number of arguments defending the right to exclude. See, for example, Blake, Michael, “Immigration, Jurisdiction, and Exclusion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 41, no. 2 (2013), pp. 103–30; and Miller, Strangers in Our Midst, especially chs. 6 and 7.

8 See Miller, Strangers in Our Midst, pp. 1–2. Another recent book argues that 59 percent of the British population thinks that there are “too many” immigrants. See Collier, Paul, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 60. Focusing on the United States, Stephen Macedo has also argued that “there are reasons to believe that recent American immigration policy has had a deleterious impact on the distribution of income amongst American citizens.” See Macedo, Stephen, “The Moral Dilemma of U.S. Immigration Policy: Open Borders versus Social Justice,” in Swain, Carol M., ed., Debating Immigration (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 63.

9 Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, p. 283.

10 For details on the Tier 1 (Investor) visa, see; for details on applying for indefinite leave to remain, see

11 See “Cyprus to Ease Citizenship Requirements, Attacks EU ‘Hypocrisy,’” Reuters, April 14, 2013,

12 See Ayelet Shachar, “Dangerous Liaisons: Money and Citizenship,” in Ayelet Shachar and Rainer Bauböck, eds., Should Citizenship Be for Sale? (European University Institute, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, Working Paper no. 2014/01), p. 3. See also Parker, Owen, “Commercializing Citizenship in Crisis EU: The Case of Immigrant Investor Programmes,” Journal of Common Market Studies 55, no. 2 (2017); and Shachar, Ayelet and Hirschl, Ran, “On Citizenship, States, and Markets,” Journal of Political Philosophy 22, no. 2 (2014).

13 See, on this issue, Ayelet Shachar, “Selecting by Merit: The Brave New World of Stratified Mobility,” p. 183, in Fine and Ypi, Migration in Political Theory.

14 For empirical evidence that anti-immigrant hostility is much more pronounced when low-skilled immigrants are concerned, and that anti-immigrant sentiment declines when high-skilled migration is at stake, see Hainmueller, Jens and Hiscox, Michael J., “Attitudes toward Highly Skilled and Low-Skilled Immigration: Evidence from a Survey Experiment,” American Political Science Review 104, no. 1 (2010), pp. 6184.

15 Migration scholars often overlook the fact that the selection of skills might be an inappropriate way to respond to the perceived conflicts that arise out of migration pressures. While discussing the focus on immigrants’ potential economic contribution in setting up criteria of admission, Joseph Carens, for example, stresses that within conventional assumptions about the right of states to control their borders, such criteria “may be ungenerous but are not unjust” (Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, p. 185). David Miller also discusses the issue of skill selection vis-à-vis selection based on gender or race in Strangers in Our Midst, pp. 105–106.

16 For a discussion of this problem with regard to temporary worker programs, see Lea Ypi, “Taking Workers as a Class: The Moral Dilemmas of Guestworker Programmes,” in Fine and Ypi, Migration in Political Theory, pp. 151–74.

17 For a discussion of some of the challenges this poses, see Lillie, Nathan and Greer, Ian, “Industrial Relations, Migration, and Neoliberal Politics: The Case of the European Construction Sector,” Politics & Society 35, no. 4 (2007), pp. 551–81; and Greer, Ian, Ciupijus, Zinovijus, and Lillie, Nathan, “The European Migrant Workers Union and the Barriers to Transnational Industrial Citizenship,” European Journal of Industrial Relations 19, no. 1 (2013), pp. 520.

18 For a discussion of many of these points, see Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), “Is Migration Good for the Economy?” OECD Migration Policy Debates, May 2014,

19 For a recent discussion of this literature, see Bauböck, Rainer and Scholten, Peter, “Introduction to the Special Issue: ‘Solidarity in Diverse Societies: Beyond Neoliberal Multiculturalism and Welfare Chauvinism,’Comparative Migration Studies 4, no. 4 (2016).

20 See, for example, David Miller, “Immigrants, Nations, and Citizenship”; Offe, Claus, “From Migration in Geographic Space to Migration in Biographic Time: Views from Europe,” Journal of Political Philosophy 19, no. 3 (2011); and Orgad, Liav, The Cultural Defense of Nations: A Liberal Theory of Majority Rights (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

21 Miller, Strangers in Our Midst, p. 7.

22 Ibid., p. 144.

23 Ibid., p. 149.

24 Joseph Carens objects to citizenship tests on the grounds that the knowledge they require is complex and multifaceted and cannot be captured by them. See Carens, The Ethics of Immigration, p. 59.

25 For a longer discussion of the normative importance of granting citizenship unconditionally to long-term residents, see also de Schutter, Helder and Ypi, Lea, “Mandatory Citizenship for Immigrants,” British Journal of Political Science 45, no. 2 (2015), pp. 235–51.



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