In Welcoming New Americans? Local Governments and Immigrant IncorporationAbigail Fisher Williamson presents a panorama of local US policymaking, showing variation among numerous localities in their response to growing immigrant populations in new destinations. The book offers an in-depth and well-structured look at the dynamics of local politics and local immigrant policies, writes M. Utku Gungor.

Welcoming New Americans? Local Governments and Immigrant Incorporation. Abigail Fisher Williamson. University of Chicago Press. 2018.

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In 2007, the urban population around the world passed a threshold of 50% and is estimated to increase over time. Along with this trend, there are approximately 284 million international immigrants worldwide, with cities being the primary destination. Recognising this, city-level policies for immigrant incorporation have been gaining more attention from policymakers and researchers in recent years. This is not only because the urban population of immigrants is increasing, but also due to the fact that local governments are typically the main implementors of both national and local immigrant policies, particularly incorporation. Regarding immigrant incorporation, many international and supranational organisations have started to invest in organising events and commissioning research and reports on the topic. For instance, the European Union structured the 2019 European Migration Forum, one of the broadest platforms for discussion of migration policy in Europe, on local-level migrant integration governance. Scholarship on new destinations is growing as well. Yet, despite all this attention, there are still many questions waiting to be answered.

Welcoming New Americans? Local Governments and Immigrant Incorporation is a methodologically rich study that addresses and overcomes many of the challenges surrounding research at the local level. Continuing her previous work on urban policy and immigrants, in Welcoming New Americans? Abigail Fisher Williamson focuses on various aspects of local policymaking. Even though the study of local politics can be a complex and cumbersome process, in this case the result is an achievement. In Welcoming New Americans?, Williamson presents a panorama of local policymaking and shows variation among numerous localities for the growing immigrant populations in new destinations.

The structure of the book is based on three parts: ‘local government responses to immigration’; ‘explaining local government responses to immigrants’; and ‘local government responses and consequences for immigrant incorporation’. Each focuses on a major question in the field. What is the trend in responding to immigrants to new destinations when it comes to city governments? What factors affect these responses? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do practices of incorporation impact established residents and local officials?

Image Credit: Wisconsin Welcomes You sign (Michel Curi CC BY 2.0)

A significant categorisation that constitutes the backbone of the book is Williamson’s classification of accommodating and restrictive policies. In defining restrictive and accommodating localities, she uses the federal obligations of towns as a reference point. If a town goes beyond the federal framework and provides additional services to immigrants under its jurisdiction, it falls into the category of ‘accommodating’. In cases of reluctance to implement federal requirements or failure to implement at all, she identifies these towns as ‘restrictive’. States of action or inaction may appear under either of these categories: she employs this as a mode instead of two additional categories. A state of inaction regarding the presence of immigrants may result in either a restrictive or accommodating environment. If a local government remains inactive in policy areas for which the national legal framework allows the local governments to take restrictive actions, inactive accommodation may occur. On the other hand, if a local government rejects the adoption of accommodating policies which the legal framework defines, it is inactively restrictive.

In search of answers for her questions, methodologically Williamson follows two steps, one qualitative and one quantitative. She undertook field studies in four towns which are relatively different from each other on many aspects from political affiliation to economic conditions. Depending on the results, she then prepared and conducted a survey with 598 officials from 373 towns. These towns are randomly selected among more than 4,000 towns whose populations are between 5,000 and 200,000, and with the condition of having more than 5% non-US-born local populations. Therefore, she not only provides the reader with the trends of local practice by municipalities responding to immigrants, but also a considerable amount of insider information about local officials’ perspectives on the topic.

Under the first part, in Chapter Two, Williamson presents her readers with four case studies. Lewiston, Maine, and Wausau, Wisconsin, are two mid-size cities that are refugee destinations. Elgin, Illinois, ‘a historically Republican stronghold’, in the author’s words, and Yakima, Washington, have histories of Hispanic immigrants. In Chapter Three, she presents the result of the survey. These demonstrate that, to varying degrees, more than three-quarters of the sample employ accommodating practices while the rest follows restrictive measures against immigrants.

One of the major strengths of this study is that the author goes beyond the local ordinances to investigate local accommodating and restrictive practices. Ordinances are indicative of the characteristics of policies; nevertheless, they do not always provide meaningful information about policy outcomes. Furthermore, by their nature, ordinances cannot provide any information about invisible local practices. Williamson addresses these potential limitations skilfully. Her comprehensive survey not only provides a significant amount of insider information regarding how and with what motives local actors respond, but also how local officials perceive aliens under their jurisdiction. One of the most striking examples of this was an officer’s shock, and partial resentment, at being asked about immigrants in his town:

I am not sure how we got on your list, but we really don’t have any – I’ll say any – immigrant population. […] No real obvious immigrant issues or even persons to speak of (119)

These words belong to an official in a town where 9% of the population is mainly non-US-born Asians. This reaction is an essential sign that officials do not even adopt any textbook definition of immigrant; instead, they use their own. The framing of needs and expectations takes shape accordingly.

Williamson dedicates the second part of the book to the question of why variation occurs and how comparably different towns employ similar policies. In the fourth, fifth and sixth chapters, she scrutinises factors that result in restrictive or accommodating responses. Each chapter focuses on a particular reason: federal obligations and framing; incentives and motives for elected and appointed local officials; and, finally, various advocacy groups’ external scrutiny over local officials. Thus, the second part concentrates on the framing of immigrants in general. While local officials’ framing of immigrants leads to either accommodating or restrictive positions, the national-level framing of and legal framework on immigration are also influential at a local level. Additionally, Williamson argues that increasing restrictive tendencies in Lewiston, Wausau and Elgin reversed as a result of ‘external scrutiny from federal regulators, national advocacy groups, and the media which framed immigrants as a protected class under civil rights law’ (25).

One of the most interesting discussions in this part is within Chapter Five. Here, the author shows that framing immigrants as economic contributors is a significant factor for local officials to pursue accommodating practices. Officials’ ideological affiliation also plays a key role in influencing their accommodating or restrictive practices. Pre-existing research has already explored how immigrants are framed as economic assets (Campomori and Caponio 2013) and the impact of the political affiliations of local policymakers (de Graauw & Vermeulen 2016). Williamson goes beyond previous studies, however, because of her large sample of cities. Additionally, she argues that when it comes to city officials, elected or not, they are in favour of being more proactively accommodating than established residents in three-quarters of the surveyed cases. City officials are professionally motivated to respond positively to immigrants’ presence.

The third and final part of the book shows two main results in the eighth and ninth chapters. Firstly, the employment of unfit intermediaries among immigrants may mislead local officials when responding to the needs of the local immigrant population. Additionally, the issue of the misrepresentation of immigrants at city management level may influence the adoption of practices. Secondly, the professionalism of city officials does not necessarily mean a positive outcome for immigrants. Officials’ professional inclination to positively respond may feed or create anti-immigrant sentiment among local people. In such cases, established residents accuse local officials of preferential treatment for immigrants. This part provides one of the most significant arguments of the book. How local policies impact established residents and the conditions for incorporation have been relatively unattended in the literature. Williamson shows that positive policies, despite intending further incorporation of immigrants, may result in a backlash within local communities. Such incidences may cause more than simply an obstruction of the incorporation process. Another by-product of such a backlash and clashes over municipalities’ positions on issues related to immigrants can be lessened engagement with local politics by established residents.

The incorporation of immigrants into local communities is not a new theme preoccupying researchers or policymakers. That said, what Williamson has achieved is a study of local immigrant policies that offers a broad and in-depth look at the dynamics of local politics in a remarkably structured manner. This book therefore goes beyond the technical aspects of a policy problem and pays great attention to questions of local policymaking and local politics at the same time.


M. Utku Gungor is a PhD candidate in the School of Public Policy at Central European University, Budapest. He studied political science and international relations in Boğaziçi University, Istanbul. His main research interests are city politics and variation among cities with specific focus on the variation of immigrant policies and policy outcomes at a local level. Previously, he worked as a project officer in international and national projects by Citizens’ Assembly, a human rights organisation based in Istanbul.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics. 

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