Sun & Star Webinar: Immigrant Incorporation in East Asian Democracies

As the world becomes more globalized and people more mobile, immigration politics, migrant rights, and societal attitudes toward foreign workers are becoming increasingly important areas of research and understanding. In the future, questions regarding immigration incorporation into new societies will likely become even more frequent and relevant, which is why Dr. Erin Chung of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University was so interested in how these factors play out in East Asian democracies. In her book, Immigrant Incorporation in East Asian Democracies, Dr. Chung compares immigration policies in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. She discussed her findings in a Sun & Star Webinar on March 18th, 2021.

Dr. Chung first explained that while all three states are relatively rich, liberal democracies with descent-based citizenship, they also all have restrictive immigration systems compared to other developed countries. This explains why only two to five percent of their populations are foreign-born but does not explain why there are still differences between their current policies and attitudes regarding migrants and migrant workers. Dr. Chung found that although civil society plays a role in both pro and anti-immigration movements, it cannot fully explain the inconsistencies in rights for certain subgroups of migrants over others. It also cannot explain why the level of liberalization in each country varies despite their political influences over each other. What does explain these distinctions, according to Dr. Chung, are their civil legacies. She finds that their past struggles for democracy shape current movements for immigrant rights and recognition by setting norms regarding movements, establishing priorities for certain issues over others, and mediating the impact of international changes in attitudes toward contentious matters.

In South Korea, centralized, national, rights-based movements and protests are historically more common. Current moves toward immigration reform are influenced by and even harken back to democratic, labor, and civil society movements in South Korea. This history has led to sweeping structural reforms in South Korea compared to Japan and Taiwan. In Japan, where there were no structural reforms until 2019, decentralized grassroots movements dictate changes. This is influenced by the Zainichi “non-citizen rights movement” of the 1960s, where a residence-based, decentralized approach to immigrant incorporation prevailed. In Japan, we see the most liberal reforms of the three states studied, but these reforms still apply to specific subcategories of immigrants rather than overarching reforms.

Finally, in Taiwan, the slowest of the three to reform, we see weak labor protections and migrant rights. Unskilled migrant workers remain a contentious point in all three countries, but in Taiwan, it is an especially controversial topic as native workers in certain industries are directly impacted by migration. Furthermore, a history of indigenization movements and ethnicity-based coalitions makes reform difficult and uneven. In all cases, it is clear that historical trends impact current progress in immigration rights and recognition more than the other factors at play.

Immigration politics already are and will undoubtedly continue to be an interesting and relevant area of study in political science and sociology. As it becomes easier to be mobile, the acceptance of this mobility, in many countries, will depend on its history with social movements, protests, and liberalization as a whole. As is true for many matters in political science, history repeats itself, and the study of it is an invaluable tool for understanding current trends and predicting future ones.

Watch the entire event below:

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This post was written by Saavni Desai ’23, a President’s Scholar and Tower Scholar. She is double majoring in Political Science and International Studies with a focus on the Middle East and North Africa and triple minoring in Arabic, Philosophy, and the Tower Scholars Public Policy and International Affairs minor. She also does research alongside Professor Takeuchi and is involved in Mock Trial, Indian Student Association, and the Alpha Chi Omega sorority.