How to Normatively Theorize Immigration? Demographic Politics in a Constitutional Democracy

26 Pages Posted: 13 Feb 2017  

Miodrag A. Jovanovic

University of Belgrade - Faculty of Law

Date Written: February 11, 2017


In this paper, I focus on the how question of theorizing immigration. One of its central aims is to demonstrate clear limitations of the traditional liberal political philosophy in providing us with adequate tools to deal with the immigration issue. In the first part, I will briefly examine the main tenets of the open borders view, as exposed by one of its most well-known proponents, Joseph Carens. I will argue that, taken to its logical consequences, this profoundly liberal approach commits its exponents to challenge the legitimacy of the existing system of national borders. However, neither Carens nor other advocates of this view seems to be ready to do so, thereby effectively legitimizing the opposite approach which takes as its starting point the receiving state perspective. In the second part of the paper I will briefly assess Miller’s case for the controlled borders, which is sensitive both to the physical location of immigrants and to different sorts of their admission claims. While also framing his approach in terms of justice, Miller is primarily interested in justifiable restraints of a host state’s immigration regime. Once requirements stemming from justice are met, states are at liberty to devise immigration policies as they find fitting their other objectives. Miller’s justice-driven approach demonstrates, however, that some of its key tenets – for instance, that a host state must offer protection to all those present on its territory – can be more successfully defended within a communitarian/liberal-nationalist framework than within a standard liberal theoretical picture. On the other hand, it places a potentially large area of public policies under the sovereign discretion of host states, thereby leaving them under the radar of theoretical scrutiny. In the third part of the paper, I will argue that the immigration regime should be examined as part of a broader set of measures and policies, which can be labeled “demographic politics”. This politics include, but is not limited to entry regulations; integration policies, granting and withdrawing citizenship; family and pro-natalist policies; urban planning and settlement policies. Since this politics could embrace not only population numbers and growth but also its distribution and characteristics, this raises a profound question of what should be the guiding principles, disposable means and outer limits of one such demographic politics of a constitutional democracy. In the fourth part of the paper, I will try to show that we need a revised heuristic framework for addressing this profound problem of political morality, because political philosophy in the liberal tradition has at best a mixed record of saying something relevant on the issues of “culture” and “nationhood” which are at the heart of the immigration debate. In the last part of the paper, I will argue that the concept of “constitutional identity” can serve as one such alternative framework for theorizing demographic politics in a constitutional democracy.

Keywords: immigration, demographic politics, liberal-democratic political theory, political demography, constitutional identity

Suggested Citation

Jovanovic, Miodrag A., How to Normatively Theorize Immigration? Demographic Politics in a Constitutional Democracy (February 11, 2017). Available at SSRN:

Miodrag A. Jovanovic (Contact Author)

University of Belgrade - Faculty of Law ( email )

Bulevar Kralja Aleksandra 67
Belgrade, 11000

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