Should we care about the political representation of immigrants?

Calls for more inclusive legislatures are abound, and they go beyond the inclusion of different parties and women. Indeed, it is often argued that immigrants — or people with an immigrant background — should also be adequately represented in legislatures.

The starting point is often the discrepancy between the share of immigrants in the population and in the legislature. That’s often referred to as descriptive representation. A crucial distinction is often forgotten here, namely whether the legislature should represent the (resident) population or the citizens. The exclusion of non-naturalized immigrants is by design — we can discuss how bad a design this is, but it’s on purpose.

A reason to include (more) immigrants in legislatures is because being an immigrant is often a salient identity. Whether it is particularized interests or specific life experience that is difficult to be represented by others, to the individuals concerned, immigration is often an important feature of their biography. Seen this way, immigration should be considered alongside gender for example.

By contrast, the identity as an immigrant may not be stable over time. Here we have a crucial difference to gender or sexuality. Be they called integration, assimilation, or something else, there are social processes shaping the identity as an immigrant. How long does one remain an immigrant? Are second-generation immigrants still proper immigrants? What about the third, fourth generation? Where do we put children from so-called mixed marriages? Seen this way, immigration is less pressing than social divisions that cannot be changed.

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