Open immigration policy changes are often cast as a feature of democracy and restrictive immigration policy changes as a feature of autocracy. This paper shows that the relationship between political regime type and immigration policy change is not as clear cut. Empirical evidence suggests that the substance of immigration policy change — in terms of openness or restrictiveness — does not significantly differ between democracies and autocracies. However, political regimes shape immigration policy dynamics, with autocracies having more leeway than democracies to open (or restrict) immigration according to their economic, geopolitical, or domestic priorities. Autocracies can more easily enact open immigration policy reforms compared to democracies if they wish to do so, a dynamic I call the ‘illiberal paradox’ and illustrate with empirical examples from across the globe. I also outline the limits of the autocratic openings on immigration, related to policy implementation, sudden policy backlashes and migrants’ integration rights. To move towards more global immigration policy theories, this paper suggests combining analyses that identify ideal types of democratic or autocratic immigration policymaking with studies of the nuances of real-life political practices. This would allow scholars to conceptualise immigration policy dynamics across the entire democracy-autocracy spectrum, for instance by capturing authoritarian practices within formal democracies and democratic practices within formal autocracies.
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immigration policy, policymaking, political regimes, political practices, democracy, autocracy