In the most recent Republican debate, Newt Gingrich repeated his idea about allow local citizens to decide whether illegal immigrants in their community can stay or would be deported. Here’s a quote from an earlier story that mentions his idea:
“It’s the kind of thing that sounds right, maybe, when you sit on your couch and hear it,” said Steven Camarota, the research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tougher immigration enforcement.
“But boy,” Camarota said, “when you take it all apart and think about how all this works in practice, it’s like, ‘ugh.’ ”
So how might it work in practice? Well, we can turn to Switzerland for some insight, and in particular this paper by Jens Hainmueller and Dominik Hangartner. Here’s how they describe the Swiss system:
In Switzerland, this link between citizenship and state building gave rise to a system of triple citizenship, which denes Swiss citizenship on the basis of citizenship in a municipality, a canton, and the Confederation…This three-tiered system is unique in that it delegates the responsibility for the naturalization of foreigners largely to the municipal level. Federal laws impose formal naturalization requirements, but no immigrant can obtain a Swiss passport without acquiring citizenship of a municipality, and municipalities enact the naturalization procedures and ultimately decide on the applications. This contrasts with many other countries where naturalization procedures and criteria are typically dened at the federal level and implemented by federal ministries or agencies (as in the U.S., France, Canada, or Belgium).
Hainmueller and Hangartner focus on a particular set of Swiss municipalities that use a secret ballot to determine whether immigrants will be granted citizenship. Here’s how that works:
A typical naturalization referendum in our ballot box municipalities involved a two step process in which citizens received official leaflets with a one-page resume that detailed information about each immigrant applicant…Voters then cast a secret ballot to either reject or approve the applicant’s naturalization request, and applicants with a majority of “yes” votes were granted Swiss citizenship.
So what happens when citizens vote?
We find that the applicant’s country of origin has by far the most important impact on the outcome of the naturalization referenda. Holding all other characteristics constant, the rejection rate for immigrant applicants from (former) Yugoslavia is about 15 percentage points higher than for observably similar applicants from rich European countries (the reference category). This constitutes an increase of about 40 % over the average rejection rate. Turkish applicants fare just as poorly with average rejection rates that are 13 percentage points higher; a 35 % increase over the average rejection rate. Similarly, the increases in the average rejection rates are about 7 percentage points for applicants from other central or eastern European countries.
Other factors matter too, like how long the immigrant has been in the country. But tenure in the country doesn’t matter much:
…these results imply that it would take more than 85 years of residency for an applicant from Yugoslavia to make up for the disadvantage that she faces as a result of her country of origin.
Education matters, but once again not much:
…we find that an applicant from Turkey would have to attain 70 years of education to make up for the disadvantage that comes from his country of origin.
Now of course there are differences between this “ballot box” system and how a citizens board in the US might work. For one, the Swiss boards are not evaluating illegal immigrants, as far as I know. Second, I don’t think Gingrich is proposing to let a citizens board actually award citizenship. Third, it’s not clear how salient the nationality of illegal immigrants would be. I don’t think that most Americans make strong distinctions among Mexicans, Salvadorans, etc. So perhaps factors such as an immigrant’s skills or level of education or tenure in the country could matter.
But the results of this study should raise concerns about how fairly we as citizens can make these judgments. As Hainmueller and Hangartner put it:
In particular, we show that observably similar applicants face dramatically different rejection rates depending on their country of origin, which matches the legal definition of discrimination according to the Swiss constitution.
It would arguably raise similar concerns in the US.