Interests Aren’t Everything: An Exploration of Economic Explanations of Immigration Policy in a New Destination



Current debates around US immigration policy are playing out against a backdrop that has changed significantly in the past 20 years: immigrants have increasingly gravitated towards “new destinations”; a large and growing portion of immigrants are undocumented; and the federal vacuum in responding to the promise and problems of these new immigration trends has devolved policy to the states. As a result, we have seen innovation on the state level as policymakers seek to accommodate, welcome or resist immigration, with varying degrees of success. In this paper, we explore the case of Utah as a new immigration destination, seeking to understand its transformation from a state with very inclusive immigrant policies as late as 1999 to one currently adopting highly restrictive immigrant policies. To explain this trajectory, we test three prominent materialist theories of public policy: instrumentalism, structuralism and strategic-relational approaches. We draw on a decade’s worth of primary data – including data on state-level legislation, key economic indicators, public statements concerning immigration from the private business sector and the LDS Church, and the editorial content of the state’s two major newspapers regarding immigration – to examine the policy explanations that grow out of interest-based theories of the state. Whereas these theories provide robust explanations for a large and diverse array of public policies, we find that they fall short in explaining immigration policy. While conventional wisdom – and extensive scholarly research – suggests that economic interests drive policy, we find that the policies around immigrants challenge this economic reductionism, suggesting the need for more complex and ideational accounts of this important phenomenon.