It is no overstatement to say that immigrant integration is a highly salient topic in most contemporary Western democracies, with the emphasis long on issues of labor market incorporation, language acquisition, and economic mobility. While more recently there has been a strong focus on more subjective questions of integration, particularly around issues of identity and embrace of national values, the question of whether immigrants themselves feel they are a part of the broader society has until recently received less attention. As immigrant identities are scrutinized and politicized in Europe, in particular in an era of increased polarization around the issue of migration, debates questioning immigrants’ willingness and capability to become part of their new country underscore how important belonging actually is.
Efforts to define national character and national values accompany the focus on immigrants’ identifications. Debate about what it means to be part of “our” community is a question that takes center stage in many countries in response to concerns over immigrant integration. While majority-group nationals may disagree about how to define the boundary between “us” and “them,” these boundary definitions tend to gravitate around shared understandings of nationhood that set one nation apart from the other. It is not difficult to imagine the contrast in responses one would get from asking a group of French people what it means to be French, compared to asking some Germans what it means to be German.
This article examines whether the way in which a national boundary is defined—by politicians and ordinary people alike—matters for immigrants’ feelings of belonging. The boundaries at issue are not physical (such as the lines between different geographical areas), but conceptual: the distinctions we make to categorize groups of people. While it may seem obvious that immigrants will find it easier to belong in national communities where membership is defined in more inclusive terms, it is not entirely clear what that would entail and whether different types of boundaries are equally important for immigrants’ belonging. The research examined here suggests that, contrary to what we should expect based on the popular and scholarly attention citizenship policies receive, they are less important for immigrants’ belonging than the boundaries drawn through popular conceptions of nationhood and political rhetoric.