Lessons from Liechtenstein: More Referendums Please

By David Seminara on October 28, 2015

Europe is in the midst of a historic immigration crisis. But the richest country in Europe — one that doesn't have an army or border guards — has barely been affected by the crisis.

Liechtenstein is the world's sixth smallest country, with a population of just 37,129. The country, whose name means "bright stone" in German, has the highest gross domestic product per person in the world, when adjusted by purchasing power parity, and an unemployment rate of about 2 percent. While Liechtenstein was once one of the poorer nations in Europe, now some 20,000 Swiss and Austrians commute into Liechtenstein for work each weekday. Many live outside the country because land is scarce in Liechtenstein and prices are high. Others simply cannot get residency permits, let alone citizenship.

I visited Liechtenstein this summer and, as a former Foreign Service officer with extensive experience with visas, I was particularly fascinated by the country's immigration policies. According to the book Liechtenstein in Figures 2015, Liechtenstein had more foreigners as a percentage of its total population (36.9 percent) in 1980 than it does now (33.7 percent). In this regard, it must be the only wealthy country in the world with a smaller share of migrants now compared to 45 years ago.

Having abolished its army in 1868, Liechtenstein essentially farms out its border control to Switzerland — but there are no formal border controls, only spot checks. As in some Swiss cantons, voters get to decide if individual migrants should be granted citizenship. Only legal immigrants are eligible to be voted on and the very prospect of having to stand for election deters many. From 2011 to 2014, only 18 people gained citizenship in this manner.

I studied the results of voter referendums from a few of the country's largest municipalities and learned how the votes work. The municipality prepares a bio about each family hoping to secure citizenship, with information on where they work, what their hobbies are, and so on. (Voters say yes or no to the whole family.) They also take their photo, so when voters step into the booth, they see the photo of the migrants along with their bio.

Hopefuls need only a simple majority and are free to keep trying if they lose. (I noticed that one unfortunate chap, Atsiz Kamil, was rejected in 2003 and then lost by an even bigger margin in 2005.) Because only legal immigrants with no criminal record are eligible to stand for citizenship via election, no one is deported if they lose the vote.

Voters approve the majority of migrants for citizenship, and even as anti-immigrant sentiment appears to be rising in many parts of Europe, the voters in Liechtenstein appear to be getting more lenient. In Balzers, voters said yes to all four candidates in 2015; by contrast they said no to all eight in 2008. Voters in Schaan, the country's largest "city" with a population of just 5,925, approved all eight families who stood for election in 2014 and 2015. No one has lost the vote in this municipality since 2009, but in 2007 all three families voted on lost, most by a wide margin.

I was in the capital, Vaduz, on August 15 — Liechtenstein's National Day — the one day of the year when the garden of the Vaduz Castle, where the royal family lives, is open to the public. Albert Frick, president of the parliament, told the assembled crowd that the biggest challenge the country faced was figuring out how to preserve Liechtenstein's high standard of living. He said that the global population was growing, particularly in the Third World, and asserted that many of these poor people wanted to migrate to Europe.

"How can we keep our country livable? How we can we ensure that, in 25 years, our country will enjoy our same standard of living?" he asked.

Crown Prince Alois Philipp Maria greeted visitors in the castle garden after the speeches, and I asked him about Frick's comments. He said that the country had to take its fair share of migrants, but maintained that, as a small country, Liechtenstein had to "protect its culture".

So why aren't more migrants making their way to Liechtenstein? It's a small, under-the-radar country that many simply don't know about, for starters. And there is the perception and reality that it isn't an easy place to gain residency or citizenship. Because of its small size, it's also not a place where an illegal migrant could simply blend in unnoticed. And unlike bigger countries, where asylum seekers might get to live legally for years while they wait for their case to be heard, tiny Liechtenstein can accept or reject asylum claims much more quickly.

U.S. municipalities aren't about to start hosting citizenship votes, but could any element of the direct-democracy approach used in Liechtenstein and Switzerland work here? How would Americans vote if given the chance to decide what to do about the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States? We may never find out.

One could argue that those who support stricter immigration policies should simply vote Republican. But the truth is that most voters don't choose candidates simply on the immigration issue, but rather on a whole range of issues, and the GOP hasn't accomplished much over the years to reduce legal and illegal immigration anyway. Public referendums allow voters from across party lines to make their voices heard. For example, last year, voters in Oregon, a blue state, voted 2-1 against allowing illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.

What can we learn from a small country like Liechtenstein? It's hard to say. It's a country that's managed to control immigration with no walls and no border police. It's small enough that it can simply enforce its laws with a little help from the Swiss. We obviously don't have that luxury. And voting on individual migrants would be impractical here for obvious reasons.

But it's hard not to be envious of a country where the citizens actually get to have their voices heard on the immigration issue. If Americans voted to grant amnesty to 11 million illegal immigrants, or if they approved the continued issuance of tens of thousands of guest worker visas and more than a million immigrant visas annually, then so be it. But my suspicion is that if Americans had an opportunity to vote on these and other immigration-related matters America's immigration policies would be far tougher than they are now.

Note: This posting has been corrected to show that Albert Frick delivered the August 15 speech.