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Joana Setzer and Karen Anderton

Subnational diplomacy has become an increasingly important part of foreign policy and international relations. This observation concerns a state of affairs that is not necessarily obvious or given. First, by definition, subnational governments usually conduct subnational activities and address problems that affect their constituencies. Second, in many countries subnational governments undertake such an agenda without an actual legal framework authorizing such initiatives. However, with an intensified global interdependency, policy areas such as environmental protection, human rights, immigration, and trade, just to name a few, require action both at the international and territorialized levels, as many of them transcend political administrative boundaries. As a result, in the early 21st century it is possible to determine various forms of international relations conducted by subnational leaders. This activity involves direct interactions undertaken by subnational leaders and bureaucrats with other actors across borders (private, non-governmental, and governmental—national or subnational), participation in transnational networks, and/or participation in international policymaking. Because subnational governments are closer to the people and can test experimental or groundbreaking policies with less risk, oftentimes they can become pioneers of measures that can be rolled out or replicated elsewhere in the international domain. Such policy leadership is just one element of subnational engagement in the diplomatic arena whereby subnational governments move across jurisdictional levels, breaking the fixed scales in which they would traditionally operate. In the past years, scholars investigating the external relations undertaken by subnational governments have dedicated great effort to understanding the motivations for regions to go into the international arena. What these studies lack, however, is an understanding of what the implications are of subnational governments’ engagement in international relations.


When it comes to immigration policy, nation-states generally have the power to exclude, admit, or expel noncitizens from their territories. On the other hand, subnational jurisdictions have more often been given the task of formulating and implementing immigrant policy, which entails the incorporation of immigrants into local communities. This division of labor has recently come under intense scrutiny. The local and state politics of immigration and immigrant integration in the United States has been documented in the scholarly literature, focusing on topics such as California’s Proposition 187, the disparity between the national benefits and local costs of immigration, and the increasing role played by nongovernmental organizations and other nonstate actors in the integration of immigrants at the local scale. Four categories of local immigrant and immigration policy have been studied: policies that arise from the devolution of select powers over noncitizens; grassroots policies on areas such as education and human trafficking; policies that are more explicitly about a politics of immigration control; and policies that engage with a politics of immigrant integration. However, there are still avenues that require further investigation so as to better understand the growing involvement of subnational governments in the formulation and implementation of immigrant and immigration policy. For example, more research is needed in which policy outcome is taken as the dependent variable and to document and understand the dynamics of local immigrant integration and immigration policy formation in developing countries.