New Sproul Fellow Nicholas Fraser Studies Impact of Bureaucratic Culture on Government Policy

Nicholas A. R. Fraser

Dr. Nicholas A. R. Fraser, a political scientist specializing in the impact of organizational culture on policy application, officially joins Canadian Studies Wednesday as a John A. Sproul Research Fellow. As a visiting researcher, Dr. Fraser will assist program director Irene Bloemraad with research on migration-related topics.

Dr. Fraser received his B.A. from the University of Calgary and holds M.A.s from the University of British Columbia and Waseda University (Japan). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, where he was previously an associate at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

Canadian Studies sat down with Dr. Fraser to discuss his past research and what drew him to Berkeley.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I grew up in Calgary, Alberta, but I also spent some time in Dallas, Texas, which is where my mom is from. So growing up, I spent time on both sides of the border. I did my BA in political science and history at University of Calgary.

How did you become interested in immigration research?

Just before I finished my bachelor’s degree, I had opportunity to teach English abroad in Japan. It may sound surprising to your readers, but that experience set the agenda for kind of research I do, because it was only by going to Japan that I realized how unique Canada is in terms of immigration and multiculturalism. I just hadn’t fully appreciated how different Canada is from other countries, even other developed democracies.

While I was over there, I had the chance to meet some foreign workers from Brazil. They’d play soccer in a nearby field, and sometimes I’d go watch. They’d tell me how difficult it was to stay in Japan, to get legal status, to bring family members in. And I thought, that would be way easier in Canada, so why is it so hard here? I realized that actually, maybe I should look at the question another way - in a global sense, Canada’s immigration policy is comparatively pretty generous. And I was curious where that comes from.

How did that interest shape your academic trajectory?

After returning to Canada, I did my MA in political science at the University of British Columbia. Before starting my PhD, I got a scholarship to study in Japan, and I ended up working with an NGO for about a year and then completed a second MA at Waseda University. I was actually there when the big earthquake and tsunami hit. When I returned to Canada, I went to the University of Toronto, where I did my Ph.D. with immigration expert Randall Hansen. His research has compared Canada with Europe. However, I was still interested in the extreme contrast between Japan and Canada’s approach to
immigration.

Around the time I started my PhD, the Syrian refugee crisis hit. I saw that Japan was just as strict on refugee policy as it was on regular immigration. Their prime minister was asked at the UN about taking in Syrian refugees, and his answer was that Japan had to take care of its own people. Canada, meanwhile, was one of the few countries where the issue became an election issue and people actually wanted the government to allow in more refugees, which I thought was amazing.

So, you have these radically different approaches, and I wanted to get to the bottom of that difference. People often point to Canada’s history or culture as an explanation, but I think that’s a reductive way of looking at things. Australia, for instance, has a similar history, yet immigration is seen much less positively there and they have a much stricter refugee policy. So my research situates Canada in a comparative perspective to understand why we have a relatively generous refugee policy legacy.

What is your doctoral research about?

My dissertation explored countries with extreme refugee policy – either extremely generous, or extremely strict. I looked at four countries – Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Ireland. I chose these four because they had several factors in common. First, they had geographical barriers that made it more difficult for refugees to reach them spontaneously. Second, they have highly bureaucratized systems, where career officials have a large role in determining policy outcomes. Immigration was much less politicized in these countries than it is in the United States or some parts of Europe.

Most importantly, all of the countries had introduced similar reforms to their asylum processes that expanded procedural rights – things like granting all applicants the right to legal representation, having their case vetted by outside experts instead of an immigration officer, and the like. These were things that refugee advocates had been pushing for years, with the expectation that they would lead to more asylum applications being approved. Many in political science would expect that similar policies lead to similar policy outcomes. Interestingly, however, while these reforms accomplished the activists’ aims in Canada, they failed miserably in the other countries.

My research is based not just on media reports or archives of parliamentary debates. I actually interviewed decision-makers and advocates in all countries. I was able to penetrate bureaucracy in all four countries, which is something very few people have done. I did around 90 interviews in total, looked at publicly available statistics on decisions made in Canada, and some survey research in Japan.

And what did you determine?

Previous studies have identified several factors that affect public openness to immigration, things like ethnic homogeneity or prior experience with immigration. My argument is that you also need to look at organizational culture within the bureaucracy that decides who gets legal status.

A key factor in my argument is the reputation of the bureaucrats with the politicians. In Canada, right around the time they undertook their asylum reforms, the bureaucracy had made some high-profile mistakes and was perceived as extremely inefficient. Though refugee advocates had been pushing for reforms these bureaucratic mistakes created the added pressure necessary to create an entirely new system staffed by people who were not immigration officers. By contrast, in the other countries even though politicians saw reforms as important concession to refugee advocates, they still trusted people who had served in their respective immigration bureaucracies as capable of deciding refugee claims efficiently.

Another important dimension is the professional background of the new officials. After creating its new agency, Canada staffed it with a lot of immigration advocates and lawyers who had been fighting against the old system. So, they were more rights-oriented and inclined to accept applications. Contrast that with other countries, which tasked immigration officers with managing the reforms. They had a law- enforcement mindset. So, there is a different mentality in how to approach things such as, what does a credible refugee look like? Or what standard of evidence is reasonable to expect from an asylum advocate? An immigration advocate might look at whether a candidate’s story is plausible, while an immigration official might be more concerned about fraud and demand more evidence.

Where do you plan to take your research?

I’m currently writing an article for a political science journal that outlines main arguments in my dissertation. Once that’s done, I’m planning to write a book manuscript. I’d also like to continue with my public opinion research. While I was writing my dissertation, a lot of people wanted to know about whether public opinion mattered, so I want to see how it affects policy outcomes. I just had an article published in Political Psychology with Go Murakami. We showed that the Japanese would be willing to host refugees using a survey experiment. I’d like to replicate that experiment in Canada.

Why did you apply to Berkeley?

I love the interdisciplinary approach here. UC Berkeley is an amazing research university, and there’s a great community here working on a number of different aspects of migration. But the number one reason is Irene. She’s a force to be reckoned within migration studies. The opportunity to work with someone that has so much influence on interdisciplinary migration studies, political science, psychology, sociology – that would be a game-changer. Combine that with studying at UC Berkeley – it’s the dream, really. Getting to work with an amazing person at an amazing institution.

What will you be working on with Irene?

We’re going to be doing a lot of things together. One project that we are considering is how multiculturalism affects legal proceedings. In court, for example, many people have a default expectation that witnesses will swear on the Christian Bible. Nowadays, some people are choosing to swear on another religious text, or even give a nonreligious oath. So the question is, if you’re a juror, how credibly do you view religious minorities, who are also ethnic minorities in a lot of cases?

This is an important issue, because it investigates structural biases against religious minorities. There was a serious case in Canada with a Muslim defendant who chose to swear on the Koran, and the prosecution questioned their credibility because they didn’t swear on the Bible. I’ve already done some experimental research on this topic in Canada with Colton Fehr, and I’ll be giving a talk on some of our preliminary findings in November. We’re still exploring, but my plan going forward is to do a United States-Canada comparison, because this issue is obviously relevant to the United States as well.

Why do you think it’s important to study Canada?

I’ll give you three reasons: first, Canada is a comparatively generous country when it comes to immigration and multiculturalism. As a Canadian, I think it’s important to understand why from a social science perspective to improve public policy. Canada is not perfect – I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture – but there are many things Canada has done right and could improve on in the future. If we have a better idea of why certain things have worked so far, it allows us to improve policy going forward.

Second, I’m Canadian. There are a lot of important social justice issues that we need to deal with but I think Canada is a great country to live in and I really enjoy studying it. It’s personally meaningful to me.

The third reason is that I think Canada doesn’t get enough attention within political science. A lot of research focuses on the US and Europe, but I think Canada is really important because it differs from those other places on important policy issues such as immigration. So I’m thrilled to be joining the Canadian Studies Program and to contribute in any way I can. And I look forward to enjoying this warm California climate!