Reflections on American Citizenship and Immigration

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By Joseph H. Carens


Three Aspects of Citizenship
Citizens and Residents: Who Belongs?


What is American citizenship? Does it matter whether the immigrants who come to the United States become citizens, or do we live in a post‑national world in which belonging to particular political communities is irrelevant? What does it mean for immigrants to become Americans? Is it a matter of their holding certain beliefs or values, and, if so, what ones? Does it involve anything more?

Let me start by saying something about the perspective from which I approach these questions. I am an American citizen. I was born and brought up in the United States as a third- and fourth-generation descendant of Irish Catholic immigrants to the Boston area an identity that played a formative role in my life. I wound up going to Holy Cross. I heard the occasional story about "Irish need not apply" signs. I ate fish on Fridays and went to mass on Sundays, and I knew that distinguished me from a lot of my fellow Americans. At the same time, I grew up in a lily‑white, largely Protestant, middle-class suburb, and do not recall ever hearing an Irish accent, so my socialization was not what it would have been if I had lived in a working-class neighborhood in the heart of Boston.

I am also a Canadian citizen, and that has become an identity that is very important to me. My wife (who is also an American and a professor) and I went to Canada in 1985 because that was where we were able to find two good academic jobs. We bought a house, had our two children, and came to think of Toronto and Canada as home. Eventually, we also became Canadian citizens (without giving up our American citizenship), though we remained permanent residents (or landed immigrants, to use the Canadian term) for more than a decade, in part because there are so few differences between the legal status of permanent residents and citizens in Canada.

I provide all this biographical information as a way of saying that questions about immigration and citizenship are not just abstract ideas for me. I'm a privileged immigrant compared with most, of course, but an immigrant and descendant of immigrants nevertheless, and the immigration and citizenship policies of the U.S. (and Canada) have affected my life directly.

I will divide my remarks into two parts, the first sketching a general approach to citizenship, the second comparing the legal rights of citizens and permanent residents.

Three Aspects of Citizenship

I am a political theorist, so, inevitably, I want to begin my analysis with some distinctions. In addressing the questions posed at the outset about the nature and meaning of American citizenship for immigrants, we may find it helpful to keep in mind three distinct but interrelated aspects of citizenship: citizenship as legal status, citizenship as identity, and citizenship as ideal. Citizenship as legal status refers to one's formal position as a member of the American political community and also to the formal rights and duties one has because of this position. Citizenship as identity refers to the sense that one belongs to the American political community both one's own psychological sense of belonging and the sense by others that one belongs. And citizenship as ideal refers to one's picture of how the members of the American political community should relate to one another and to the community as a whole.

We may want to raise questions about each of these aspects of citizenship. For example, about citizenship as a legal status, we might want to ask, how does it matter and who should get it? One way of elaborating the "how does it matter?" question is to ask how the legal rights and duties of American citizens should differ from those of legal permanent residents the question I will pursue in the second half of this essay. The "who should get it?" question leads us to an inquiry into the conditions of naturalization (and also perhaps into a discussion of birthright citizenship).

Citizenship as identity raises another set of questions. Should we try to make immigrants (and their children) into Americans, and, if so, how? Such efforts might be linked to naturalization but might be entirely separate from it, especially since the children of immigrants who are born here acquire the legal status of citizenship automatically. Or, instead of worrying about making the immigrants into Americans, should we perhaps challenge conventional understandings of who is an American and what it means to be an American? These questions will soon lead us to familiar debates about multiculturalism, language, education for citizenship, Americanization, and shared public values.

Citizenship as ideal is about the vision thing. It sets questions about the responsibilities, entitlements, and mutual expectations of citizens and immigrants in the context of our aspirations for America. What kind of nation is America, what kind of nation should it become, and where do immigrants fit in this picture?

I do not mean to suggest that these three sorts of questions are entirely separable. On the contrary, how we answer one set is likely to have a major impact on how we answer the others. Moreover, the three aspects of citizenship interact in complex ways. For example, having the legal status of American citizenship often leads to people thinking of themselves as Americans (citizenship as identity). So, many immigrants come to think of themselves as Americans after, and as a result of, naturalization. But it can happen the other way around. People may come to think of themselves as Americans before they become citizens and may choose to become legal citizens precisely because they are already citizens psychologically. (That was certainly my own experience in becoming a Canadian, and I assume it is similar for some who become Americans.)

It is also possible for people to lose the legal status of citizenship without losing their identity as citizens. For example, in the past, because of the ways in which assumptions about gender shaped nationality law, American women often lost their American citizenship as a result of marriage to a non‑citizen, but they did not necessarily stop thinking of themselves as Americans as a result. By the same token, immigrants who lose their legal status as citizens of other countries when they acquire the legal status of American citizenship may not lose their sense of themselves as citizens of the country of origin. Whether they lose their original legal citizenship depends primarily not on American law but on the nationality law of the country of origin. Fewer would lose it, however, if the United States abolished its renunciation requirement in the oath of allegiance. Thus, removing that requirement would be one way of respecting an important psychological reality for many immigrants.

Citizenship as identity is much more variable and internal than citizenship as legal status. Even among those born and raised in the United States, the strength and the salience of their sense of identity as Americans and their degree of attachment to America vary considerably among individuals and even vary within the same individual over time as circumstances change. The legal rights and duties of citizenship are (for the most part) the same for all, and change much more slowly.

The determination of legal rights and duties is subject to the state's control, even if there are moral limits to the ways in which the state may allocate them. It is both more difficult and less appropriate for the state to try to determine people's identities. The government can (and in my view should) take some measures to encourage immigrants (and citizens by birth, too) to think of themselves as Americans and to be attached to America, but it is a mistake to try to require this and an even greater mistake to make acquiring the legal status of citizenship contingent upon the (apparent) fulfillment of such a requirement. We cannot command hearts and minds, and we should not attempt to do so.

Finally, in thinking about the three aspects of citizenship, we may want to keep in mind a related distinction between requirements, expectations, and aspirations. We may impose certain requirements on immigrants as a condition of their acquiring the legal status of American citizenship, we may have certain expectations (sociological and normative) about the acquisition of an American identity by immigrants, and we may have certain aspirations for the way they will come to think and feel about America and the way they participate in and contribute to the life of the nation. But we must be careful not to impose requirements where only expectations are warranted and not to impose expectations where only aspirations are appropriate.

Citizens and Residents: Who Belongs?

How should the legal rights and duties of American citizens differ from the legal rights and duties of immigrants who are living here as legal permanent residents? Let us start with current practice so that we can see what we want to endorse and what we may want to criticize in the way we do things now. In the United States, as in most liberal democratic states in Europe and North America, there has been a significant transformation of the legal status of permanent residents over the course of the last century. Once there were many significant legal distinctions between citizens and permanent residents. Now there are few. (The 1996 legislation that reduced the rights of permanent residents to some social welfare programs is only a minor retreat from this general trend of the last century and is likely to affect only a small proportion of the permanent resident population.) Many permanent residents spend their entire lives in the United States without becoming legal citizens and without that fact affecting their lives in any significant way apart from their not being able to vote (which almost half of the citizenry chooses not to do anyway) and their not being able to get an American passport.

Should we celebrate or criticize this historical trend? Some have characterized these developments as a devaluation of citizenship. This implicitly raises the question of whether we should try to make citizenship more valuable by widening the legal gulf between citizens and residents, reserving more rights for citizens.

I think that we should celebrate this historical development and extend it rather than reverse it. In my view, liberal democratic justice, properly understood, greatly constrains the distinctions that can be made between citizens and residents.1 The longer people stay in a society, the stronger their moral claims become, and, after a while, they pass a threshold that entitles them to virtually the same legal status as citizens. Once people have been settled for an extended period, say, five years or so, they are morally entitled to the same legal rights (and ought to be subject to the same legal obligations) as citizens, except perhaps for the right to vote and the right to hold high public office. During the early stages of settlement it is permissible (though not required, and, in my view, often not desirable) to limit some rights (e.g., to redistributive benefits or protection against deportation) but not most others.

The heart of the argument for this position rests upon an understanding of civil society and a related view of the relationship between the state and civil society. In brief, people who live in a society over an extended period of time become members of that society, and moral claims to legal status follow from that membership. Thus the allocation of legal rights by the state should not be regarded as a morally unfettered political choice. The relationships established in civil society significantly limit and constrain the kinds of allocations of rights that a political society can properly make. In other words, people who have lived as permanent residents in the United States for a number of years have become Americans in fact, even if they have not become citizens through naturalization, and they should be treated as Americans.

The argument I have been advancing should not be confused with the view that membership no longer matters because international human rights laws are more important in determining legal rights and duties than national legislation or because the process of globalization is rendering borders irrelevant. On the contrary, I think that membership does matter, both empirically and morally. My claim is that residents are members. They are Americans in most relevant respects. That is why they deserve basically the same package of rights.

Someone may object that naturalization is relatively easy in the United States (unlike some other countries), so that if people do not naturalize, it is their own choice. Isn't that a sufficient justification for whatever legal distinctions we want to draw between citizens and non‑citizen residents? No. People have many good reasons for choosing not to naturalize. For example, they may want to be able to return to their country of origin at a later date to care for aging parents. Inheritance laws in the country of origin may require heirs to be citizens. It is not fair to insist that they sacrifice such interests and concerns in order to receive equal treatment as members of civil society here, an equal treatment to which they are entitled by the fact of their membership in our civil society.

People sometimes argue that increasing the legal differences between citizens and residents is a useful way of strengthening the incentives to naturalize. I think that is a mistake because it sends the wrong message about why people should naturalize. It encourages immigrants to take the attitude "What's in it for me?" in thinking about whether or not to become citizens, whereas we ought to encourage them to become citizens not primarily for narrow, instrumental reasons but out of a sense of identity and attachment and out of a desire to participate in a shared public life. Moreover, attaching special (non‑political) privileges to citizenship sends the wrong message about citizenship and the nature of our community not only to immigrants but also to citizens. It emphasizes divisions among people who live together, and it encourages citizens to think of lawfully resident non‑citizens as "others," not as fellow members of our community.

So far, I have sketched a defense of the trend toward reducing the legal distinctions between citizens and permanent residents. Let me say briefly why I think the trend should be extended rather than halted or reversed. Apart from voting and holding public office (both of which I think can properly be reserved for citizens), there are two main areas where citizens enjoy more rights than residents public employment and security of residence and a third access to social programs where some people think the differentiation should be much sharper.

Let me take the last one first. Residents normally enjoy the same rights as citizens to social programs like Social Security, workers' compensation, and unemployment compensation that either tie individual benefits to the level of individual contributions or function as collective insurance schemes. That makes sense, because it would hardly be fair to require people to contribute to such programs and then deny them the benefits. Residents also normally enjoy equal access to social programs funded through general taxpayer revenues and aimed at the general public. Access to public libraries or public recreational facilities or public universities sometimes is tied to residence, rarely to citizenship. And that makes sense, too, because non‑citizen residents are taxpayers and members of the general public.

It is only with regard to redistributive social programs that people sometimes claim that the distinction between citizens and residents matters and ought to count for more. There has been a move lately (as in the 1996 legislation) to restrict the access of recent immigrants to various forms of social assistance. I think this is unwelcoming and unwise, but I would not say that it is unjust so long as it applies only to recent arrivals. As I argued above, claims to membership grow over time. That means they are weaker at first, so it is not unjust to restrict access to redistributive social programs to those with claims to full membership. But long‑term residents fit in this category on my account. They are entitled to be treated as full members. So, some of the proposals to ban immigrants forever from social assistance programs would clearly be unjust.

With regard to public employment, I have no objection to restricting jobs involving national security or major policymaking responsibilities to citizens, but the restriction of the entire federal civil service to citizens is simply a way of discriminating against non‑citizen residents. If one accepts the principle that non‑citizen residents are normally entitled to be treated equally in the occupational sphere, the reasons why this is morally objectionable are obvious.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, it seems to me deeply unjust to deport long‑term residents, even if they have been convicted of crimes, because it is a violation of the human rights of the person being deported and because it is unfair to the country to which the person is deported.

Let me elaborate briefly. We regard it as morally wrong for states to deport their own citizens, even if they can find another state willing to accept them, because we recognize that the right to remain in a society of which one is a member is a fundamental human right. As we have seen, long‑term residents should be viewed as members of the society where they live. Therefore, they have the same moral right and should enjoy the same legal right not to be deported. This should be particularly clear when it is a question of people who have lived in a society since early childhood. I can cite dozens of stories from the Center for Immigration Study's daily electronic news service about people who came to the United States as young children and have spent all or almost all of their lives here since then, who have been deported because they have been convicted of some crime. Often they have no social ties in the country to which they are deported. Sometimes they don't even speak the language. Doubtless many will feel that these are criminals who deserve whatever they get (although it is very important for legal purposes for the authorities to insist that the deportation is not a punishment for the crime). The fact remains that we don't do this to our own citizen criminals, and it would be a violation of widely accepted international human rights norms if we did.

Of course, many may want to point out that international law and human rights norms do not prohibit the deportation of non‑citizen criminals, and since it is clearly in our collective interest to do so, we should. There is something to this view. I think that if someone arrives in the United States as an adult and commits a serious crime within six months or a year, it is entirely appropriate to deport him (or, rarely, her). But it is entirely different when it is a question of someone who has grown up here and spent most of his life here. To take the hardest case for my position, let us assume that we are dealing with violent repeat offenders (although many of those deported clearly do not fall into this category). Why is it fair to send such people to another country, a place where they have a legal membership but no real social connection? Are they any less likely to engage in criminal behavior there? Every society has people who are involved in criminal activity and who create social problems. Shouldn't we take responsibility for our own problems, not try to foist them off on someplace else? If they have grown up in the United States, it is our society, not the one of their nominal citizenship, that is responsible for their social formation, for successes and failures in the inculcation of social norms and values, for the creation of opportunities and obstacles in social life. It is not fair to other countries, often small and poor ones without the resources to contain criminal activity, to dump such dangerous criminals in their midst. They are Americans. They belong to us.


1 The following pages are adapted from Joseph H. Carens, "The Rights of Residents," in Randall Hanson and Patrick Weil, eds., Reinventing Citizenship: Dual Citizenship, Social Rights and Federal Citizenship in Europe and the U.S. (Oxford: Berghahn Books, forthcoming). That article provides a fuller account of this argument.

Joseph Carens is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. A dual citizen of the United States and Canada, Carens recently completed a book, Culture, Citizenship, and Community: A Contextual Exploration of Justice as Evenhandedness, which he says was deeply shaped by his experience living in Canada as an American.

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