May 12, 2012

Immigrant Citizenship

Can Immigrants be Citizens?
What citizenship rights can they rightfully claim?

The category of ‘citizen’ serves as a marker of identity, along with other categories such as race, ethnicity and gender. Citizens are conferred with rights and privileges which non-citizens mostly don’t have the benefit of availing. The idea of ‘citizenship’ itself has been a widely contested one as it delineates the inclusion of certain members at the expense of excluding others. In his classic essay "Citizenship and Social Class" (1998), T. H. Marshall traced the expansion of citizenship in England over three centuries. Marshall's three categories of citizenship -civil, political and social- are still relevant and highlight the areas of debate around formulation of citizenship norms in current context and its usage to grant a legal recognition to natives differentiating them from immigrants.

Political events in the past half a century have made it even more contentious about who qualifies to be a citizen and who doesn’t. At stake here now are the political rights of recognition and assertion of identity, while simultaneously availing of the benefits of social and civil aspects of citizenship. In the scenario of mass movement of labour across geographical borders, the category of ‘citizen’ itself seems to have become quite superfluous. The scholarly thought on this may want us to believe otherwise, though. Hence, this essay reviews selected works in trying to present both sides of the debate. It begins with a brief discussion on shifting notions of who qualifies to be a ‘citizen’, proceeding to a review of some arguments on whether immigrants can be citizens. This is followed by an evaluation of some arguments on the possibility of certain rights which immigrants may claim as residents of a state.

Of ‘citizen’ and ‘citizenship

In lay understanding, citizens are those members of a nation-state who have legal and political rights. These rights are granted on the basis of numerous qualifying criteria and instantly differentiate them from others who may be residing in the same territory but don’t have these rights. On deliberation, it appears that every geographical entity has its own criteria for granting recognition to residents and these are, without exception, fraught with contesting claims. As Aristotle stated,
The state is a compound made of citizens; and this compels us to consider who should properly be called a citizen and what a citizen really is. The nature of citizenship, like that of the state, is a question which is often disputed: there is no general agreement on a single definition: the man who is a citizen in a democracy is often not one in an oligarchy (1941:1247).

Hence, the category of ‘citizen’ is not easily envisaged, understood and agreed upon. ‘Many key terms in the interpretative social sciences and history - "race," "nation," "ethnicity," "citizenship," "democracy," "class," "community," and "tradition," for example - are at once categories of social and political practice and categories of social and political analysis’ (Brubaker and Cooper 2000:4). According to them, ‘"Identity” is both a category of practice and a category of analysis. Understood as a specifically collective phenomenon, "identity" denotes a fundamental and consequential sameness among members of a group or category’ (ibid.). This is true for the category of ‘citizen’ too. Those marked as citizens of a common territory automatically share the same set of rights and obligations, irrespective of their differences in other categories of distinctions. ‘Citizenship is not a "natural" idea but an invented concept that shifts with economic, political, and social changes. Citizenship, at least theoretically, confers membership, identity, values, and rights of participation and assumes a body of common political knowledge’ (Abowitz and Harnish 2006:653-4). According to Brubaker, ‘modern national citizenship was an invention of the French Revolution’ (1992:35).

In a democracy, citizenship…
(a) gives membership status to individuals within a political unit; (b) confers
an identity on individuals; (c) constitutes a set of values, usually interpreted as a commitment to the common good of a particular political unit; (d) involves practicing a degree of participation in the process of political life; and (e) implies gaining and using knowledge and understanding of laws, documents, structures, and processes of governance (Enslin, 2000).

Can immigrants be citizens?

Wallerstein  argues that,
the concept of citizen was intended to be inclusive-to insist that all persons in a state, and not just some persons (a monarch, aristocrats) had the right to be included in the process of collective decision-making in the political arena and the right to receive the social benefits the state might distribute. But the other face of the inclusiveness of citizenship was exclusion. Those who were not citizens of the state had become by definition aliens- citizens, perhaps, of some other state, but not of this state (2003:651, emphasis added).

In line with the essentially exclusionary nature of citizenship, Walzer (1983) argues that if national borders are not maintained as markers of a national community, internal distinctions and demarcations will become more pronounced. The admission and exclusion of immigrants, he suggests, is at the very core of ‘communal independence’. The sense of a common life, of a historically stable, on-going association, and of a community with a special and mutual commitment could not be maintained without such markers. If these national markers weakened, internal boundaries would come to the fore to the point of insular ‘fortresses’ emerging (Walzer 1983:62-63). According to Klusmeyer, ‘every community determines its own identity- morally, culturally, and politically- by whom it includes and by whom it excludes. Throughout their history, Germans have had to face an especially difficult and painful problem in drawing the boundaries of their national community’ (1993:83). For Brubaker (1992), the state is an association of citizens, and not just a territorially defined power and authority structure. Yet, he argues that citizenship serves ‘a powerful instrument of social closure’, in terms of the larger international community (1992:75). In his opinion, the boundary of citizenship allows rich states to draw a line that separates its citizens from potential immigrants from poor countries. It also allows states to create internal boundaries that separate citizens from foreign residents, by associating certain rights and privileges with national citizenship. Liberal democracies are, following from this argument, ‘internally inclusive’ while remaining ‘externally exclusive’ (ibid. 21).

Bosniak summarises this paradox in the following lines -
Citizenship, as we have seen, trades in both universalism and particularism. From an internal perspective, the citizenship ideal is warm and inclusive, extending, in theory, to embrace “everyone.” But this embrace is, in fact, circumscribed; the ideal of citizenship, from a boundary-conscious perspective, is exclusive, demarcating not merely a class of national community members but also, in the process, a class of community outsiders. And since citizenship’s boundaries are not fully coextensive with territorial borders but extend into the national society’s interior, these two understandings of citizenship—the universal and the exclusive—sometimes run up against each other on the national inside (2006:102).

Klusmeyer (1993) offers an excellent overview of the German problem of integration of aliens and immigrants. The absence of a ‘general immigration policy’ (1993:85) indicates that the state does not promote active influx of citizens from other countries intending to settle there permanently. Nevertheless, the presence of refugees and expellees from World War II, guest workers contributing to West Germany’s phenomenal industrial growth and success, resident aliens, second/ third- generation immigrants and asylum seekers have all contributed to the ‘problem of integrating minorities (that) stands out as one of the most pressing social and political challenges’ (1993:106) in the Federal Republic of Germany.

In the light of the above discussion, I will now try and examine whether immigrants can be citizens by shifting the attention to Walzer’s (1983) arguments.  In ‘Spheres of Justice’, Walzer outlines his argument for restricted migration by comparing the nation-state scenario with that of a community’s functioning and control of its own membership. He claims that the community alone decides on admission to citizenship, emigration, exiling, and stripping citizenship away. Secondly, the community ought to adopt a policy of inclusiveness: all of its present inhabitants-immigrants, refugees, guest workers, and residents-should be offered full membership because it is tyranny to rule over strangers. But there are no standards for admission initially other than the ones the community sets for itself (1983:36-39). While in the former claim Walzer is vesting all rights on the members of a community, in the latter claim he is arguing for inclusiveness. In developing his argument further, Walzer values membership in a community and not simply citizenship in a state. In reality, political states are geographical entities comprising of communities which may be strife with differences within and without them. Yet, they are bound together by other shared cultural beliefs and practices.  Walzer’s commitment to the concept of community shows itself in his justification for autonomous control of membership but he identifies only the barest minimum conditions for political unity, and not that of community. Hence his argument may seem quite superfluous in terms of belonging to a community where entry is restricted by social agreement.

According to Walzer, while labour movements may be a result of market forces and availability of opportunities, eventually, who gets inducted as a formal citizen is decided on the basis of ‘kinship principle’ (ibid. 41) which is given priority in the US. As he writes, ‘labour mobility has a social price’ (ibid. 41). Walzer’s arguments imply that the state (akin to a community) has a choice to decide who’s inducted and who’s not, which leads us to be believe that he’s making a subtle case for immigration with a restrictive border. This is countered by Carens who in ‘Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders’ (1987) goes all out to make a case for open borders and free movement. He uses the arguments of other contemporary schools of political thought to supplement his argument for open borders. Using Nozick’s (1974) argument for property rights, Carens states that at one level it may seem that citizens may not immigrate because of collective property rights held in their native land. Carens points out that Nozickian theories emphasize individual, not collective, rights that may be enforced by the state. ‘[T]he control that the state can legitimately exercise over [its] land is limited to the enforcement of the rights of individual owners. Prohibiting people from entering a territory because they did not happen to be born there or otherwise gain the credentials of citizenship is no part of any states legitimate mandate’ (Carens 1987:254). So Nozick’s approach, Carens concludes, cannot support restrictions on migration.

From Rawls’ theory, Carens draws that one should ‘take a global, not a national, view of the original position’ (Carens 1987:256). Given this, Carens argues that people in the original position would select a principle of international justice that protected the right to free movement, because migration might prove essential to their life plans. Thus, Carens concluded that a Rawlsian perspective also suggests that free movement is a fundamental liberty. Carens proceeds to draw his arguments from utilitarianism, which despite its many internal disagreements against immigration, also points toward considerably more open borders. This is because, Carens argues, regardless of whether one considers only economic factors or also other ones, such as cultural interests or even mere prejudices - the utility of aliens must be weighed equally with that of citizens, which would undoubtedly tip the scales in the direction of free movement.
Under current conditions, when so many millions of poor and oppressed people feel they have so much to gain from migration to the advanced industrial states, it seems hard to believe that a utilitarian calculus which took the interests of aliens seriously would justify significantly greater limits on immigration than the ones entailed by the public order restriction implied by the Rawlsian approach (Carens 1987:264).

While these three theories may originally appear to not be in favour of unregulated migration, Carens skilfully extracts from them nuances and then builds upon them to support his own grand proposition for more openness of borders. Beyond this, Carens dismisses Walzer’s argument for restricted movement stating - ‘any approach like Walzer's that seeks its ground in the tradition and culture of our community must confront, as a methodological paradox, the fact that liberalism is a central part of our culture’ (1987:268-9). Carens does admit that open borders would indeed prevent certain ways of life from continuing, but he qualifies this by adding that ‘constraining the kinds of choices that people and communities may make is what principles of justice are for’ (ibid.:271). To conclude, Carens arguments for open borders seems, for the lack of a better word, quite restrictive. His claims are all grounded in examples from the US and when extrapolated to other parts of the world, certainly may not be feasible or agreeable to many states. A case for ‘open borders’ should be based on wider grounds and not on a limited region. Also, Carens’ assumption that people are, without exception, driven by a desire to improve their living conditions and be better off economically, at the expense of losing their cultural and community networks seems too far-fetched and exclusively materialistic. The application of such an argument may be universally impossible and hence lends an element of doubt to Carens’ undoubtedly noble intentions. Nevertheless, from Carens, we may deduce that membership in a functioning economy capable of delivering high levels of employment, income, and consumer choice, whether organized on the basis of whole or partial "national sovereignty," is arguably normally much more important to people in contemporary Western societies (and indeed to people's conception of the nature of their citizenship) than is their nationality.
It is impossible to offer a neat response to our original question of whether immigrants can be citizens. Kymlicka and Norman point out that when thinking about citizenship today, ‘the complex webs of rights and responsibilities implicating citizens in various ethical, political and social decisions are important to keep in mind’ (2000:15). They argue that,
while citizens everywhere may be contained legally within state boundaries that enact rights and obligations, their own states are not subject to such containment. All states, through multilateral arrangements and international accords, implicate (or fail to implicate) their citizens involuntarily in a web of rights and responsibilities concerning the environment (wildlife, pollution), trade (copyright, protection), security, refugees, crime, minorities, war, children and many other issues (ibid.).
What complicates the issue further is that ‘many citizens and non-citizens (illegal aliens, immigrants, migrants) of states have become increasingly mobile, carrying these webs of rights and obligations with them and further entangling them with other webs of rights and obligations’ (ibid). Hence, it becomes imperative to explore what rights such aliens and immigrants can claim in the scenario of increased mobility across borders, either sanctioned or illegal.

Immigrants and citizenship rights

It may seem antithetical to use ‘immigrants’ and ‘citizenship rights’ in the same phrase. From the discussion above, it is evident that any move to upgrade the status of ‘immigrants’ to that of ‘citizens’ and granting them rights enjoyed by other citizens is deeply contested on various moral, political, cultural and economic grounds. In this section, I explore some of the rights that immigrants wish to attain but are usually denied.
 ‘Since the founding of the United States as a sovereign nation, the diversity of the population has challenged the values of inclusiveness and equality. Historically, these tensions manifested themselves in debates over taxation and representation, apportionment, and suffrage. In modern times, these values have been disputed in controversies over the differential undercount of racial minorities and adjustments of the censuses; immigrants' rights to representation, access to higher education, and the entitlements of citizenship; and many other social issues. Essentially, the controversy is about the rights of membership in a liberal democracy and whether citizenship is a special membership status (Tienda 2002:587, emphasis added).

Bosniak (1998) discusses how the figure of the alien is constantly being devalued in the US policy reforms which are keeping up with the trends of ‘new public preoccupation with citizenship status in this country’ (1998:29). She outlines some of the suggested policy reforms which will make it difficult for newer members to acquire citizens, while simultaneously taking away some of the additional social benefits that undocumented citizens previously enjoyed (ibid.). She goes on to critique citizenship theory on the ground that it has ‘been strikingly silent on issues involving citizenship status and treatment of alien’ (ibid.:31).

Howard (2006) discusses in detail why national citizenship is still important despite ‘the broader umbrella of ‘European citizenship’ since it ‘is itself strictly derivative of national citizenship’ (2006:445). Most of these claims by non-citizens of EU (aliens or immigrants) essentially relate to political rights (eligibility to context elections and vote) and also their exclusion from receiving social benefits (ibid.). ‘Whether in terms of politics and elections, welfare state benefits, public-sector employment, social integration, or demographics and pension systems, national citizenship remains an essential and enduring feature of modern life-even in the "supra-national" European Union’ (ibid.:446). It is these rights that immigrants aim to claim in return of the services offered to their host nation, not to mention especially by second and third generation immigrants,

The rights that immigrants can claim depend on multiple factors. Their ethnic and cultural background, family size and needs, current economic status and the aspired standard of living, desire to forge bonds with the community via participation in political processes are among some of the variables that may lead to immigrants pressing for attainment of rights closer to those of citizens, if not entirely equal.


Scholars like Kymlicka and Norman (2000) have argued for incorporating the changes brought about by transnational migration and multiculturalism. Though, the detractors are not far away. Huntington (2004) ominously warns of the ‘Hispanic Challenge’ to the US where continuing influx of Mexican migrants will lead to the ‘Americans acquiesce(ing) to their eventual transformation into two peoples with two cultures (Anglo and Hispanic) and two languages (English and Spanish)’ (2004:32). His presentation of this situation conjures up images of an Inquisition-like scenario in the US.

Providing  a more rational opinion, on the basis of analysing statistical data from Mexico, Spain , US and Armenia, Rhodes and Harutyunyan ‘suggest that the political logic of emigrant citizenship in recent decades is similar to that affecting the extension of citizenship to groups that were excluded in the past (such as such as those without property, racial minorities, and women). Demand for ever-increasing inclusiveness seems to be almost an inherent feature of competitive regimes’ (2010:488).

To conclude,
The health and stability of a modern democracy depends, not only on the justice of its institutions, but also on the qualities and attitudes of its citizens: e.g. their sense of identity, and how they view potentially competing forms of national, regional, ethnic, or religious identities; their ability to tolerate and work together with others who are different from themselves; their desire to participate in the political process in order to promote the public good and hold political authorities accountable; their willingness to show self-restraint and exercise personal responsibility in their economic demands, and in personal choices that affect their health and the environment; and their sense of justice and commitment to a fair distribution of resources (Kymlicka and Norman 2000:5-6).

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