On Aug. 17, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump released an immigration policy paper. Unsurprisingly, it’s rife with bombast and hyperbole. Trump promises to end birthright citizenship and make Mexico pay for a wall that he plans to build on the U.S.-Mexico border if he’s elected president.
Other Republican presidential hopefuls have hopped on the bandwagon of a walled and exclusionary nation. Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin and neurosurgeon Ben Carson have all declared support for an end to birthright citizenship.
The drive to limit citizenship is a part of a revived and virulent American nativism, which constructs the immigrant as a dehumanized, parasitic and predatory other, thus justifying the abuse and exclusion of those relegated to the category.
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” reads Trump’s plan, which also proposes tripling the number of U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement officers and instituting a national e-verify system. Critics have pointed out that eliminating birthright citizenship is not possible without amending the Constitution, that the money spent on border security is useless and that previous e-verify programs have largely proved failures. None of these arguments or the fact that immigrants contribute to an improvement of the U.S. economy appears to have affected the conservative support for a fenced-off version of the United States that Trump is proposing.
For him and his supporters, eliminating birthright citizenship is similar to the abolition of an automatic privilege, which speaks to the brash meritocracy that he is so famous for from his hit NBC reality show, “The Apprentice.” However, by that measurement, his show would admit contestants only if one of their parents was a U.S. citizen and would select winners from a limited pool of natives. And more talented others, cursed by the accident and geography of their birth, would watch from the sidelines of this doctored competition. In a sense, for Trump and opponents of birthright citizenship, including some Democrats, the United States’ commitment to merit ends at the border.
The revival of nativism
In her book “The Birthright Lottery,” Harvard political theorist Ayelet Shachar notes that 97 of 100 people in the world acquire their citizenship solely by virtue of their birthplace or pedigree. This accident of birth then makes available radically different opportunities and unequal life choices to those who are born in various parts of the world or have a parent with a particular passport. The inequities produced as a result of where or to whom a person is born are accepted as legitimate. However, allotting benefits to a chosen few on the basis of ascriptive characteristics such as race and gender is unjust and unacceptable.
This disjunction pointed out by Shachar is particularly relevant to the debate on immigration in the United States. Republicans, including Trump, love to tout the ethic of the self-made American who is unafraid of competition and doggedly pursuing success. However, their sloganeering in favor of eliminating birthright citizenship reflects not an embrace of competition as the basis of excellence but a revival of nativism and retention of a particular racial demography.
A nuanced reconceptualization of citizenship would imagine it as a means for those who contribute to the country or show their intention to do so to be treated with respect and dignity.
Under the no-birthright-citizenship regime, only those with pedigree — an American parent — could claim the right to live in the United States. It is a code for replicating the current Caucasian majority into the future. If the belief that race represents biological superiorities was the governing prejudice of past American century, the belief that citizenship — a legal construction arbitrarily meted by birth or parentage — is real and justified is the populist American prejudice of our time.
Shachar’s argument on the relationship between citizenship and global inequality points to why anti-immigration plans that rely on walls and policing are destined to fail. The refugees on flimsy boats on the Mediterranean or on the U.S.-Mexico border are enacting a crude redistributive mechanism born of the vast disparities in opportunity between the West and the rest. It is precisely because existing legal regimes of citizenship do not recognize the actuality of citizenship-based disparities that efforts to evade them continue.
Illegal migration thus is the symptom of a global inequality that birthright or pedigree citizenship laws maintain, legitimize and perpetuate. Rich countries imagine themselves ethically entitled to restrict citizenship, their legal regimes refusing to acknowledge the core injustice of arbitrary grants of privilege by birth or pedigree. Global labor mobility has been shown to be the single most successful means of lifting people out of poverty. Building walls and enacting restrictive laws to limit such mobility perpetuates an already deepening global poverty.
On the surface, eliminating birthright citizenship repudiates accident of birth or parentage as a basis for allotting opportunity. In reality, however, it does the opposite, narrowing such rights to children of citizens.
If justice rather than exclusion were the goal, then the debate over immigration would not offer piecemeal reforms, which do not recognize a global context of connection and interdependence or the inherent injustice of benefits granted on the basis of parentage.
A nuanced reconceptualization of citizenship would imagine it as a means for those who contribute to the country or show their intention to do so to be treated with respect and dignity. In such a system, the increasing openness of borders would be seen not as a fantasy but as inevitability, already realized in some respect by virtual technology and the constant dialogue between the previously disconnected “us” and “them.”