Beyond Earned Citizenship

48 Pages Posted: 17 Oct 2016 Last revised: 13 Aug 2017

Date Written: June 1, 2017


For more than a decade, a single rubric for legalization of the 11 million undocumented people in the United States has dominated every major proposal for comprehensive immigration reform, and continues to do so today: earned citizenship. Introduced as a rhetorical move intended to distinguish such proposals from amnesty, the earned citizenship frame has shaped the substantive provisions of the legislation by conditioning legalization on the performance of economic, cultural, and civic metrics. In order to regularize status, earned citizenship would require undocumented individuals to demonstrate their ongoing societal contributions at multiple intervals over a probationary period of many years, and they would remain subject to deportation for failure to do so. Such a behavioral approach expresses a particular moral basis for legalization and a normative vision of citizenship, and it aspires to place millions of people on a path to citizenship. And yet, despite the centrality of earned citizenship in contemporary immigration debates and the magnitude of its ambition, there has been virtually no scholarly treatment of its substance, ideology, or normative claims. While the election of Donald Trump has rendered progressive immigration reform improbable in the next several years, this is all the more reason to examine the failed logic and structure of recent reform proposals. This Article explores the origins and illuminates the deep structure of earned citizenship, and it critically evaluates its virtues and shortcomings as matters of politics, morality, policy, and law. Although laudable for its inclusionary promise, earned citizenship suffers from serious and previously unaddressed theoretical and conceptual flaws that reinscribe the moral claims of restrictionists, illuminate and imperil our larger understandings of citizenship, and invite consideration of alternative frameworks for legalization. The rightward electoral shift has closed a window for progressive reform for now, but when it is next pried open, a different moral and legal framework for legalization may be required.

Keywords: immigration, citizenship, comprehensive immigration reform

Suggested Citation

Ahmad, Muneer I., Beyond Earned Citizenship (June 1, 2017). 52 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review 257 (2017), Available at SSRN:

Muneer I. Ahmad (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States

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