Citizenship, Personhood, and the Constitution in 2020
21 Pages Posted: 16 Apr 2020
Date Written: April 15, 2020
This essay is a retrospective on a conference on “The Future of the Constitution in 2020,” which took place at Yale Law School in 2005. When the conversation began, it became clear that some of the assembled scholars saw citizenship as the key to a reinvigorated progressive agenda. The hope was that appeals to citizenship would revitalize the democratic process and mitigate the class divide through the redistribution of resources. Although I had originally planned to address an entirely different topic, I revised my remarks to insist on claims of personhood as essential to our country’s prospects for redemptive constitutionalism. In doing so, I made clear that citizenship can be a sword wielded against immigrant communities, particularly disadvantaged communities of color, as well as a shield for those who fear that the nation-state’s bonds are fraying under the political and economic pressures that come with a powerful global economy.
Now that 2020 has arrived, this essay explains why those fears have been vindicated. In 2005, I had grave doubts that a progressive agenda for citizenship would be realized. Because citizenship has been deployed in such profoundly exclusionary and dehumanizing ways, it remains hard to imagine it as the core organizing principle for an inclusive, egalitarian community. As I pointed out at the time, citizenship is an especially fraught concept for a progressive agenda because the United States has been experiencing high levels of immigration, including from Latin America. So, I was convinced then and am even more convinced now that citizenship is likely to be a destructive wedge issue in partisan politics rather than a tool for promoting equality and engagement. Progressive calls for a citizenship agenda legitimate the distinction between citizens and non-citizens, marginalize the claims to personhood that immigrants make, and still fail to deliver much in the way of hoped-for political and economic reforms. Meanwhile, as demonstrated by recent struggles over apportionment and the Census, conservatives have tried to use citizenship to restrict access to meaningful representation for immigrants and the communities of color in which they reside. Drawing on current political developments as well as contemporary litigation, the essay closes by examining how personhood, an increasingly pallid source of constitutional protection, might be revived through a focus on areas of law and policy that necessitate recognition of our common humanity and interdependent fates.
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