Citizenship Matters: Conceptualizing Belonging in an Era of Fragile Inclusions
52 UC Davis Law Review 1 (2018)
81 Pages Posted: 17 Jun 2020
Date Written: November 1, 2018
The history of the United States is a long history of excluded peoples making arguments — sometimes more successfully than others — not only about their fitness to hold formal legal citizenship or to exercise the rights of “full citizens,” but also contesting the meanings of citizenship and nation. Theoretical accounts of citizenship have reckoned with how the efforts of outsiders have reconfigured the meaning of citizenship as a social and political institution, altering the boundaries of citizenship’s formal exclusions and inclusions. Today, citizenship is being reconstituted in the same way. Immigrants are changing collective understandings of citizenship through their own accounts, their stories, the very fact of their long-time residence, and the stories told about them. This article seeks to cast light on the ways that immigrant communities may be conceptualizing and reshaping collective understandings of citizenship in the present moment.
Using information gathered in original interviews conducted in Southern California over a four-year period ending in January 2018, this article describes how harsh and uncertain immigration laws, significant swings in executive policies toward immigrant communities, and blocked access to citizenship have generated new understandings of citizenship and belonging in those communities. In this contemporary context, citizenship is broadly understood both inside and outside immigrant communities as a pragmatic means to certain important, practical ends: freedom to unite with family members and to travel, a legal right to work, and a guaranteed right to remain in this country. But the practical benefits of citizenship are also understood to be circumscribed, particularly when it comes to accessing social welfare benefits and participating in social and political life.
Moreover, restrictionist immigration policies ironically have fueled a degree of skepticism toward the loftier ideals of citizenship. When it comes to political participation, some immigrants view citizenship as an important guarantee of participation through voting, but many immigrants already view themselves as politically engaged actors, even as they view the formal political process with skepticism. When it comes to welfare benefits, many immigrants seem to have a deeply internalized sense that discussing citizenship as a means of accessing benefits actually endangers potential access not only to benefits but to citizenship itself. And while some view citizenship as a way to achieve social belonging, few immigrants view citizenship as a guarantee of equal treatment. Many view race and class as salient aspects of difference that will continue to generate unequal outcomes regardless of citizenship.
This article contextualizes conversations with immigrant residents against the backdrop of broader immigration enforcement efforts and the ongoing (albeit sidelined) public debate over whether or not to grant “earned citizenship” to certain long-time immigrant residents. What emerges is a picture of immigrant communities highly attuned to the practical benefits of citizenship status but acutely aware of the limits of its power and highly sensitive to the costs that citizenship imposes.
Immigrants recognize the importance of citizenship’s legal protections, but some long-term residents who have been systematically excluded from citizenship also express a desire for forms of belonging more capacious, more generous, and less exclusionary than U.S. citizenship seems to be. These cautious and critical assessments point to the shortcomings of U.S. citizenship — shortcomings that have become more pronounced in recent decades as citizens increasingly wield citizenship as a punitive tool of exclusion.
Keywords: immigration laws, access to citizenship, legal protections for long-term immigrants
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