Posted: 11 May 2022
Date Written: April 20, 2022
The United States has granted reparations for a variety of historical injustices, from imprisonment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Yet the nation has never considered reparations for 150 years of discriminatory immigration and citizenship policies that excluded millions based on race, gender, and political opinion—including some who are alive today. This article argues that the United States should atone for these past transgressions by granting “reparative citizenship” to those individuals and their descendants.
Providing access to U.S. citizenship—an economically, politically, and symbolically valuable status—is an appropriate remedy for immigration law’s historical injustices. Returning “stolen” citizenship could also serve an educative function, informing current citizens that the status they enjoy was denied to others on grounds now acknowledged to be both immoral and unconstitutional. Such an initiative would reaffirm constitutional commitments to equality generally, and equal access to citizenship in particular. Immigration officials could implement a narrow version of reparative citizenship unilaterally, by loosening evidentiary standards and liberally granting discretionary remedies to victims of past discriminatory policies. A more expansive version would require amending the Immigration and Nationality Act to provide a new pathway to citizenship for historically excluded groups.
Even if reparative citizenship does not become law, however, the concept brings a new perspective to stalled debates over immigration. Today, politicians ask whether undocumented immigrants and other would-be Americans should be allowed to “earn” their citizenship. Reparative citizenship flips the narrative, arguing that the nation owes legal status to those wrongfully excluded in the past.
Keywords: reparations, citizenship, immigration, equal protection, reparative citizenship, restorative citizenship
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