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Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States

Posted: 29 Aug 2006  

Hiroshi Motomura

University of California, Los Angeles - School of Law


We often hear that America is a nation of immigrants, but this part of our national self-image raises complex questions. A crucial one is this: how do we treat lawful immigrants who come to this country? The answer is important; it is not only the key to debating intelligently who should be admitted in the first place, but it also reveals our core understandings of nationhood, citizenship, and belonging.

This book begins by explaining that our treatment of immigrants reflects tensions among three different ways of viewing immigration: as contract, as affiliation, or as transition. Sometimes we have treated immigrants as if coming to America reflects an agreement, such as a promise not to go on welfare. And sometimes we have treated immigrants as if what matters is the ties that they develop in this country-working, paying taxes, or having children who are U.S. citizens.

In earlier historical periods, when most immigrants came from Europe, America's treatment of them reflected a different assumption: that immigration is a transition to citizenship, and that immigrants are future citizens - Americans-in-waiting. But this view has faded in influence, a lost story overshadowed by the assumption that an immigrant's place in America is defined only by promises implied upon arrival, or by ties developed over time in the United States.

Analyzing current debates and explaining law and history over the past 200 years, this book explores the idea of Americans-in-waiting and its decline. Synthesizing a vast array of themes - the exclusion of Asian immigrants, the deportation of Communists, the link between immigration and welfare, the role of human rights, the lessons of Mexican immigration, immigration regulation by the states, the deportation of criminals, the rise and fall of noncitizen voting, immigration law after September 11, and the role of race and ethnicity - this book explains why recovering this lost story is the key to ensuring that U.S. citizenship conveys an inclusive sense of belonging that allows all immigrants, as they become citizens, to participate fully in American life.

The book's core proposal is to treat lawful immigrants like citizens until they can become citizens - generally five years. For example, lawful immigrants would have the same opportunity as citizens to sponsor close relatives to come to America, the same access to public services, and the same right to vote. When they become eligible to naturalize, they can become citizens and keep enjoying the rights and fulfilling the responsibilities of citizenship. But if lawful immigrants don't take that next step, they would relinquish this citizen-like status for the lesser bundle of rights and responsibilities that they have under current law.

This proposal accomplishes two things that are often seen as mutually exclusive. It restores the historical welcome of immigrants as Americans in waiting that prevailed when we became a nation of immigrants. At the same time, it gives immigrants not only an incentive to naturalize, but more importantly, by treating immigrants like citizens, it gives them a springboard for participation in American society.

Chapters of the book:

Introduction: Immigrants in America
1. Contract and Classical Immigration Law
2. Promises, Promises
3. All Persons Within the Territorial Jurisdiction
4. Alienage and the Ties That Bind
5. The Most Tender Connections
6. The Lost Story of Americans in Waiting
7. Transition at a Crossroads
8. The Meaning of Transition
9. Race, Belonging, and Transition
10. Taking Transition Seriously
Conclusion: The Idea of Americans in Waiting

Suggested Citation

Motomura, Hiroshi, Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States. Oxford University Press, 2006 ; University of North Carolina Legal Studies Research Paper No. 927229. Available at SSRN:

Hiroshi Motomura (Contact Author)

University of California, Los Angeles - School of Law ( email )

385 Charles E. Young Dr. East
Room 1242
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476
United States
310-206-5676 (Phone)

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