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Citizenship to Go

The problem is the age-old, irrational linkage between citizenship and birthplace

By Jacqueline Stevens

This article appeared in The New York Times on May 17, 2012

Citizenship laws are in the news again. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota acquired, and then quickly renounced, Swiss citizenship. Eduardo Saverin, a founder of Facebook who was born in Brazil and lives in Singapore, gave up his United States citizenship, perhaps to avoid American taxes. Anti-immigrant activists are claiming that the 14th Amendment does not bestow citizenship on children born in the United States to noncitizen parents — even though a century of jurisprudence says it does.

The real problem with citizenship laws is not their manipulation by lawmakers or entrepreneurs, much less by mythical “anchor babies.” The problem is more fundamental: the age-old, irrational linkage between citizenship and birthplace.

From ancient Athens to South Sudan, birth to certain parents, or in a certain territory, has been the primary criterion for citizenship. The word “nationality” comes from the Latin nasci, or birth. America is no exception, notwithstanding the enlargement of citizenship to encompass non-Europeans and women.

Archaic membership rules have made life miserable not only for Mexican migrants in the United States, but also for people who cannot persuade their governments to accept their claims of citizenship, as a recent conference at Boston College, titled “Citizenship-in-Question,” made clear. Scholars discussed cases in England, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, Togo and the United States in which governments rendered their own legal citizens stateless.

Thai highlanders who live in border regions have had to submit DNA samples even though they can trace back their ancestry for centuries. According to a Cornell graduate student, Amanda Flaim, about 100,000 of the highlanders “have not acquired the Thai citizenship to which they are legally entitled.”

Kamal Sadiq, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, showed how bureaucrats in Malaysia, Indonesia and India have improperly denied birth certificates to children because they were born outside of hospitals or because their mothers were unmarried or were immigrants.

Rachel E. Rosenbloom, who teaches law at Northeastern University, discussed a 2008 lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union over the State Department’s refusal to process passport applications by Mexican-Americans in certain border regions. (The authorities said they were responding to a scheme involving midwives falsifying papers.)  

The problem is not bad science, poorly trained officials or even ethnic hatred. The problem is the dubious reliance on birth for assigning citizenship.

Why does the practice endure? One could point to how birthright ensures loyalty to those born on the same soil and preserves one’s ties to one’s ancestors.  But as Aristotle, explaining how the first families proved themselves to be citizens, said: “As a mortar is made by a mortar-maker, so a citizen is made by a citizen-maker.” In other words, citizens are not sprung from the earth or the womb; nationality is not genetic.

Citizens are created by politicians, the citizen-makers. And they are created because the nation, and hence birthright citizenship, exists to alleviate anxieties about death. Belonging to the nation or any other community by birth, including one’s family, sustains fantasies of immortality, as these groups persist after one’s own life has ended. Birthright citizenship, and indeed, the entire body of laws around families and inheritance, embody societies’ collective flight from death.

Libertarians and economists have long questioned the usefulness of national boundaries. In 1984, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page proposed adding a constitutional amendment: “There shall be open borders.”

For some on the left, the abolition of birthright citizenship evokes the nightmarish prospect of a labor glut in wealthy countries, the global lowering of wages, and capitalism run amok. But greed and corruption have challenged good governance in all ages, not just in the modern capitalist era. Moreover, too many on the left overlook how inheritance laws perpetuate inequality, as well as the disparity in wealth among countries because of restrictions on migration.

Karl Marx predicted that the demise of feudalism would mean that wealth would be created anew in each generation. Instead, intergenerational transmission of money and property remains the main culprit for inequality in wealth. Abolishing inheritance would help end inequality within countries; abolishing birthright citizenship would help end inequality among countries, by letting people move for greater opportunity.

Impossible? Utopian? That was the response to those who proposed the elimination of slavery, a persistent feature for most of the world’s history and, like nativism, defended by some because its abolition would benefit Northern capitalists and increase factory exploitation.

Instead of using birth for assigning citizenship, why not keep the boundaries of current countries, open the borders, and use residence to define citizenship, as the 50 states do? Free movement of people in the United States does not diminish the authority of states in our federal system, or the right to participate politically as a citizen of one state and not another. Nor did it lead to the citizens of Georgia moving en masse to Massachusetts.

Consider, too, the experience of the European Union, where the free movement of labor across borders and ease of travel have resulted in greater well-being, and were not the cause of the current monetary and fiscal crisis.

In early modern Europe, vagabonds without passes were hanged, imprisoned, branded and shipped off to the colonies, including America. Requiring a birth certificate to document citizenship is no less irrational. We need governments, but we don’t need nations. People should be free to move across borders; they should be citizens of the states where they happen to reside — period.

Jacqueline Stevens, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, is the author of “States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals.”

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