[Peter Spiro, guest-blogging, May 20, 2008 at 12:24pm] Trackbacks
Everyone an American, No One an American:

Take six prototypes for puzzling through the contradictions of citizenship and globalization:

1. The child born in San Francisco to a business executive here for three years on an H1B visa who will thereafter return permanently to Italy.

2. The child of a Mexican undocumented alien born in Arkansas who is likely to spend the rest of her life in the United States.

3. The child of an Dominican immigrant born in Washington Heights with both US and Dominican citizenship, who goes to elementary school in Santo Domingo while living with grandparents, inherits property and a business there and ends up voting in Dominican national elections.

4. The child of a Mexican citizen born in Juarez.

5. A tech worker living in Bangalore who's never been to the United States but watches the Simpsons, wears Levis, is employed by Dell, has cousins in the US, follows US politics closely on MSNBC (is a big fan of John McCain), and would eagerly take an oath to uphold the Constitution.

6. A native-born American who moves permanently to Israel after graduating from college.

I left off my first post on my book Beyond Citizenship suggesting that the barriers to citizenship won't and shouldn't be raised. On the politics of birthright citizenship, naturalization, and dual citizenship, see my explanation here. On all three counts, a more restrictive regime is just not in the cards.

On the normative side, for every child of an H1B executive who leaves at age 2 there will be many others who born here who will stay permanently to become organic members of the community, like the child born in Arkansas. If the threshold is raised to exclude such individuals, more members-in-fact will be left outside the citizenship circle. That's a problem of underinclusion. It creates a problem of coherence and raises the specter of intergenerational caste.

As some of you noted in the comments, immigrant insulation isn't a new phenomenon. I think the technologies of globalization change the picture. Diaspora communities may be able to sustain themselves on a transnational basis. With the dramatic rise in the acceptance of dual citizenship, they'll be able to maintain the formal tie as well. So the segmentation could be persistent, as in the Dominican example above. The old model of assimilation may no longer hold.

But here's something that really is new: the underinclusion of members-in-fact outside the territory of the United States.

One of the commenters on my first post pressed the proposition that America is an idea. That's completely consistent with strong civic notions of American citizenship and identity.

At one time, that idea was distinct. No longer. The American idea of constitutional democracy has gone global. That's America's triumph, but it may also be its downfall.

As I ask in the book, if that person in Bangalore wants to take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, on what grounds can we deny him membership? Indeed, why wouldn't we want to welcome that person to our community. And what of the child born in Juarez, whose interests and identity will be connected to El Paso, Austin, and Washington (perhaps more so than the native-born American who moves to Israel), but who has the bad luck to have been born a mile on the wrong side of the line? On what grounds can she be excluded?

Same thing if we define America in cultural terms. The rest of the world is bathed in American pop culture. (By way of proving the proposition: Baywatch is a top-rated show in even Iran and Venezuela.) As for (somewhat) higher culture, on the other end, it's been shown that most American high school seniors would fail the naturalization test.

So: whatever it means to be American, it's everywhere. But that makes it all the harder to draw the membership line in a meaningful way. The citizenship binary doesn't allow for scalar affiliation. And once community on the ground detaches from membership status, citizenship inevitably decays. As an arbitrary quantity, it will be able to do less work for its members. That explains why the "rights and obligations of citizenship" is already an empty quantity, to which I'll try to turn in my next post.