Birthright Citizenship and Symbolism

Will Wilkinson revisits his case against birthright citizenship:

Now, if you’re a solidaristic nationalist, as most notable liberals are, the ideal of liberal equality suggests something like equality of opportunity for full insider status for people who are already inside nation’s borders. To be treated as an equal means to be treated as one of us — as a full-fledged member of the tribe. That is, when you’re inside the fence. Birthright citizenship approximates equality of access to insider status for people inside the fence. In contrast, to be offered access to markets inside the fence but with little chance of ever becoming a fully-vested insider or member is to codify a fundamental inequality of status. Second-class citizens!!!

The totally stupefying thing to liberal cosmopolitans about the worry about second-class citizens or partial insiders is that liberal nationalists find this worry so compelling even when it is abundantly clear that excluding outsiders from both labor markets and citizenship opportunities does rather more to reinforce inequality and perpetuate the miseries of poverty than does excluding them from citizenship opportunities only. Of course, the stupefaction goes both ways. When I argue for ending birthright citizenship as part of a larger strategy to increase openness to partial insiders, I think it’s hard for liberal nationalists to grok this as a project motivated by an ideal
of liberal equality.

I think it’s telling that Will doesn’t actually link to any of the liberals he’s supposedly arguing with here. He seems to imagine that his critics buy his claim that ending birthright citizenship would lead to a common North American labor market, but that they’re so horrified by the prospect of “second-class citizenship” that they’re not willing to make the trade. But the simpler explanation is the simpler one: they’re just not convinced that ending birthright citizenship would have any positive effects on the American electorate’s openness to immigration reform. The handful of data poins Will offers from the very different political context of the European Union simply aren’t persuasive.

Moreover, I have yet to see Will address the point I made in response to his original article that most welfare benefits aren’t tied to citizenship. If he’s right that opposition to freedom of movements is primarily motivated by worries about immigrant access to government benefits, that might be an argument for further restricting immigrants efforts to government benefits. Birthright citizenship just isn’t binding constraint.

This description of his imagined opponent’s arguments strikes me as particularly off-base:

To remove the citizenship from the Constitution would thus amount to an act of symbolic violence against hard-won American ideals of equality. The usually unstated implication is that such a development would indicate a collapse of political will to defend equal freedom generally, and that other gains in equality might therefore unravel.

There’s nothing symbolic about birthright citizenship. Each year, thousands of Americans are born to undocumented immigrants. Birthright citizenship guarantees that when they grow up, they’ll enjoy the same freedoms that the children of American citizens do. Ending birthright citizenship means that, instead, they’ll be forced to live underground in the country they call home. This isn’t an “act of symbolic violence against hard-won American ideals of equality.” It’s a sacrifice of the actual freedom and equality of actual human beings who will be born on American soil over the coming decade.

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15 Responses to Birthright Citizenship and Symbolism

  1. Rhayader says:

    Good response. One problem I have with Will’s logic is that, if a concerted political push to end birthright citizenship is mounted and succeeds, the arguments made in favor of the change — public resource usage, “stealing” jobs, etc — will be largely applicable to immigration in general. So I have trouble seeing how going down that path will “move the needle” in any direction except toward xenophobia and stubborn militaristic nationalism.

    Wilkinson dismisses this by saying “the fact that bad people with bad motives support a policy does not mean it is therefore bad policy.” Which is true enough. He says he thinks relaxing rational worries about “distributive consequences” will push the median voter toward greater acceptance. But further down in the piece, he explains himself how tolerant cosmopolitanism is screened out of the national conversation in favor of nationalism, even among liberals. Given the political climate, and the arguments that would be employed to rationalize and end to birthright citizenship, I just don’t see Will’s scenario playing out.

  2. Brian Moore says:

    Yeah, I’m with Will in spirit but not the letter. If we got a freer labor market, which I think is great for independent reasons, that would be wonderful. And I’d certainly be willing to try to get anti-immigration people on board by limiting access to whatever entitlements they want (a libertarian against expanding entitlements, what a shocker!) — the second class citizen thing doesn’t bother me, since however second class an illegal immigrant would be it’s hard to argue it would be worse than the class they are now.

    I don’t really have a principled attachment to birthright citizenship; I just think that ending it without meaningful immigration reform already in place will cause unnecessary practical problems without achieving any goals.

  3. Greg N. says:

    I wonder whether – for purposes of this debate – the relevant issue isn’t the degree to which entitlement benefits really are tied to citizenship, but the degree to which the median voter thinks they are. If the median voter is convinced, rightly or wrongly, that automatic citizenship means all sorts of expensive entitlements, then ending birthright citizenship might still yield the political results Will is looking for, even if it won’t actually solve any fiscal problems associated with immigrants and welfare.

  4. Crissa says:

    Thousands were born to refugees, unnaturalized citizens, and even students from abroad. The fact is, being an undocumented immigrant can and does happen unpredictably to anyone visiting a country to study, work, or live there. The INS system is not only imperfect, it’s downright broken.

    We can’t be a truly free society and have borders of steel. It’s economically and environmentally impossible.

  5. JamieMc says:

    Liberals are “solidaristic nationalist”?

    That’s news, especially since every time that theory gets tested, like, say, in the case of immigration reform, they prove themselves not to be.

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