Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Citizenship Controversies

Richard Sobel

The current controversies around politics, immigration, national security, and national identification have generated contentious electoral debates. The major presidential candidates take opposing views on immigrants, immigration, paths to citizenship, and particularly how to deal with unauthorized immigration. The debates between Clinton and Trump generate more heat than light on the issues and possibilities of fair and workable solutions. Yet, citizenship is the foundation of key rights, with enduring meaning for America and Americans in ongoing and future debates.

Though immigration reform is a widely discussed topic, a little known feature of  immigration laws and proposals in Congress is the impact of immigration policy on current citizens and their citizenship rights.  Quite simply, immigration policy isn’t suppose to affect American citizens, and yet it can undermine their rights. For instance, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 required American citizens, for the first time, to prove they were citizens in order to work. The proposed Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill passed by the Senate would undermine citizen rights even further by requiring high tech ID matches through facial recognition schemes between profiles kept in a Department of Homeland Security databank and cards Americans would have to present in order to be eligible to work. This means the combination of law and technology degrade citizenship and citizen rights.

In the most fundamental sense, being a citizen means not having to prove it in order to exercise your rights.  If you are a citizen, you can simply exercise those rights without government interference.  If you have to prove that you are a citizen first, then you don’t actually have those rights.  This is especially true for the fundamental rights to vote, to take employment, and to travel, and it is why ID requirements to exercise each of these rights, even in the face of national security concerns, contradict what it means to be an American citizen.  Most people don’t consider these points about citizenship, rights and identification, but they are simply powerful complexities in the post-9/11 era that deserve more recognition and scrutiny.  More candidates and public officials as prominent citizens need to understand and embody the power, best qualities, and fullest meaning of citizenship for America.

Embedded in the foundations of citizenship rights are also less recognized rights of citizenship, including the right to enter, live in, live freely, and leave the U.S. without government permission.  Like voting, working and traveling, identification requirements to engage in these basic freedoms undermine the foundations of citizen rights. The forceful protections of citizens’ rights preserves them for future generations of citizens and aspiring citizens alike. The lukewarm recognition and defense of these rights leave them at risk.

The third presidential debate in Las Vegas highlighted the difference between the candidates on citizenship and immigration, and gambled up the additional risks that rhetorical flourishes against such meaningful topics raise.  Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric builds walls not only  against Hispanic voters but also hardens hearts against recognition of  the contributions of previous  and yet to come waves in our nation of immigrants.  Clinton’s reliance on the proposed path to citizenships being straightforward misses how the national ID system in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposals foreshadows second class citizenship for current and future Americans. Because citizenship, immigration, national security and national IDs are at the heart of current and future controversies about what it means to be American, more is at stake for U.S. constitutional rights in oversimplifying their implications than the outcome of a single contentious election.

About The Author

Richard Sobel

Richard Sobel is a political scientist, and author and editor of eight books and numerous scholarly, law and policy articles. He graduated from Princeton University, New Jersey and...

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