U.S Citizenship: Priceless or Merely Convenient? It's Time to Talk about What Citizenship Means in an Era of Multiple Allegiances

By Breger, Marshall | Moment, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview
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U.S Citizenship: Priceless or Merely Convenient? It's Time to Talk about What Citizenship Means in an Era of Multiple Allegiances


Breger, Marshall, Moment


In 2011, Sen. Joseph Lieberman suggested that U.S. nationals, "homegrown" or otherwise, be stripped of their citizenship if they are "engaging in or purposefully and materially supporting hostilities against the United States." More recently, in Israel, right-wing Knesset members pushed for legislation taking away Israeli citizenship of convicted terrorists. Taking away citizenship is not something we do lightly. But these and many similar proposals force us to think about the meaning of citizenship--and whether we in America are striking the right balance between its privileges and its responsibilities.

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The Supreme Court has for years recognized the "priceless benefits" of citizenship, stating that it would be "difficult to exaggerate its value and importance." In 1967, the court overturned a law revoking the U.S. citizenship of a person who had voted in a foreign (in that case Israeli) election. It is now practically impossible to lose your U.S. citizenship unless you go to a U.S. embassy and fill out a revocation form in front of an embassy official.

Despite this robust protection, as Americans we do not really expect much of our citizens. Other than jury duty, registration for a nonexistent draft and increased tax liability, it is not clear what duties obtain.

The benefits, on the other hand, are clear. The most obvious is the right to participate in the political process and vote. Another is approval for select "policy laden" public sector jobs. A third is protection from deportation (unless you were naturalized fraudulently). Citizens may also request U.S. consular protection abroad--and sometimes much more, In the early 1900s, a Greek migr to America, Ion Pedricardis, was kidnapped in Morocco by Sherif Ahmad er Rasuli, the "last of the Barbary Pirates." After determining that he was an American citizen, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to send the Marines, famously declaring, "Pedricardis alive or Rasuli dead." And even today, Navy Seals are deployed to rescue Americans captured by pirates or by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yale law professor Peter Schuck has observed that as citizenship has become harder to lose, it has become easier to gain, and the differential between citizens and lawful aliens has decreased. When citizenship carries no significant duties, it can become devalued, and multiple identity or dual citizenship becomes the new normal. Indeed, if your goal is to be a citizen of the world, as in the Enlightenment project, whether you have one citizenship or two or even three is not of much relevance. More may be better.

Viewed this way, citizenship can become a matter of convenience, not of identity or community. Take Becky Hammon, a runner-up for Most Valuable Player in the American Women's National Basketball Association in 2007 who failed to make the U.S. Olympic Team. Still passionate about the Olympics, she became a Russian citizen and earned a place on the Russian Olympic team.

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