The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership

The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership

The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership

The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership


Citizenship presents two faces. Within a political community it stands for inclusion and universalism, but to outsiders, citizenship means exclusion. Because these aspects of citizenship appear spatially and jurisdictionally separate, they are usually regarded as complementary. In fact, the inclusionary and exclusionary dimensions of citizenship dramatically collide within the territory of the nation-state, creating multiple contradictions when it comes to the class of people the law calls aliens--transnational migrants with a status short of full citizenship. Examining alienage and alienage law in all of its complexities, The Citizen and the Alien explores the dilemmas of inclusion and exclusion inherent in the practices and institutions of citizenship in liberal democratic societies, especially the United States. In doing so, it offers an important new perspective on the changing meaning of citizenship in a world of highly porous borders and increasing transmigration.

As a particular form of noncitizenship, alienage represents a powerful lens through which to examine the meaning of citizenship itself, argues Linda Bosniak. She uses alienage to examine the promises and limits of the "equal citizenship" ideal that animates many constitutional democracies. In the process, she shows how core features of globalization serve to shape the structure of legal and social relationships at the very heart of national societies.


Political and legal thought today are suffused with talk of citizenship. Whether the focus is equal citizenship or democratic citizenship or social citizenship or multicultural citizenship, whether the preoccupation is with civil society citizenship or workplace citizenship or corporate citizenship or postnational citizenship, some version of citizenship is now vital to the intellectual projects of scholars across the disciplines. Citizenship talk pervades our popular political discourse as well.

Citizenship, however, is a more confounding concept than most who employ the word usually recognize. Citizenship is commonly portrayed as the most desired of conditions, as the highest fulfillment of democratic and egalitarian aspiration. But this, I believe, reflects a habit of citizenship romanticism that tends to obscure the deeper challenges that the concept poses. These challenges derive from citizenship’s basic ethical ambiguity. the idea of citizenship is commonly invoked to convey a state of democratic belonging or inclusion, yet this inclusion is usually premised on a conception of a community that is bounded and exclusive. Citizenship as an ideal is understood to embody a commitment against subordination, but citizenship can also represent an axis of subordination itself.

The fact that citizenship leads us in these contrasting directions is, in one respect, an idiosyncrasy of rhetoric. Certainly, citizenship is an overworked term, and its ubiquity inevitably leads to confusion. But the trouble goes deeper: the divided nature of citizenship as an idea also implicates core issues of political and social theory. It leads us especially to focus on questions about who it is that rightfully constitutes the subjects of the citizenship that we champion. To the extent that we express our ideals of justice and democratic belonging by way of the concept of citizenship, we need to be particularly sensitive to the questions of exclusion implicated in the discussion. Citizenship of, and for, exactly whom?


We tend to answer citizenship’s “who” question differently depending on our analytical starting point. Sometimes we view citizenship from an internal or endogenous perspective. From this vantage, citizenship is un-

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