Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Citizenship as Foundation

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

Citizenship as Foundation

Article excerpt

The Nature of Citizenship

Spilling over into the 2008 presidential campaign, the debates around immigration have extended to questions about the right to citizenship for American-born children of "illegal aliens." While the rhetoric of presidential candidates about restricting birthright citizenship echoes local governmental efforts to preempt federal immigration powers by, for instance, limiting housing or job prospects for unauthorized immigrants, both obscure a basic point: rescinding the rights of unpopular minorities undermines the foundations of our most fundamental freedoms.

The opening proclamation of The Adventures of Augie March--"I am an American, Chicago born"--explains the predominant character of U.S. citizenship. By its very nature, citizenship by birth embodies distinctive qualities that anchor citizens' and others' rights in fundamental protections. These extend to the rights of other natural born citizens, naturalized citizens, and, to some extent, even non-citizens.

What does it mean to be an American citizen, and what is special and distinctive about being a citizen, particularly by birth? What are the hallmarks of "the most basic institution of our public life, American citizenship" (Shklar, 1991, 23)? Have the distinctions of American citizenship eroded or extended during current controversies over immigration or terrorism?

For the United States as a unique democratic political system, the fundamental natures both of a free polity and of basic rights require that natural born, as well as validly naturalized, American citizenship and the rights deriving from it, be unassailable. As Saskia Sassen notes, there is a "formal bundle of rights at the heart of the institution of citizenship" (Sassen, 2003, 16). From citizenship flows the basic "political rights such as voting, jury service, militia service, and office holding" (Amar, 2005, 391). While the political are the most tightly-held "bundle of rights" that "standing as republican citizens" embodies (Shklar, 1991, 17), citizenship empowers other rights, too.

From the Founding to Reconstruction, the nature and definition of citizenship were not explicit in either the Articles of Confederation of 1781 or the Constitution of 1789. Since citizenship originally derived from state residency and the states were organic constituents of the unsunderable more perfect union, state citizenship encompassed national citizenship. Since the original U.S. Constitution "left the status of citizenship undefined," as Amar notes, "[l]acking any explicit definition of American citizenship, the Founders' Constitution was widely read in the antebellum era as making national citizenship derivative of state citizenship" (2005, 381). When citizenship and naturalization were mainly on state foundations, they left many people out of the bedrock. Civil strife ensued.

Chief Justice Roger Taney's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393) in 1857 reveals, yet restricts, the nature of membership in the polity.

    The words "people of the United States" and
"citizens" are synonymous
   terms, and mean the same thing. They both describe the political body
   who, according to our republican institutions, form the sovereignty,
and
   who hold the power and conduct the government through their
   representatives. They are what we familiarly call the
"sovereign" people,
   and every citizen is one of this people, and a constituent member of
this
   sovereignty. 

Contrary to Taney's seven to two opinion, "We the People" includes more than citizens. While, indeed, citizens play the central role in the political community and as national representatives, one may be part of the American community without being a citizen. Sovereignty as the locus of political authority and the right to representation resides in the people here, not, as in Britain, in the parliament. (1) Contrary to that infamous decision, too, Taney neglected that the states had the power to grant citizenship. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.