Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Characterizing Consent: Race, Citizenship, and the New Restrictionists

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

Characterizing Consent: Race, Citizenship, and the New Restrictionists

Article excerpt

Birthright citizenship provides a key to more racially equalitarian policy. This article explores the use of consensual citizenship to challenge the tradition of birthright citizenship in the United States. Tracing the central narratives of race, immigration and citizenship in the immigration restrictionist movement in the 1990s shows the move away from birthright citizenship is racially exclusionary regardless of shifting conceptions of consensual citizenship. In the early and mid 1990s, a republican version of consensual citizenship is used in conjunction with a raced image of the problem immigrant. In the late 1990s, the same racialized image undergirds the use of a liberal conception of consent to argue for limiting birthright citizenship. Both periods of contemporary restrictionism show that the move to restrict birthright citizenship is not colorblind; race is used as a lens through which citizenship and consent are understood.

Immigration restrictionists are challenging the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, a portion of the constitution that is central to our civil rights, our history of race relations, and our understandings of ourselves as a nation. The citizenship clause grants full citizenship to anyone born within the territory of the United States. In 1995, however, the House held a hearing to consider five proposed constitutional amendments and two legislative attempts to deny citizenship to children born to undocumented immigrants. A similar hearing was held in 1997. While recent congressional activity regarding the jus soli, or "of the soil," tradition has slowed down, immigration restriction groups have continued to question the Fourteenth Amendment. Out of eleven national immigration restriction groups, nine currently propose a move away from birthright citizenship.1 This contemporary restrictionist movement provides an important window for reconsidering the meaning and value of birthright citizenship.

Restrictionist groups and individuals, working in an era where racial claims have little national political legitimacy, use liberal republican values to argue against birthright citizenship. Such activists counter the jus soli tradition with a consensual notion of citizenship grounded in self-governance, liberty and individualism. In theory, consensual citizenship is not raced based and may seem emancipatory; in practice, however, consensual citizenship can be dangerous.

Peter Schuck and Rogers Smith's 1985 book Citizenship Without Consent presents a clear theoretical model of consensual citizenship drawn on by these activists. Birthright citizenship, Schuck and Smith argue, is ascriptive in that it "holds that one's political membership is entirely and irrevocably determined by some objective circumstance - in this case, birth within a particular sovereigns allegiance or jurisdiction" (1985: 4). They contrast an ascriptive standard of citizenship with a consensual one. Consensual citizenship rests on the premise that "political membership can only result from free individual choices" (4). Schuck and Smith argue mutual consent, a mutual agreement by the community and the individual pursuing membership, is much more in line with America's liberal democratic heritage.

I argue, however, that not all ascriptive standards are the same. Birthright citizenship, while based on an unchangeable characteristic, leads towards more liberal and equitable citizenship policy. The ascriptive nature of birthright citizenship may not follow in our liberal republican heritage (replete with countless examples of racial exclusion and annihilation documented rigorously and eloquently by Smith 1997), but is crucial to our liberal future. Consensual citizenship employed by political forces on the ground is imbued with racial meaning. When race is a salient category for understanding immigration and national identity, choice as the core of citizenship policy leads to racial exclusion. The central role of race in our history, and the central role of race today, makes consent as our sole mechanism for attaining citizenship illiberal. …

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