Jacqueline Stevens — Citizenship to Go

“The real problem with citizenship laws is not their manipulation by lawmakers or entrepreneurs, much less by mythical “anchor babies.” The problem is more fundamental: the age-old, irrational linkage between citizenship and birthplace.” — Jacqueline Stevens

States Without NationsIn “Citizenship to Go,” a recent article published in the New York Times, Jacqueline Stevens argues that the system of giving citizenship based on birth is antiquated and unjust, and that the very idea of having strictly defined national borders perpetuates inequality. Stevens is a professor of political science at Northwestern University and the author of States Without Nations: Citizenship for Mortals, as well as the States Without Nations Blog.

In “Citizenship to Go,” Stevens acknowledges that the connection between birth and citizenship is an old and celebrated tie. However, she argues that today this connection causes more harm than good:

From ancient Athens to South Sudan, birth to certain parents, or in a certain territory, has been the primary criterion for citizenship. The word “nationality” comes from the Latin nasci, or birth. America is no exception, notwithstanding the enlargement of citizenship to encompass non-Europeans and women.

Archaic membership rules have made life miserable not only for Mexican migrants in the United States, but also for people who cannot persuade their governments to accept their claims of citizenship, as a recent conference at Boston College, titled “Citizenship-in-Question,” made clear. Scholars discussed cases in England, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia, South Africa, Thailand, Togo and the United States in which governments rendered their own legal citizens stateless.


Stevens believes that the longstanding relationship between citizenship, nationality, and birth can be traced back to a fear of death:

Why does the practice endure? One could point to how birthright ensures loyalty to those born on the same soil and preserves one’s ties to one’s ancestors. But as Aristotle, explaining how the first families proved themselves to be citizens, said: “As a mortar is made by a mortar-maker, so a citizen is made by a citizen-maker.” In other words, citizens are not sprung from the earth or the womb; nationality is not genetic.

Citizens are created by politicians, the citizen-makers. And they are created because the nation, and hence birthright citizenship, exists to alleviate anxieties about death. Belonging to the nation or any other community by birth, including one’s family, sustains fantasies of immortality, as these groups persist after one’s own life has ended. Birthright citizenship, and indeed, the entire body of laws around families and inheritance, embody societies’ collective flight from death.

Stevens advocates opening national borders, and strongly disagrees with those who contend that such a decision would necessarily have harmful consequences:

Impossible? Utopian? That was the response to those who proposed the elimination of slavery, a persistent feature for most of the world’s history and, like nativism, defended by some because its abolition would benefit Northern capitalists and increase factory exploitation.

Instead of using birth for assigning citizenship, why not keep the boundaries of current countries, open the borders, and use residence to define citizenship, as the 50 states do? Free movement of people in the United States does not diminish the authority of states in our federal system, or the right to participate politically as a citizen of one state and not another. Nor did it lead to the citizens of Georgia moving en masse to Massachusetts.

In the end, she argues, opening borders and doing away with archaic notions of what it means to be a citizen is a matter of freedom:

We need governments, but we don’t need nations. People should be free to move across borders; they should be citizens of the states where they happen to reside — period.

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