Liberalism and Birthright Citizenship

My argument that ending birthright citizenship could, over the medium-to-long term, help facilitate the sensible integration of North American labor markets has not gone over well with my friends on the left. Part of it, I’m afraid, is just knee-jerk opposition to policies their political enemies favor. Of course, the fact that bad people with bad motives support a policy does not mean it is therefore bad policy. There is often a large gap between the intended and actual effects of policy. I believe the international evidence supports the idea that ending pure jus soli softens opposition to immigration. Even if nativists and xenophobes shift to another argument with undiminished energy, the evidence suggests that worries about the fairness and distributive consequences of birthright citizenship harbored by more moderate voters would weaken, shifting the position of the median voter toward greater openness to immigration. Some progs seem committed to the argument that only racist xenophobes have any worries about the fairness or distributive consequences of birthright citizenship, but I think that’s pretty clearly false.

I should say, my argument was intended to suggest to border-sealers that they wouldn’t get what they wanted by ending birthright citizenship. No doubt it is too rhetorically tricky to demoralize the most passionate proponents of an idea while simultaneously communicating that it’s a good idea for other reasons, but that’s what I was going for.

I think a good deal of resistance to even entertaining the idea of ending pure jus soli flows from the fact that birthright citizenship is codified in the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, and the 14th Amendment was an enormous step toward guaranteeing the equal freedom of former slaves. The citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment is therefore not simply a now-outdated policy put in place to help guarantee that freed slaves receive the same privileges and legal protections as do other citizens. It has become a sort of jurisprudential monument to the value American culture sets on the ideal of equal freedom. To remove the citizenship clause from the Constitution would thus amount to an act of symbolic violence against hard-won American ideals of equality. The usually unstated implication is that such a development would indicate a collapse of political will to defend equal freedom generally, and that other gains in equality might therefore unravel. Though I understand why this kind of argument moves people, I find it no more compelling when liberals argue this way than when conservatives argue that, say, gay marriage is (a) a symbolic assault against a sacred institution and (b) a practical threat to the integrity of family, which is the foundation of civilization.

Last, I think there is a pretty deep tension in liberal ideology between solidaristic nationalism and universalist cosmopolitanism, but it usually goes unnoticed due to the paucity of liberal cosmopolitans. Because national politics is based on nationalist assumption, liberal cosmopolitans have basically no chance against liberal nationalists in practical politics. And of course this affects the incentives of political commentators who wish to remain relevant to practical politics. Nationalist arguments help the party more than cosmopolitan arguments do, so nationalist arguments are rewarded by the party and its satellite organs. So we get a lot of liberal nationalism and very little cosmopolitanism.

Now, if you’re a solidaristic nationalist, as most notable liberals are, the ideal of liberal equality suggests something like equality of opportunity for full insider status for people who are already inside the nation’s borders. To be treated as an equal means to be treated as one of us — as a full-fledged member of the tribe. That is, when you’re inside the fence. Birthright citizenship approximates equality of access to insider status for people inside the fence. In contrast, to be offered access to markets inside the fence but with little chance of ever becoming a fully-vested insider or member is to codify a fundamental inequality of status. Second-class citizens!!!

The totally stupefying thing to liberal cosmopolitans about the worry about second-class citizens or partial insiders is that liberal nationalists find this worry so compelling even when it is abundantly clear that excluding outsiders from both labor markets and citizenship opportunities does rather more to reinforce inequality and perpetuate the miseries of poverty than does excluding them from citizenship opportunities only. Of course, the stupefaction goes both ways. When I argue for ending birthright citizenship as part of a larger strategy to increase openness to partial insiders, I think it’s hard for liberal nationalists to grok this as a project motivated by an ideal of liberal equality.