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The War on Citizenship

For global elites, countries are merely exotic names for trade zones and labor camps, and citizenship has about as much ethical or emotional significance as a gym membership. Most Americans feel otherwise.

Michael Lind
March 25, 2024
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Does citizenship still mean anything? The question has been raised again by the appointment of Kelly Wong, a citizen of China who is a legal immigrant but lacks U.S. citizenship, to the Board of Elections in San Francisco. Wong and her colleagues will be responsible for supervising city elections in which, by law, she cannot vote.

The president of the Board of Supervisors that appointed Wong, Aaron Peskin, told The San Francisco Standard: “It’s about bringing a diversity of voices that represent different segments of society to the conversation.” Peskin’s comment illustrates the replacement of national patriotism among most progressives with a weird combination of post-national globalism and hard-edged racialism.

How can foreign nationals “represent different segments of society” when they are not even members of American society as defined by citizenship? Two answers are possible. One is that “society” for the purposes of “the conversation” in American politics and policy is not limited to American citizens but includes the 96% of the human race who are not Americans. Another, more territorially restrictive interpretation is that American society includes not only American citizens but foreign nationals residing on American soil, including those who are present in the U.S. in violation of U.S. law. Either definition of American “society” erases any distinction between U.S. citizens and people who are citizens of foreign countries but who may happen to reside temporarily on U.S. soil.

San Francisco voters embraced this new vision in 2020, when they passed an amendment to the city charter by a narrow vote of 54% to 46%, allowing noncitizens to serve on city commissions. It is unknown how many other noncitizens, legal immigrants or illegal immigrants, are now serving in San Francisco city government, because the city does not ask appointees about their citizenship or immigration status.

The devaluation of citizenship today is driven primarily by the imperatives of global capitalism, even if starry-eyed, left-wing one-worlders hitch a ride on the libertarian train to a borderless global market.

Note that Peskin explained that the appointment of this Chinese national to a U.S. government body was important for “bringing a diversity of voices that represent different segments of society to the conversation.” By “diversity” most progressives mean race and gender, not diversity of class, worldview, or values. Presumably Wong would not object to being characterized as an affirmative action hire, because she is an employee of a left-wing nonprofit called Chinese for Affirmative Action whose name reflects the current progressive orthodoxy—disturbingly similar to right-wing racialism—that citizenship and nationality are unimportant, but biological race is central to your identity. In other words, to use the arbitrary racial categories enshrined in American law and progressive dogma, the most important differences are not among Americans (of all races) and foreign nationals (of all races) but among racial Asians (American and otherwise) and racial non-Asians (white, Black, Hispanic, Native American).

The idea that your biological race, as defined by the U.S. Census, is central to your identity but your citizenship or nationality is of lesser importance is enshrined in the practice and the theory of race-based affirmative action as it has been practiced in the U.S. since the 1970s. For decades Ivy League universities have admitted well-educated and often well-to-do immigrants from Africa to boost the numbers of their “Black students”—over the protests of Americans who call themselves American Descendants of Slaves (ADOS). By this logic, if a wealthy Nigerian or Ghanaian student can “represent” native-born Black Americans for diversity purposes in a U.S. university, then of course a Chinese national without U.S. citizenship can “represent” not only American citizens of Chinese descent, but also American citizens of Indian or Vietnamese or Filipino descent, who despite speaking different languages and having entirely different cultures and histories are nevertheless all lumped together under the racialist category of “Asian American” invented by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Yet strangely, if Ms. Wong does become a naturalized U.S. citizen at some point in the future, she will be required by federal law to recite the following oath:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen [emphasis added]; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

Yet the part of the oath involving renunciation of foreign citizenship has been rendered a dead letter, thanks to the Supreme Court. In Afroyim v. Rusk (1967), the court struck down a section of the 1940 Nationality Act which mandated that U.S. citizens who voted in foreign elections would be stripped of their citizenship. Beys Afroyim, an immigrant from Poland who became a naturalized citizen in 1926, moved with his wife in 1949 to Israel, where he became a citizen under Israel’s 1950 Law of Return granting Israeli citizenship to Jews from anywhere in the world. When Afroyim left his wife and sought to return to the U.S. in 1960, the State Department refused to renew his U.S. passport, on the grounds that by voting in an Israeli election he had renounced his citizenship.

In an earlier 1958 case, Perez v. Brownell, a 5-4 majority chose to grant wide latitude to Congress in defining the rules of U.S. citizenship. Justice Felix Frankfurter, a Jewish American, wrote: “We cannot deny to Congress the reasonable belief that these difficulties might well become acute, to the point of jeopardizing the successful conduct of international relations, when a citizen of one country chooses to participate in the political or governmental affairs of another country.”

But nine years later in Afroyim v. Rusk, a different 5-4 majority ruled that “Congress has no power under the Constitution to divest a person of his United States citizenship absent his voluntary renunciation thereof.” Subsequent court cases have narrowed the grounds for stripping citizenship from U.S. citizens, with denaturalization having been limited mostly to Nazi war criminals, terrorists, and immigrants who lied when applying for naturalization. As long as a foreign country is not engaged in active hostilities against the U.S., a native-born or naturalized U.S. citizen cannot be denaturalized for serving in that country’s armed forces, its intelligence agencies, or even serving as its head of state or prime minister. Foreign leaders who also held American citizenship include Golda Meir; Milan Panic, the former prime minster of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia; and Boris Johnson, who was born in the U.S.

Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.

Is voting a right that can properly be exercised by noncitizens? American citizenship is still a requirement for voting in state and federal elections, although not necessarily in local elections. Since 2016 San Francisco has allowed noncitizens to vote in local school elections. In a perverse and illogical holding in a 1982 case, Plyler v. Doe, the Supreme Court required Texas public schools to enroll illegal immigrant children. A narrow 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court held that “no plausible distinction with respect to Fourteenth Amendment ‘jurisdiction’ can be drawn between resident aliens whose entry into the United States was lawful, and resident aliens whose entry was unlawful.” If taken to its logical conclusion, this radical holding would require the abolition of all federal and state laws that distinguish legal from illegal immigrants, but the Supreme Court has not gone that far in subsequent decisions.

The citizenship oath that legal immigrants who seek to be naturalized take also includes the promises “that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law …” These clauses of the citizenship oath, too, have been obsolete in practice, since the abolition of peacetime conscription in 1973. Today military veterans make up only 6% of the adult population. Between 1973, when the draft was ended, and 2023, the number of military veterans in Congress declined from 3 out of 4 to 1 in 6; among the latter, in the 118th Congress the 72 Republican veterans outnumber the 25 Democratic veterans by nearly 3 to 1.

For many members of the economic and social elite in the era of globalization, the nation-state is obsolete. Enlightened progressives and libertarians alike view countries as mere territories—transient labor camps and global investment zones.

The jury is another civic institution in which most Americans never take part. While two-thirds of Americans according to one poll agree that serving on a jury “is part of what it means to be a good citizen,” in 21st-century America, jury duty is as unusual as military service, with fewer than 5% serving on a jury each year. That may explain why only 50% of Americans age 18-29 agree with the statement, compared to 78% of those 65 or older.

Voting is often considered a civic duty, and in some democracies mandatory voting is enforced by a symbolic fine. In 2020, 66% of eligible voters turned out for the election—the highest in percentage terms since 1900. The U.S. lags most other democracies in voter turnout, mainly because the complexity of state registration laws produces a gap between eligible voters (62.8% turnout in 2020) and registered voters who took the trouble to register in advance (94.1% turnout). In any event, most Americans live in districts and states dominated by one of the two national parties, meaning that their individual votes are more likely to be wasted than those of residents of a small number of swing voters in congressional districts and states that are up for grabs by either party.

While federal law still forbids illegal immigrants from access to most federal welfare benefits (they can access some, including WIC coupons), a number of progressive states have showered legal privileges and benefits on foreign nationals who violate immigration laws. In 2022, 16 states and the District of Columbia—most of them one-party Democratic jurisdictions like California, New York, and Oregon—allowed illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses. Having hesitated to endorse driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants during her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, Hillary Clinton endorsed the proposal unequivocally in 2015. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of California provided illegal immigrants with up to $1,700 in money from law-abiding state taxpayers, including a $500 prepaid debit card and $1,200 from the Golden State Stimulus Fund.

Under President Joe Biden, the IRS is now collaborating with New York state in arranging for illegal immigrants to get taxpayer money through welfare programs through New York’s “Excluded Workers Fund,” which subsidizes both ex-convicts and foreign nationals residing in New York in open defiance of U.S. immigration law. According to the IRS, “The IRS will assist eligible NY residents who are also ITIN applicants meet requirements for the New York State’s Excluded Worker’s Fund (EWF) payments. EWF provides income replacement checks to workers excluded from unemployment insurance most often due to immigration status.”

The ongoing devaluation of national citizenship in the U.S. by American governments at all levels is not occurring in a geopolitical vacuum. Since the end of the Cold War, the relations between nation-states and their citizens have been transformed by economic globalization. While often misleadingly identified with trade, much globalization has taken the form of transnational production, with different stages of production in a single firm or industry taking place in different countries. Globalization is primarily global territorial arbitrage, defined as the exploitation by firms and individuals of differences in regulations, taxes, or labor costs in different jurisdictions.

One form of global arbitrage involves rich people obtaining so-called “golden visas.” Since the end of the Cold War, many countries have competed for foreign investment by granting citizenship or favorable legal immigrant status to foreign investors who spend money in the country. So-called “citizenship by invitation” (CBI) is particularly important for tiny nations that are tax and regulatory havens, like the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica (distinct from the Dominican Republic), which receives half of its government revenue from selling citizenship status to individuals and corporations.

But many large, developed democracies, including all of the Anglophone countries, now offer citizenship by investment. In the U.S. this takes the form of the EB-5 visa. In return for a minimum amount of investment in a commercial enterprise in the U.S. and a plan to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers, a foreign investor or entrepreneur is entitled to a green card that can lead in a few years to naturalized U.S. citizenship.

As might be expected, the EB-5 program has been plagued by scandal since its creation in 1990. Abuses of the program often take two forms. One involves defining the distressed areas that are supposed to be targets of investment to include sites for luxury real estate. As Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, observed in 2019: “All of a sudden, investment dollars intended for communities in need were being sucked up for glitzy projects in America’s most well-to-do neighborhoods.” Another abuse has involved the bilking of gullible foreign investors—many of them Chinese—by American con artists, as part of real estate investment scams in Vermont, Texas, California, and elsewhere.

Even as globalization has created a global market in citizenship for the rich, mass immigration has also created an incentive for the global rich to encourage national governments to turn a blind eye to massive cross-border flows of illegal immigrants, many of whom work directly or indirectly for the affluent and wealthy in the “world cities” where both the rich and poor immigrants are concentrated. The traditional conception of exclusive national citizenship is being whittled away in the interests of wealthy holders of multiple passports and the immigrants—legal or illegal—whom they are disproportionately likely to employ.

The devaluation of citizenship today is driven primarily by the imperatives of global capitalism, even if starry-eyed left-wing one-worlders hitch a ride on the libertarian train to a borderless global market. A headline in The New York Times captured the phenomenon: “The New American Status Symbol? A Second Passport.” Like multiple homes, multiple passports now distinguish the elite from the parochial proles. In 2015 the average American lived within 18 miles of their mother, and only 20% lived farther than a drive of a few hours (women were chosen for study because they tend to live longer). When college students and military personnel are excluded, 57% of Americans have never lived outside of the state in which they were born, and 37% live in their home town. Fewer than 40% of Americans have a valid, unexpired passport, while 38% have never had a passport at all. As you might expect, passport ownership reflects income and education. Only 21% of Americans with household incomes under $50,000 have passports, compared to 64% of those with households that make $100,000 or more a year. While a majority of Americans of all races with a bachelor’s degree or more have passports, with the exception of Hispanics, a group that includes many immigrants, most Americans whose education ended with some college, high school or less lack passports.

It is these members of the working-class majority, native and naturalized alike, in the U.S. and similar countries in whom contemporary national elites including our own have lost interest. Unlike the rich, there is no reason for national governments to sell them passports in return for private investment or public payments. Unlike desperately poor illegal immigrants, they tend to insist on working for living wages in decent conditions and cannot be used up and sent back to their countries by employers, unlike guest workers (modern indentured servants). Most working-class people price themselves out of the cheap labor market but can’t afford foreign travel, much less citizenship in multiple countries.

For many members of the economic and social elite in the era of globalization, the nation-state—with its shared sense of solidarity and obligation among its citizens—is obsolete. Enlightened progressives and libertarians alike view countries as mere territories—transient labor camps and global investment zones. Citizenship is of no more ethical or emotional significance to the global overclass than a gym membership. For the mostly immobile working-class majorities of all races in all countries, however, their political citizenship is their only claim on the favor of their own national government. The debate about citizenship, then, is not so much one between left and right as it is part of the contemporary class divide within every Western nation, including our own.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.