DeCentering Citizenship

I always find it amusing that our great President chooses to enforce harsh immigration laws, deporting record numbers of people from the United States to appease the same people that question his own citizenship.

Then again, Barack Obama is head of state and immigration and customs enforcement serves a vital state function. It is part of the discourse of civilization that produces and reproduces the binary between white and brown/black, strong and weak states, us and them.

Citizenship was constructed by the Westphalian nation-state for the purpose of advancing nationalism. It demarcates an inside/outside marker of sovereignty centered around the inviolability of borders. It separates a more civilized “us” from a more rogue “them.” Over time, the construction has metamorphosed to deny certain inalienable rights to women, blacks, gheys, and immigrants who were designated unfit for citizenship.

Historically, encounters along the border both contest and reproduce a tortured collective identity defined in opposition of the Other. For the United States in particular, citizenship serves to mask the violent and genocidal origin of the country. Notice how American citizens are now referred to as “native-born” citizens in several different forums. This constant denial maintains order and legitimacy in a system that is inherently disorderly and predicated on a set of colonial assumptions about the order of things.

As part of the enterprise of nation-building, the state constructs and labels some immigrants as unsuitable for citizenship. Perhaps, nowhere is this more apparent today than calls by Republicans to eliminate birthright citizenship. Many others have to wait in line decade-long lines for an arbitrarily designated priority date. The state constructs and reconstructs these categories as it sees fit, marking  and containing migrant bodies within a temporal space and time.

Dreamers and long-time undocumented residents are among the current wave of Americans in the waiting lines for inclusion into the statecraft of citizenship. Sometimes lines are drawn not only between countries but within families, hence the terms mixed-immigration status families and same-sex bi-national couples. It’s harsh and repugnant but also doomed to fall apart as soon as the disenfranchised peoples are perceived and accepted as part of the fabric of America. And that is how the concept of citizenship serves nationalism and the nation-state.

Immigration reform advocates have long approached the problem of a broken immigration system by buying into the state discourse of citizenship. Movements have centered around inclusion into the system. After years of dialectic and non-dialetic struggle, political violence and trauma, new arrivals are assimilated into the system.

But maybe  there is some need for a truly progressive immigrant rights struggle that focuses on decentering the relevance of citizenship as it pertains to human rights. True liberation may just mean denationalizing and seizing the concept of citizenship from the enterprise of nationalism. It sounds complicated but it is rather simple to envision a world where your rights as a human being don’t disappear at an arbitrary border simply because you don’t have papers.

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