The Citizenship’s Dilemma in the USA


The idea of immigrants coming to the USA in search of a better life is an intrinsic part of the American Myth. This story reinforces some particular attributes that foreigners, like myself, and American citizens see in this country that allow us to establish a way of defining the spirit of the United States. The story tell us about a land of prosperity and opportunities, which attracts people all over the world to give a leap of faith and travel all the way here. It tells us about a nation that is welcoming to foreigners, painting an image of tolerance and inclusiveness, which is necessary to accept the different groups of people that come to live here and for this groups to be able to flourish. Ultimately, the idea of foreigners coming here creates the image of uniqueness. Meaning that America is not like most places. In other words, it is exceptional.

The tensions in this story are easy to see when one look into the history of the country and see the long history of discrimination and repression in the USA. Focusing in citizenship, a strong indicator of inclusiveness, one can see that immigrants from Western Europe were more welcome to this country than immigrants from, for example, China or Mexico. Another thing that is clear is that, even between people that were born here, the process of inclusion in citizenship has been a process of struggle for not land-owning white men, black people, Native Americans and women of all color.

Judith Shklar explores this struggle as part of voting when she says that: “after long and painful struggles the inherent political logic of American representative democracy, based on political equality, did prevail.” While political equality might had little meaning in the earlier history of a country that gave citizenship to such a limited and homogenous group of people, the fundamental values of equality and liberty were tools used by abolitionist fighters to question in a critical way the definition of American citizen. Frederick Douglass insightfully explored the huge gap of meaning of the American values in a country were slavery was legal. In his speech What to the Slave Is The Fourth of July?, he questioned this values, from an African-American perspective, saying: “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.” His criticism was constructed not in the idea of changing American values, but in attacking its inconsistencies.

Shklar talked about the exclusivity of citizenship as part of what makes it special and the inherent contradiction it creates. Citizenship is a mean to create equal political individuals, but it also establish a system that excludes people, thus creating inequality. With the extension of citizenship, and its benefits, to marginal groups, the element of exclusion has diminished, but limiting citizenship to a certain group of people is still a defining element of the concept itself. In the actuality, most American citizens would agree that anybody that was born in American territory has the right to citizenship, but what about immigrants?

In American Citizenship, Shklar mentions that one of the two elements that make citizenship is the ability to earn money. In this country undocumented immigrants can earn money, but their lack of a legal status means that they can be send back to their country, and voting is not their right. Giving amnesty to undocumented workers is a possibility, but this might bother the people that try to move to this country legally, which connects to the idea of citizenship as something exclusive. What is the point of following rules to become a citizen if other people can get it when they broke the law? Does this diminish the meaning of American citizenship?

I don’t pretend to come to any conclusion about the immigration debate. However, I would like to point back at the troubles and tensions of immigration. Laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Immigration Act of 1924 showed a clear systematic tendency to discriminate immigrants from certain parts of the world. There are special countries, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Guatemala and Salvador, where the USA involvement in the last couple of decades has left serious socio-economic problems, which should be consider when people of those countries try to move to this country. Finally, any argument about immigration should be make trying to uphold the noblest side of the American values and should not dehumanize and generalize immigrants. The reasons of people to move are varied and should be seen, according to the history of American immigration that many hold as true, with at least a minimum of empathy and understanding.

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10 Responses to The Citizenship’s Dilemma in the USA

  1. wardog88 says:

    The immigration debate is no question, a hot button issue, and history proves that in most cases forming a country is bloody, America is a prime example. With that said, for Shklar to make a more convincing case she must approach more consistently. It is not enough to go off snapshots in history, individuals do that all the time, while I do appreciate her voice in the discuss, America catches the most fire for the immigration debate while the Europe countries are going through what is basically a national identity crisis, and Israel has far harsher immigration than American. I’m trying not to generalize too much here, just trying point out that American was and still is built on immigration. Ill leave it up to historians to decide if its fair or not because, everyone has an opinion myself included. Shklar at most voices one side of the spectrum really her side from based on how we are reading this book.

  2. ennausa says:

    The subject aboutAmerican citizenship for immigrants is still relevant today and is subject to a lot of criticism. As you explain, Shklar relies on two characteristics necessary to obtain citizenship. Thus, the concept that is supposed to include a large number of people, excludes much more. Immigrants can work but do not have the right to vote, which excludes them directly from the possibility of obtaining American citizenship. America has always been a land of welcome, but what does the country do to make immigrants feel like Americans? Some opportunities arise, such as working, but the right to vote is still non-existent. It is, of course, possible to obtain the American citizenship but the process is very long. Thus, all these factors show that this concept of citizenship remains a privilege for some people, and therefore is a concept of exclusion rather than inclusion.

    • LukaKolomejac says:

      Shklar’s emphasis on voting rights as a basis for having standing is becoming more and more of a unimportant characteristic in today’s meaning of citizenship. There are many opportunities to develop standing in one’s community/society than voting, and I would argue that many of these are seen as more upstanding. I have a friend who’s parents, while they cannot vote, are the definition of civic participation in their community. They attend community meetings, participate in their neighborhood watch program, organize garage sales with neighbors, and I even saw them with a political sign on their front lawn! Their neighbors do not know they cannot vote and, frankly, would never ask because it is simply not as important as before. Additionally, you be a citizen and not be able to vote (See: Puerto Rico and other US territories) and you are not considered lesser than someone who can.

  3. jackbuck1 says:

    I want to answer the question “What is the point of following rules to become a citizen if other people can be a citizen when they broke the law?” I think that the answer will be in the way that people become citizens. Maybe we need to look at how to become a citizen and change that process. If we can come up with a system that is easy for people to do and promotes the correct way to come into a country, we may have more success. A lot of the time people coming into this country illegally are trying to escape something. More often than not, this something or someone is bad. What if we had a system that was more assembled to them instead of having the fear that they will be sent back. I agree with Ennausa’s thought that the USA is a land of welcome and freedom. In the immigration process we need to promote that.
    The counter argument would be that there is a concern with “bad” people coming in. I think this is a hollow argument but I will address it anyway. There is a way to vet them. Having a open line of communication with the governments of other countries. If we communicate about who we are letting in we may be able to catch the “bad” ones. What people need to understand is that while no system is perfect, there is no reason to turn people away or kick people out. There is a point to following the law, it makes people feel like they are a citizen. That feeling of belonging and the pride of citizenship makes people feel secure and included. We need to change the system to benefit people and not use it to scare people. Show people that we are different and inclusive. Not to have people worry about being excluded. There is always going to be a danger that people will take advantage of the system but we as a society need to rise above that and show people that we are a land that emphasizes human rights, inclusion, freedom and love. Not a land that promotes fear, xenophobia, and tyranny.

  4. odessaclugston says:

    Thinking about the line between immigration and Shklar’s argument is quite interesting. If Shklar’s argument is that citizenship relies on the right to earn and the right to vote, it becomes unclear where immigrants fit in within this binary. In the United States, immigrants are unable to legally vote unless they are citizens. Additionally, due to disproportionate opportunities, immigrants are often to earn significantly less. Through this lens, immigrants do not enjoy full citizenship, complicating Skhlar’s argument. But instead of using the case of immigrants as a counterargument against Shklar’s work, I think this community can be used to further expound on the difference between being a citizen or not a citizen. As we talked about significantly in class, there is a gray area between being a citizen and not a citizen. Our country has continually been confounded by that gray area, as policies, support, and greater understanding has lacked in this realm. It has been over two decades since there has been any comprehensive immigration reform, revealing the failure to completely serve and represent people currently in the gray area. Only through coming together can we ensure that people within, outside, and between circles of citizenship are treated equally under the eyes of the law.

  5. landonsabori says:

    Immigration has always been an ongoing issue and how people are being treated whether or not they are a citizen or not. I like how you stated that people come to America and hope for a better life and come for more opportunities that they were not granted in their previous home. Now a days if you are born in the United States by definition you are a citizen and have all the rights that are guaranteed. Being an immigrant it is a more extensive process and people might get treated differently. With Shklars arguments of course her meaning of citizenship is to vote and earn. This could seen in two different ways. An immigrant can earn but maybe not vote due to lack of citizenship, while on the other end someone that was born in the United States could vote but potentially at the time not be “earning”. As you said there has been different tensions between different immigration groups throughout history and as history has shown some have changed but immigration is still a hot topic in our news today.

  6. ghostcole says:

    Immigration is currently a hot topic especially now with the issue with DACA. I like the point you try to make about tension due to the ongoing discrimination. The tension has also increased severally since Trump came into presidency all the current issues seem to be dividing the United Sates more racial discrimination has broken out. The points you brought out by Shklar of earning an voting I do not think apply to well currently. Since there are citizens who do not make an earning but do get money from the government and also do not vote. Even though they are considered citizens just due to the facts that those are there right. Yet there are immigrants who are making a living and have no right to vote or other rights that a citizen has. This country is built on immigrants so no one should be shun out due to there legal status the system is not only taken advantage of by immigrants but also by citizens of the U.S.

  7. ivan714 says:

    Going off what jackbuck1 said, i believe that there is really no way of knowing who the bad ones are. We have disgusting people living in the United States regardless of race, color, ethnicity, and cultural backgrounds. There are great people in every country and community as well as shitty people. If we look back in history we can see what was done to the Native Americans. I do believe that we need to look at the citizen process a lot more than worrying about protecting our borders. People will always find a way in and a way out as long as they have the drive and motivation to make it through. The bigger thing to look at int these situations is hate. I wish the people in Washington could see the contributions that immigrants give to the community. My parents are the perfect examples. Neither of them are U.S. Citizens, they both came from Mexico when they were only 18 years old, they had 4 children and always taught us to be humble people. To this day neither of them speak a lick of English, and i still find myself translating for them and helping them the same way i did when i was a young kid. Those factors instilled skill sets within my siblings an i. As a result my older sister graduated high school with over 400 thousand dollars in scholarships which included the Bill Gates Millennium scholarship. My brother went off to work in law enforcement and the Army. He recently got back from a tour in Afghanistan and is getting ready to return in February of 2018. My little sister is currently still in high school, and i’m on the road to become the first ever U.S. Army Officer in the history of my entire family. The sad thing is people look at you and automatically assume you’re something completely different simply because of the fact that you come from immigrant parents or speak fluent Spanish. The other day i was cutting some grass for a family friend and a man drove by and told me to go back to Mexico where i belong. It’s pretty sad that these people haven’t even served in the military and they automatically think i’m less American because of the color of my skin or the way i dress. It’s pretty sad how people have forgotten that this country was built on immigration.

  8. dasboot01 says:

    Immigration has been a rocky area in American politics for our entire lives (for those born in mid-late 90’s). Much of the discussion is what to do about illegal immigrants and whether we should block immigration from certain countries. According to, the estimated amount of illegal immigrants more than doubled from about 3.5 million to 8 million over the course of the 90’s and this number is hovering around 11 million in today’s U.S. While there are more legal immigrants than illegal ones, this must be discouraging that so many individuals live free from the U.S. tax system but can still enjoy benefits such as education and other services. There has also been concerns that illegal immigrants have been able to vote in elections and while I doubt this is true, it is scary to think that undocumented immigrants could enjoy the same rights as a naturalized citizen (minus paying taxes). With Shklar’s view on citizenship, an individual only needs the right to vote and earn to be a citizen so illegal immigrants already have one of those rights. What can be done to even the playing field between illegal’s and legal immigrants? Either kick all of them out (which isn’t possible and probably not advisable) or make all of them citizens. Until there is a clear solution, Shklar’s citizenship model will extend to those who aren’t citizens and this is a punch to the gut for those trying to legally achieve the American Dream.

  9. MeganLynde says:

    Shklar’s arguments are very relevant when it comes to immigration. In your article, it would be nice to hear more recent laws or regulations that effect immigration aside from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924.While you’re right that voting is an issue for unauthorized immigrants, Shklar’s argument receives some push back when it comes to the right for labor. Currently, the U.S. workforce includes 8 million unauthorized immigrants, accounting for 5% of those who were working or were unemployed and looking for work. While job opportunities are limited, there is still some grey area on whether the right to earn means any right at all. I think it would be interesting to explore what precisely Shklar meant by “right to earn,” and compare our current situation to her arguments.

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