You Are Your Citizenship
When asked to answer the question “Who Are You?” at the Next Big Question event in 2011, Irene Bloemraad’s argument was that "You Are Your Citizenship." She is a Fellow in our Social Interactions Identity & Well-Being program, who studies identity, citizenship and immigration.
When asked to answer the question “Who Are You?” at the Next Big Question event in 2011, Irene Bloemraad’s argument was that "You Are Your Citizenship."
Dr. Bloemraad is a Fellow in our Social Interactions Identity & Well-Being program, who studies identity, citizenship and immigration.
In diverse, urbanized societies characterized by high levels of immigration, individuals construct identities from many elements: culture, religion, demographics, profession, sex, etc. But for Irene Bloemraad, citizenship constitutes the paramount source of identity.
“It provides an opening into democratic decision-making and civic engagement,” she says.
In countries such as Canada and the United States, these factors have great significance for refugees, illegal immigrants and landed immigrants. Bloemraad acknowledges that it is certainly possible for non-citizens to participate in the affairs of their communities – volunteering at local schools, taking part in tenants associations and so on.
But citizenship is “very consequential” and not just because it allows individuals the right to vote.
“It’s the ultimate protection against deportation,” notes Bloemraad. “In the U.S. context, if you are only a legal permanent resident and commit certain crimes, you will be removed.”
She argues that citizenship can be understood in four ways. It is, of course, a legal status but it also may be interpreted in terms of rights, affective identity, and participation. The meanings vary. Until the early 20th century, for example, American women enjoyed citizenship, but they did not have the right to cast votes. The identity aspect of citizenship can find collective expression as a sense of patriotism or nationalism. For Bloemraad, the most compelling definition is citizenship as a vehicle for participation in society and its institutions, such as the legal system.
“It gives you a sense of membership and a sense of being able to make legitimate claims against other members of your society.”
The diminishing importance of national borders in some regions, coupled with the growing sense of cultural identity in others, do provide a source of competition for the core concept of citizenship. In places such as Scotland or Quebec, citizenship for some individuals may take a back seat to their sense of national identity. In the European Union, by contrast, supranational citizenship in the EU allows for free movement, but Bloemraad says it continues to be a “weak” kind of identity because it derives from the citizenship conferred by individual, member governments.
More important, in her view, are the institutions that allow immigrants to acquire and attain a full sense of citizenship. In countries like Germany, guest workers and their offspring are unable to become full citizens, reflecting the country’s ambivalence about immigration. In countries like Canada and the U.S., by contrast, policies such as multiculturalism and the 14th amendment (which guarantees American citizenship to anyone born in the U.S.) are powerful signals that newcomers can realistically aspire to become full members of these societies.
There’s a “warmth of welcome,” she observes. “Especially for the second generation, you can’t question their status as members of that society.”