What's the big deal about US citizenship?

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, the co production of the BBC world service, PRI and WGBH Boston. It takes more than a shutdown to keep people from becoming new US citizens. The federal agency responsible for swearing in new citizens has mostly stayed open, although some naturalization ceremonies have been delayed. But still what's a little shutdown delay compared to living the dream of so many immigrants to these shores, reaping the benefits of officially becoming an American citizen. This week as part of our global nation coverage of our changing America and it's people, we're exploring what citizenship means exactly, and that's why we've invited Peter Spiro to join us. He's a law professor at Temple University and the author of Citizenship - American Identity After Globalization. Peter, you've written about the changing benefits of Americans today in the US and say what Americans had in the early 20th century. What's different then and now, is there more rights, fewer rights today?

Peter Spiro: In your setup you've mentioned the dream of becoming an American citizen, well I'm not sure that's the dream these days. It's more a dream of a green card and the right to stay in the United States. Citizenship itself doesn't get you much and doesn't ask much from you and so I think there's been a real departure of from the old trope of the rights and obligations of citizenship to a much less meaningful status.

Werman: Well give me an example. I'll take my own grandfather who came here in the late 1800's from what's now Ukraine, what would he have gotten when he arrived in Ellis Island or just landed in Manhattan back then, that if he came today he just wouldn't even be looking at.

Spiro: The disabilities of not having citizenship were greater. So for instance, if you weren't a citizen even as a legal immigrant to the United States, there were many many professions that you were barred from joining. So you couldn't become a lawyer, you couldn't become a doctor, you couldn't own a pool hall. in some states you couldn't even own land until you became a citizen. So the step between being an immigrant and being a citizen was an important one by way of advancement. Today green card holders, permanent alien residents, they pretty much get everything that citizens get. There's really only two exceptions now. One is the vote; but you can participate even as a non-citizen in the political process in many ways including by donating money. So if you're a green card holder, you can donate money up to the same extent that a citizen can donate money to an federal election campaign. Many would say that, that's a much more powerful way of participating in the political system than the vote is. The other right that still persists as one of absolute location security, so if you're a citizen you can't be deported.

Werman: You know, back in the day when people thought Utopia's were still possible, haha he laughs, people use to talk about global citizenship. There was even a movement to create a global passport. Where for you does that idea fit kind of figure into any discussion.

Spiro: The very concept of world citizenship is problematic. Citizenship implies that there's one group of people that distinguishes itself from another group of people. So differences inherit to citizenship. What I think is going to happen is national citizenship begins to decline, that other forms of association are starting to rise up and compete with identity with the state. So I would put the environmental movement or world religions or world political movements as new competitors to the state for really the loyalties of individuals.

Werman: But isn't there a really a huge difference between self identification and legal identification ?

Spiro: Well the state still gets you something. It still gets you a passport, it's as a form of insurance almost. I've got that passport, I know I can come back to the US and nobody can take it away from me. But legally and otherwise citizenship actually means much less than it use to. So beyond that locational security and the right to go into the ballot box, there's not that much citizenship actually gets you.

Werman: Peter Spiro, a law professor of Temple University and author of Citizenship- American Identity After Globalization. Thanks so much!

Spiro: Thank you Marco, I enjoyed talking to you.

Do you enjoy our audio? Please help support it with a donation.