Exploring Migration and Citizenship Around the World
In the countries you study—primarily Western democracies—how did the idea of citizenship develop into what we know today?
Citizenship is something that has historically been a pretty distinct concept from country to country. We all use the same language for it. But we actually have somewhat different ideas of what it means to be an American citizen, a Canadian citizen, or a French citizen.
Germany and France offer a particularly famous contrast. For almost the whole 20th century, ethnic nationalism defined the German or Northern European identity. The most important aspect of being a German was being of German descent. If your parents were German, you were German, and it was difficult to become German otherwise.
The French idea of citizenship, on the other hand, was something that belonged to the state. The state was a product of its citizens, and the will of the citizens reflected the will of the state.
So it was a very participatory, politicized, and assimilative citizenship. Any enlightened human could become French. You just had to adapt to French customs—those political and civic ideals that came out of the revolution. It didn’t always work this way in practice. But in theory, none of this is tied necessarily to, say, the French language or a French soul.
I’m speaking to all of this through the lens of democracies. Citizenship means different things in authoritarian countries and traditional societies, of course.
Did the United States take after the French ideal on that continuum?
The American idea of citizenship was much slower to evolve. It didn't come as a direct ideological product of the American Revolution or the constitutional process.
Citizenship was strongly racialized, and rights were differential. There was this ideal that all Americans were citizens. But even at the beginning only the property owners could take part in self governance. The others were more than subjects but less than citizens.
And, of course, until the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments a huge portion of the country was excluded from any of the basic rights of citizenship.
Really, it took another 100 years for American citizenship to become something closer to the French ideal. And even then it was more of a “melting pot” and a civic commitment—instead of a civic and cultural commitment. At least, that’s how we told ourselves the story.
As in France, an American individual’s experience often fell well short of the ideal. But the theory, at least, suggested an embracing citizenship.
How about immigration and naturalization? How did the United States process evolve into what it is today?
The current legal regime goes back to 1965. We did not allow a lot of permanent migration between 1921 and 1965. A number of factors changed that. One key factor was an ideological shift to being more open as a nation to the world. But we continued to grapple with the racial ideas of what it meant to be a state.
We had an explicitly racial scheme that excluded Asians and Native Americans from citizenship purely on the basis of race. We then closed the doors in general to everyone as a less explicit, less-racialized (but effective) way of limiting nonwhites. Then, after 1965, we took race out of the legal restrictions.
Culturally, the idea of assimilation has ebbed and flowed. In the 1960s and ’70s, the idea that multiple cultures could also be American was seen more positively.
Multiculturalism is a term that can be misused and abused. It can be applied to prescriptive, identity-based diversity quotas. Or it can mean basic efforts to promote cultural awareness. It can mean many things to many people. And a lot of the political backlash against immigration is grounded in this rhetoric.”
This came out of a more liberal turn in society but also out of a limited backlash to multicultural identity that led to something of a “white ethnic revival.” If it was acceptable for new arrivals to identify as “hyphenated Americans,” then whites from earlier waves of migration also felt more space to identify as, say, Italian-American or Irish-American.
How do democracies balance the ideas of assimilation and multiculturalism? What challenges arise?
Those ideas coexist. Even within immigrant groups, a lot of people agree with the statement that those who come to America should try to be more American. A lot of others say we should value our differences.
In America, the logic of multiculturalism and diversity has been successful. Certainly there’s variation among Americans as to how multicultural policies are viewed and the degree to which diversity is valued.
But in our discourse and policy, it’s rarely seen negatively. To some extent, multiculturalism has been less driven by top-down policy than in Europe, where there is much stronger backlash to the concept.
I will say, multiculturalism is a term that can be misused and abused. It can be applied to very prescriptive, identity-based diversity quotas. Or it can mean basic efforts to promote cultural awareness. Or it can mean government efforts to try and strengthen civil society within a group. So it can mean many things to many people. And a lot of the political backlash against immigration is at least grounded in this rhetoric or is originally only aimed at parts of this process.
The Netherlands is an interesting example. Migration to the Netherlands was low for a long period of time. But starting in the early 1960s, postcolonial migration picked up from areas like Suriname and the Antilles.
There were also large waves of labor migration—workers who were brought over on temporary contracts. Usually semi-skilled labor, starting with Southern Europe and then quickly coming largely from Morocco and Turkey.
These groups were getting paid relatively well compared to their origin country and relatively poor compared to native-born labor. For a while, they weren't protected by the labor union culture, which is strong but also insular in the Netherlands.
Often contracts were renewed multiple times. So workers would end up being in the country for five, 10, or 15 years. Eventually, a large fraction of this group applied for permanent immigration status.
At the beginning there was an explicit anti-assimilation policy. The Dutch feared that if people adapted to their way of life, they'd join unions and become part of the labor market—instead of remaining in the status of guest worker.
Of course, the debate about migration has become more salient over time. It's now a bit more populist and extreme in various countries. So we could see in the future a sustained mobilization by citizens against migration.”
The country wanted to give them an opportunity, then send them back home. There was quite a bit of housing segregation at that time, and these migrants were kept separate. The door to guest-worker migration essentially closed in the 1970s and never really started up again in the Netherlands.
So when did that change, and how?
Those that were there were often able to arrange for a more permanent status at that point. But there was tension. A lot of Dutch policymakers wanted to shift quickly to a policy of, “OK, you're here now, and we are going to let you stay. So become one of us.”
Another point of view said, “This is another culture that we've taken in. We as the Dutch people have a tradition of tolerance and have to allow for multiple cultures.”
That kind of fit into the national political culture already. And multiculturalism in the Netherlands was portrayed for a long time as something historical and typical, rather than a shift.
Is there any way to say that over time things are becoming more open or more closed to multiculturalism and migration, in general?
That’s a big question. People who have done big-picture studies have found across the world that there is a little bit of convergence.
The places that had the most liberal policies—Canada, Ireland—have pulled back a little bit. Places that had the most restrictive policies have loosened up. This includes countries with racial policies like Australia and New Zealand, and nations with more ethnically based policies like Germany and the Netherlands.
That trend tilts a little toward more liberal policies. Why? Historically, policies limiting migration have been fairly popular but not particularly animating. This is not an issue that mobilizes lots of people, except occasional bursts.
In the United States we haven't seen a large constituency say, “take away birthright citizenship.” Given the focus we’ve had in last 10 years, it can be hard to remember that immigration really hasn’t always been a key issue in American politics.
Business communities have been able to steadily push for increased levels of migration. And advocacy groups that organize in favor of expansion of citizenship policy have tended to be more successful than those mobilizing against it.
Of course, the debate about migration has become more salient over time. It's now a bit more populist and extreme in various countries. So we could see in the future a sustained mobilization by citizens against migration. Or a party might find it useful to make this a core issue. In the United States right now that looks like the Republican Party, but that wasn’t always seen as inevitable. Both of these scenarios are a definite possibility.
With the migrant crisis in Europe, there's renewed interest in forming international consensus on how we should provide for migration. Do you think there should be some new international set of standards. Or is it always going to have to be handled state by state?
Europe is certainly an interesting test case. The European Union resides in that space between a global norm and specific country norms. It may be able to establish a baseline sense of what citizenship ought to be. But that’s tied into all of the other crises and political problems that are going on within the E.U. right now. That probably makes it a lot harder to reach agreement, and it certainly mobilizes opposition to any liberalizing.
There has been an increasing agreement globally about what rights ought to be given to refugees and asylum seekers. How much it's put into practice varies a lot. Even within Europe we've seen a lot of skirting or neglect of the laws that have been agreed upon.
Citizenship adds an interesting layer. Most refugees and asylum seekers don't actually want to be in the country. Many of the refugees who have come to Germany from Syria want to go home eventually when it's stable.
If the crisis resolves quickly, this may not actually affect citizenship policy that much down the line. If it doesn’t, then Germany and Europe have to make decisions about whether current citizenship policy should apply or should be tightened (or loosened!) in response to this flow. In such a scenario, we’ll see an echo of the early 1990s, when such questions arose in response to reunification and the large asylum-seeking groups following the Soviet collapse.
So much will play into what happens between now and when that future comes.
—Interview by Chris Bentley.