A Bad Idea

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I’m curious to hear what you think about the New York City Council proposal to let non-citizens vote in municipal elections. To me, it’s definitely a bad idea. That’s not, I hope it’s clear, because I’m anti-immigrant. I’m very pro-reform and pro-legalization. But citizenship itself is a critical thing to me — and I suspect that opinion is shared by many residents and currently undocumented immigrants who are clamoring to get a chance to join the club.

I’ve written about this several times in the past. But I believe in what I think of as ‘thick citizenship’, a robust bundle of rights and responsibilities. Being a citizen of the United States isn’t just a matter of carrying a US passport or being able to vote. It’s much more foundational than that. It’s a commitment to a political community, albeit a vastly large one. And it’s because of that that I don’t think there should be such a thing as dual citizenship. In my mind it’s almost a contradiction in terms.

To me, thick citizenship is really at the root of our equality as Americans. The mix of rights and responsibilities that come with it are what makes the Salvadoran immigrant every bit as much an American as someone whose ancestors have been here for centuries. We’re all equal because we’ve all made the same commitment as citizens. Being an American citizen also matters for how you’re taxed and where you keep your money.

That’s what makes the plutocrat who renounces his citizenship for tax purposes really execrable and someone who I don’t think should be allowed ever to enter the country again.

Particularly as our society becomes more economically stratified, citizenship is the sheet anchor of what keeps us fundamentally equal, at least in key ways. It’s the basis of every citizens claim on the larger national community. If our citizenship isn’t common, what really connects the affluent educated New Yorker who can live or work anywhere on the globe to an impoverished young woman in South Texas with none of those freedoms or opportunities?

If Latin American immigrants maintain citizenship in the countries of their birth, doesn’t that undermine the claim to full equality here?

I know there are other ways of thinking about it. But in my mind, real citizenship and social solidarity makes the commitment of citizenship really important. I don’t want anything that makes citizenship into something more vague and associational like a travel status or one of many transactional commitments you may have here or around the globe. I think everyone who is a US citizen should share that common commitment — fundamentally, be in the same boat.

Now, as a practical matter I know there are people who carry dual citizenship because of very practical reasons like child custody and basic convenience for bi-national families. My wife is probably arguably a dual citizen simply because there’s no obvious way to renounce her original citizenship in the country of her birth. So I don’t see people who have dual US-Canadian citizenship as some great threat to the commonwealth or something or something that we actively need to eliminate. It’s basically a non-problem. But I think it would be a bad thing if it became more pervasive – which is something that I think is possible as the free flow of peoples becomes easier and more common.

What New York is proposing isn’t unprecedented. And to the extent that large numbers of people who’ve basically become Americans and are making their life here cannot participate in our politics, I understand some of the motivation. Indeed, this is why keeping the doors open to citizenship is so important. But I don’t really want anything that blurs the lines of the political community we all (those of us who are American citizens) participate in. And to me, this does that.

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