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Immigration, National Identity and Citizenship Research Paper

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Updated: Dec 7th, 2021


The history of humankind has been one of movement, migration and settlement due to a number of factors such as changing climate, population growth, and search for better living conditions or to escape oppression. This essay examines the dynamics of immigration policies that are now challenging the very concepts of national identity and citizenship with special emphasis on the US, France, Germany, UK and the European Union.

The essay first develops the theme by examining the theoretical aspects of ‘two-tier dependency’ sociological theory and how it links the validity of immigration with its necessity of having to be accepted by the developed world. The essay then examines the issues of immigration and its link to national identity in America and the ethical dilemmas that denial of citizenship can cause to national philosophies of the Western world. The essay examines the need for immigration and issues of national identity, citizenship and immigration faced by France, Germany, UK and then its ramifications for policies amongst the EU nations. The essay concludes by stating that while post-nationalism and liberal ideas have put strain on the concept of national identities, its replacement by a diffused international human identity is a long way off and nations will continue to view their overall policies on the question of immigration and providing citizenship to immigrants wishing to be accommodated in their countries through their national priorities. The author opines that the issue requires a judicious mix of Quantitative and Qualitative approaches to arrive at conclusions that are backed by statistical data, pragmatic governmental policy as well as regards commonly held standards of morals and ethics.

The history of humankind has been one of movement, migration and settlement. These migrations occurred due to a number of factors such as changing climate, population growth, search for better living conditions, escaping persecution or in some cases due to conquests undertaken in the name of ‘God, Glory or Gold.’ Since ancient times, identity of a group of people was based on affiliations, kingdoms and empires. However, the modern concept of national identity became formalized only in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia which led to the establishment of nation-states with clearly defined geographical boundaries encompassing peoples with same language, ethnicity, religion and culture. Here too, the emphasis was on the cultural aspects rather than the legalistic aspects that are denoted by the concept of ‘citizenship. Karatani (2003) observes that even in its historical context, it was less common “for people to possess a single type of formal membership of a political unit than to have multiple forms of citizenship at the same time (p. 15)”. This essay examines the dynamics of how immigration is challenging the very concepts of national identity and citizenship especially in face of the large-scale migrations that are taking place across the globe with special emphasis on the US, France, Germany, UK and the European Union.

Immigration: Causes and Validity

The chief causes for immigration in recent times have been due to socio-economic factors and to escape persecution in the country of origin. The underdevelopment of the country of origin becomes the start point for the migrations to take place. It has often been theorized that Capitalism encourages the empowerment of the few over the many and that resources get exploited to enrich the cities and not the rural countryside. This resulted in a ‘dependency’ in which the urban center dominated “the extraction and terms of utilization of the resources of the immediate hinterland (Flangan, 1993, p. 119)”. This ‘Two-tier dependency’ theory was extended to comprise state relations wherein rich states grew richer at the expense of the poor states. The effects of this ‘dependency’ model according to some theorists, was that it led to large-scale migrations within the country from rural countryside to the cities as also immigration of people leaving their poor countries for richer countries. Many in the developing world argue that such migration would not have taken place had the West not occupied the ‘Rest’ and exploited them thereby creating conditions for dependency, which now makes it incumbent upon the West to accept immigration and therefore modify their concepts of national identity and citizenship. Western Universalists too level the same accusations and this debate has now extended to the entire comity of the developed world with America leading the discussion owing to its unique heritage.

Nationality and Citizenship Issues in America

Pickus (2005) states that America is the world’s true “Universal Nation” because immigrants from the entire world have become citizens by accepting universal principles of individual liberty, equal opportunity, democracy and institutionalism (p. 3)”.However, there are many who fear that the unique American identity is being swamped by illegal immigration especially across the US-Mexican border that threatens to change the demographics and national identity of America. Thus some White Anglo-Saxon Protestants propound the theory of ‘biological essentialism’. The theory seeks to exclude Mexicans from the larger tapestry of American life by drumming up the fears that the ‘inferior race’, continued immigration and “Mexican fecundity would overrun the Southwest” (Escobar, 1999, p. 9). This canard visualizes a demographic aggression that would result in virtually splitting America into two nations – the English-speaking Anglo America and the Spanish-speaking Mexamerica (Huntington, 2004, p. 32). Such alarmist views have been echoed across the American political spectrum and in the summer of 2005, the governors of Arizona and New Mexico had declared a state of emergency claiming that the federal government was not doing enough to halt illegal immigration across the US Mexican borders (Johnson, 2007, p. 5). Such views are just canards spread for narrow political gains as statistics prove that the total Mexican population in 2007 including legal and illegal entrants does not exceed 3.82 % of the total US population. Post 9/11 and the present economic meltdown has forced the Obama administration to further tighten immigration laws and thus immigration issues today challenge the very ideological underpinnings of the American state as also the tenets of Western liberal democracies.

Denial of Immigration and Its Effects on National Philosophies

America was born as a nation of immigrants. Its first settlers were people escaping from religious persecution of the Catholic Church. So can America now deny the same rights to others who are fleeing economic distress on the grounds of national exclusivism? Would not such a policy challenge the very basis of the American way of life, of freedom, or democracy? The short answer from the philosophical point of view is – Yes. America tried that experiment with their African American community but had to finally concede the fact that freedoms enshrined in the American Constitution are same for everyone. Contrarians would argue that such freedoms are applicable only to ‘bonafide citizens’ and not to illegal immigrants. Such an argument defies ground realities. America today has roughly 12 million Mexicans out of which about half are illegal entrants. So do these proponents of ‘bonafide citizenship’ envisage deporting six million people back to Mexico? If the answer is yes then how would America be any different from the fascist policies of Adolf Hitler who initiated forced deportation of millions of Jews across occupied Europe? How would such action compare with the modern-day forced migration of Sudanese in Darfur by the Sudanese government? Obviously, deportation is not the answer.

Continental Europe to faces a similar dilemma. While the Westphalian construct clearly laid the foundations of geographically defined nation-states built on shared ethnicity, language and culture, the steady match of globalization and championing of universal human rights have made the debate between traditional concepts of national identity and universal human identity more strident. Thomas (2006) captures this dilemma of traditional nationalism versus post-nationalism quite succinctly when she observes that “thanks to the increasing international influence of human rights norms and respect for ‘personhood,’ advocates of this view have argued, rights are increasingly being equalized” (p. 238). Coupled with this trend, is the undeniable fact that Western countries require immigrants to survive as nations.

Immigration and the Demographic Balance

European states are finding it exceedingly difficult to reconcile the conflicting requirements of maintaining core national identity and welcoming new immigrants who are sorely required to maintain the demographic balance. The present wave of human migration from the developing countries to the developed countries has some basic causes. Bruggeman states that the “motivations for migration are generally political and economic, but also include natural disasters such as floods and man-made crises such as war” (2002, p. 1). Influx of immigrants not only tax the developed nations’ social security systems but also law and order as a vast majority of migrants do not have useful skills other than menial jobs and thus take to a life of crime. Conversely, there are high-end qualified immigrants such as ‘knowledge workers, IT specialists, doctors, engineers and research scholars from developing countries who contribute to the economy of the host country. While unchecked immigration causes economic burden for the host country, they also help developed countries in maintaining the ‘replacement level’ of national populations which have been depleted by the so-called ‘Demographic Transition’. According to the theory of demographic transition, as the standard of living and life expectancy increases, family sizes decline to lead to an overall reduction in population of a country. As the standard of living increases and people can spend more on personal health care, education, and individual aspirations, the death rates start declining significantly when compared to the birth rates as women postpone procreating for economic aspirations. The World Bank (2003) report has estimated that “the population of the European Union and Japan are expected to fall by 10 percent and 14 percent respectively, between 2000 and 2050 representing a decline of some 55 million in all” (p. 146)”. So even if popular politics may decry the ‘Asian invasion’ or that ‘The Turks are coming’, the stark reality is that immigration is a necessary means of survival for much of the developed world. Thus the question lies not in debating closures of borders but how to ensure smooth ‘assimilation’ of newly arrived immigrants into the host country’s culture, language and enlarging the ‘national identity. This conundrum has two major dimensions, the socio-cultural aspect of assimilation and the legal aspects of assimilation wherein the new immigrants are accepted into the host country’s formal structures such as grant of citizenship.

The French Immigration Problem

The French have been champions of human rights and a haven for political exiles. The works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and a host of French philosophers imbibed a socialistic tradition with liberal democracy at its heart in France. However, the French are also proud of their refined culture and language. The French are most allergic to English and it irks them to no end that English has become the ‘universal translator’ around the world with French language lagging far behind even Spanish. Visitors to Paris using English often get a cold shoulder from Parisians. In such circumstances, the shock of having to host immigrants particularly their Maghrebi brethren whose ‘assimilation’ into the French society was doubtful became a rallying point for denying such immigrants citizenship. “French law allowed for the transmission of national citizenship not only by descent (jus sanguinis) but also on the basis of birth on French territory (jus soli) (Thomas, p. 240)”. This French concept of jus soli required that at least one parent of the child was French-born. Children of noncitizens born in France could apply for citizenship on achieving majority which was modified in a 1993 law that required the child to actively request for citizenship between the ages of 16 and 21. In 1997 this was again modified to allow automatic transmission of citizenship at the age of 18. Since 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, French politicians have used the incident to justify stricter immigration controls on the grounds of security. Despite, the various efforts of post-nationalists, majority of the French people have rallied behind the cry for stricter immigration controls as indeed was one of the promises on which Nicholas Sarkozy was elected to the Presidency.

German Exclusivism and Immigration Policy

Unlike France, Germany has always held the primacy of jus sanguinis as the basis for granting citizenship. Germany’s proud Prussian traditions, adherence to German folktales of valor and pride in the German language have always been at the forefront when dealing with any issues of citizenship. However, since descent was the basis, all peoples conquered by German rulers automatically became German citizens. Germany’s citizenship laws evolved in 1913 and have continued to uphold the principle of jus sanguinis as its basis right up to the 1990s. The fall of the Berlin wall, added new dimensions to the German national identity. Suddenly there was an equal number of Germans of East European backgrounds who were relatively poor and less qualified than their affluent erstwhile West Germans. It was also realized that along with these Germans were immigrants or ‘guest workers’ who had stayed back in Germany and thus no longer could be ignored. The post-nationalists attempted to allow voting rights to long-standing immigrants as a first step towards real citizenship. However, political and social backlash became inevitable. The Constitutional courts held it illegal to grant voting rights to immigrants who had not acquired legal citizenship. Right-wing extremism and Neo-Nazi groups have proliferated and contrary to the perception propagated by the intellectual community, right-wing ideology appeals to a large majority of Germans and has been responsible for the continuance of racist attacks on immigrants. The Government’s proposal to introduce a variation of the French jus soli wherein immigrants of parent(s) born in Germany would be granted German citizenship was greeted with hostility by the German people as Bild Zeitung, a popular newspaper reflected that “‘900,000 Turks soon to be German? (Thomas, p. 248)” raising the alarm of a possible ‘demographic invasion. The German government allowed further liberalization of their citizenship norms by allowing concessions on holding dual citizenship. Governmental level affirmation does not necessarily translate into acceptance at the social level. Immigrants who cannot speak German are treated differently and it will take a long time for the cultural bias to be overcome.

The Unique British Nationality Issues

Britain, unlike its continental counterparts has had a unique historical evolution to the issue of national identity and citizenship. Britain is the only country in the EU that does not have a written constitution and many of the laws in Britain are based on tradition. One of the traditional laws was that all subjects of the far-flung British Empire were in effect British citizens. This concept based on an empire worked well till such time the constituents of the empire remained closeted in their regions and the empire itself subsisted. However, as more and more former colonies became independent, the original definition underwent systemic strain resulting in changing the nomenclature ‘British Subject’ to ‘Citizen of an Independent Commonwealth Country’ and ‘Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies’ (Thomas, p. 252) in the Nationality Act of 1948. The act triggered a wave of new immigration to the UK and social backlash became inevitable. So the laws were changed to make only the second category admissible for citizenship that too depending upon the racial profile of the passport holder that was met with criticism by the liberal elite who considered such moves as hypocritical. Consequently, in 1981, a new category called ‘British Citizens’ who were ‘White’ was introduced establishing four categories of British nationals. The effect on the society of such complications has hardly been beneficial. Today, parts of the isle and certain neighborhoods are predominantly divided along ethnic lines such as Sikhs, Hindus, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in their domains where the need to assimilate is reduced considerably. Liberal laws for granting political asylum have allowed Britain to harbor many Islamic radicals. The cry across the UK today is the need for tighter immigration laws to prevent radicalization of the British society.

The European Union and Convergence of Interests

The formation of the European Union was hailed as a landmark event that would unite the entire continent under a common framework. At the time of its conception, it was felt that adhering to common economic practices would translate into a European identity that would subsume the individual national identities. That ideal has however been proved wrong. France continues to believe in its primacy as the former ruler of the continent. Germany, the largest economy continues to hold its dream of leading the EU and the smaller more progressive Scandinavian countries find themselves at odds when it comes to defining national identities and immigration policies. Feldblum (1999) observes that “The new citizenship politics in Europe have been informed by a variety of international changes: transformation in the nature of citizenship in the modern world, the increased flow of labor migration in the Postwar period and European changes in matters of national sovereignty and identity particularly within the European Union. (p. 3). A convergence of interests of larger countries of the Bloc forced a consensus on European citizenship. “The establishment of European citizenship guarantees the validity of national citizenship (Dell’Olio, 2005, p. 40) “which means that EU citizenship is valid to only those nationals of EU countries who hold their respective national citizenship. It is not valid for immigrants who are not legal citizens of the EU countries. Hence the birth of EU reinforced the concept of national citizenship.

Required Research Methodology

From the analysis of the issues examined thus far it becomes obvious that immigration no matter how evocative is a necessity that requires accurate statistical modeling and a thorough scientific study of human ecology. These are subjects that require a quantitative approach. However, since the issue involves humans, pure mathematical approach would have to be balanced with qualitative research as also the practical pragmatic aspects of governance. Thus the author of this essay opines that a judicious mix of both quantitative and qualitative research is required.

In conclusion it can be summarized that though the concept of national identity has come under considerable strain due to liberal views and Post-nationalism, the chances of national identities being subsumed by a larger diffused universal human identity are indeed remote. While there would be pockets of diffused national identities in smaller Scandinavian countries, diffusion in larger countries is not likely to happen unless the demographic balance between the original inhabitants and the immigrants gets skewed predominantly in favor of the latter. Governments conscious of the immense social conflict such changes can bring have instituted immigration control policies that limit the influx. However, to have a holistic understanding of the issues, the author of this essay opines that a judicious mix of quantitative and qualitative research is required to arrive at conclusions that are backed by statistical data, pragmatic governmental policy as well as regards to commonly held standards of morals and ethics.

Works Cited

Bruggeman, W. (2002). Illegal Immigration and Trafficking in Human Beings Seen as a Security Problem for Europe.

Dell’Olio, F. (2005). The Europeanization of Citizenship. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Escobar, E. J. (1999). Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity. California: University of California Press.

Feldblum, M. (1999). Reconstructing Citizenship: The Politics of Nationality Reform and Immigration in Contemporary France. NY: SUNY Press.

Flangan, W. G. (1993). Contemporary Urban Sociology. Cambridge: CUP Archive.

Huntington, S. (2004). The Hispanic Challenge. Foreign Policy 141 , 30-45.

Johnson, K. R. (2007). Opening the Floodgates: Why America Needs to Rethink Its Borders and Immigration Laws. NY: NYU Press.

Karatani, R. (2003). Defining British citizenship: empire, commonwealth and modern Britain. NY: Routledge.

Pickus, N. M. (2005). True faith and Allegiance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thomas, E. R. (2006). Immigration and Changing Definitions of National Citizenship in France, Germany, and Britain. French Politics , 237-265.

World Bank. (2003). Global Economic Prospects 2004. Washington DC: World Bank Publications.

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