Questioning conventional conceptions of citizenship

By Mary McThomas, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Political Science

My research in recent years has focused on various aspects of U.S. immigration policy. I have looked at constitutional issues that arise when states pass laws related to migration policy, a domain supposedly left entirely to the federal government.

I have conducted public opinion surveys on attitudes toward various policies involving undocumented individuals living in the United States and have explored how different ethical frameworks impact those attitudes. I have also interviewed members of groups on both sides of the issue: those that advocate for immigrant rights and those that lobby for restrictions on immigration.

My most recent research is more theoretical, grounded in theories of political obligation. I flip the way we think about political obligation and state-granted citizenship. Instead of the conventional understanding that the granting of rights by the state obligates citizens to perform certain duties, I argue that the performance of civic duties and obligations—what I call “performing citizenship”—should trigger corresponding state-given rights and protections.

Settler nations, such as the United States, have reached a point where substantial segments of their population have resided within the nation’s borders for years without documents. This situation challenges our traditional notions of what makes a citizen and requires a reconceptualization of citizenship.

In making this argument, I combine theory and practice, analyzing state-level legislative debates about extending driving privileges and in-state tuition rates to undocumented residents. State governments in the United States increasingly acknowledge that their “citizens” might extend beyond those recognized by the federal government and that, as a result, undocumented residents should be granted certain benefits.

The debates over the extension of benefits provide insight into how lawmakers conceptualize citizenship and how evolving notions of citizenship and obligation are impacting state policy. To explore this further, I compiled transcripts of floor debates, public hearings and committee meetings in order to track and analyze the arguments on both sides of the issues.

In looking at the debates, there is a clear divide between those that rely solely on nation-state status and those that believe we should take other actions into account; that is, residents performing civic duties—Americans in every way but on paper—should be granted certain privileges.

The latter form of argument, that those performing citizenship deserved certain benefits, were more successful than other arguments, even in Republican-controlled legislatures in politically conservative states. This has implications for political theory and future immigration policies.

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© Fall 2015 / Volume 19 / Number 02 / Bi-annual

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