Premising citizenship on exceptional deservingness is a common way of talking about who deserves to become a citizen. Before this pandemic, France gave citizenship to a Malian immigrant who risked his life to scale a building and save a child. But rewarding heroes has also meant implicitly consenting to criminalising everyone who is not a hero.
During the pandemic, the stories of immigrant deservingness in the US shifted from exceptional youth to essential workers – farm labourers, cleaners, medical personnel – who were amply demonstrating their utility to the nation. Some called on the US government to give these undocumented essential workers protection from deportation or even a path to citizenship. This would undoubtedly improve the lot of these immigrants, yet once again lifts up the few, while maintaining a system that criminalises most. Such calls draw attention away from the failures of the government to provide state payments that allow people to stay at home during a pandemic or make their workplaces safer.
The linkage between citizenship and productivity in a capitalist workplace, usually as an exploited worker, has uncomfortable implications. Firstly, it leaves out all those who work outside the narrow definitions of productivity, such as in unpaid care work, and those who are young, elderly, disabled, and otherwise outside the capitalist market. Secondly, immigrants are positioned as deserving of the protections of citizenship by the dint of their labour for others.
After the past year of uprisings against white supremacy in both France and the US, it is easy to connect this way of valuing immigrants to the legacies of slavery and colonialism. Indeed, immigrants are being valued for their ability to take the fall, to get sick so “we” do not. To pay this impossible debt – the debt of life, and generations of life, valued as lesser – the state is recognising these immigrants now: quid pro quo. It says: now, we owe you nothing – all histories can be forgotten. We must resist judging the worth of human life and dignity in this way.
Protecting ill-gained riches of empire
What if, in fact, France and the US truly followed the principles upon which their nations were formed – liberty, equality, fraternity; and to be the land of the free? What if they valued everyone’s life equally? Tendayi Achiume, legal scholar and UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, argues that citizenship for all immigrants from the “Third World” to the “First” would simply enact an entitlement to political equality that recognises the interconnections created by past and ongoing forms of imperialism. In other words, French or US citizenship for immigrants – all immigrants – is a form of decolonisation or even debt repayment for past and ongoing imperial projects. Militarised borders, in contrast, are attempts to protect the ill-gained riches of empire.
There should be an immediate amnesty and path to citizenship for all immigrants in the US, whether or not they are deemed essential. While Biden’s plan to provide a pathway to all 11 million undocumented immigrants is a start, why should it be delayed for eight years? More urgently, the US border must be demilitarised, through the dismantling of ICE and Border Patrol, as these groups create the need to label some people as “illegal”, enabling violence against them, and will continue to do so, regardless of a one-time pathway to citizenship. These demands tie in with the Black Lives Matter movement’s abolitionist demands to undo the carceral system, and replace it with one that treats all people with care and respect.
With a week left in his presidency, Trump visited the border wall in the Rio Grande Valley, to shore up his legacy of hate. A true break with racist policy would knock down the wall and all its supporting ramparts, including the idea of deservingness.
Miriam Ticktin is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the New School for Social Research, former co-director of the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, and author of Casualties of Care: Immigration and the Politics of Humanitarianism in France.
Sofya Aptekar is Associate Professor of Urban Studies at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies, and author of The Road to Citizenship: What Naturalization Means for Immigrants and the United States.