Universalist Intentions, Particularist Outcomes

By David Simcox
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 1 (Fall 1995)
Issue theme: "Infamous immigrants"

I am at one with Dr. Betts in affirming, against the liberal cosmopolitans, the pious multiculturalists and self-hating westerners, that the nation-state is viable and that it is an irreplaceable stabilizing force in a fractious world. The multicultural babel that is taking root in the U.S. is not a sign of the irrelevance of the nation-state, but rather is the ultimate test of its unifying powers.

Nation-States as Guarantors

of Rights and Opportunities

As Dr. Betts suggests, it is the success of the American nation-state in guaranteeing safety, human rights and economic opportunity and in fostering maximum individual and group self-expression that makes membership in it the driving goal of scores of millions of migrants. What else would provide such assurances in the absence of the mature nation-state?

But it is this near universal desire for affiliation with the American nation-state, and the willingness of many within the United States to encourage it, that threatens to empty U.S. citizenship of its last vestiges of civic privilege and obligation. Nationhood affirms what the nation's people are and, no less importantly, what they are not. A high-immigration culture, favoring a directionless cosmopolitanism over emulation and assimilation, is embarrassed by the affirmation of 'we are not,' and works to erase it from national discourse.

The nation-state for many is then reduced to a babel of interests, a teeming marketplace of political and social projects and cultures housed on a geographical commons - without community, without identity, without owners, and without a destiny.

Participation without Membership

The American polity is the world's most open. Participation in it has been increasingly severed from citizenship. Proof of citizenship is not required to petition elected representatives, or to give them inducements. Non-citizens need no license to agitate, mobilize letter-writing campaigns, form organizations to influence legislation, testify in Congress, present their views through major media, or hire high-powered lobbying firms. Major tax-exempt organizations now exist solely to articulate the demands or warnings of the non-citizen population to an undiscriminating Congress and an accommodating bureaucracy.

There is no evidence that organizations of non-citizens who appeal to Congress for generous immigration laws are heeded any less than citizens petitioning for the opposite. Their money speaks no less loudly. As immigration persists and grows, we can expect the numerical and contributory power of the non-citizen bloc to continue to grow accordingly. Growing along with it will be the foreign-born's "street smarts" about manipulating the legislative process. The immigrants' growing resources of access, money and legislative know-how were critical in Congress's hasty passage of the 1990 law that boosted legal immigration nearly 40 percent and created new "humanitarian" admission categories.

The individual act of voting, a right nominally reserved to the citizen, is less efficacious in policy making than is lobbying. Indeed, the American states only relatively recently limited the suffrage to citizens; now the nation's 50 political subdivisions make no real effort to ensure that only citizens enter the voter rolls or serve on juries. Our liberal universalism makes it likely we will soon see new arrangements for non-citizen voting at the local and state levels, and ultimately in federal elections.

Current debate on proposed modest cuts in immigration highlights how major nation-averse institutions - corporations, major foundations, universities, and the churches - can advance their particularistic institutional interests by pushing to enshrine universalist practices in immigration policy.

Universalist Intentions

and Particularist Outcomes

No nation has shown more enthusiasm or less prudence than the United States in aiding non-members to overcome particularistic exclusionary barriers. Consider a few examples:

* The federally funded Legal Services Corporation, and similar state and local service agencies, have aided immigrants in litigation against immigration restraints;

* Lawyers successfully representing immigrants in immigration cases receive taxpayer reimbursement under the Equal Access to Justice Act;

* In the 1986 immigration reforms, non-White and Hispanic immigrants were granted affirmative action preferences not available to non-Hispanic white citizens, however disadvantaged;

* State and local governments have dropped most of their former alienage prohibitions on public employment, making it possible for them to hire a good share of the foreign recipients of U.S. advanced degrees, while keeping professional salaries low.

* Even illegal aliens are guaranteed free public education and, until recently in California, concessional resident tuition rates in state universities;

* State and local jurisdictions boast a variety of laws and regulations to protect the anonymity of the illegal alien in his transactions with the state, including the receipt of public benefits and tax obligations;

* Major foundations grant tax-exempt largesse to non-profit ethnic organizations for programs of lobbying and litigating to trammel real enforcement of the immigration laws.

* Under pressure, the executive branch has come dangerously close to establishing an appeals process within the United States for aliens denied visas by consuls abroad.

Thus, in the United States we have seen the drive to apply universal principles in the case of the non-citizen become in itself particularistic in outcome. This has come about in an environment that blends the profound commitment of most Americans to a vague vision of fairness with the hard institutional interests of the nation's professional service providers.

Different Standards for

Members and Non-Members

For decades the spirit of our immigration policy has resembled that of Victorian architecture: "too much is not enough." Ultimately the excesses have triggered high costs and public exasperation. California's Propo-sition 187 was a symptom of the anti-community effect of runaway universalism cited by Dr. Betts.

In U.S. society's growing awareness of limits and in the corresponding rise of concern about mass immigration, the option sketched by Dr. Betts of openly returning to different sets of standards for non-member and member, for alien and citizen, has regained appeal. A remarkable range of tough propo-sals, unutterable under the liberal cosmopolitanism of the 103rd Congress, have at least been considered in the 104th. Just a few of them are:

* the creation on U.S. soil of extraterritorial zones for adjudication of asylum claims;

* restrictions on immigrant petitioners' rights of appeal or access to the federal courts in asylum and some deportation proceedings;

* requiring aliens to leave the country for the duration of their appeals;

* expedited exclusion of asylum applicants entering illegally;

* placing conditions on the up-to-now automatic concession of citizenship to children born in the U.S. to illegal alien parents;

* and, the end of family preferences for non-immediate relatives.

The resistance to such new approaches in our political culture remains formidable, and not likely to weaken soon. It springs only in part from the power of the immigration lobby. Sentiment and symbolism remain strong in the American soul. Spokesmen of the rapidly growing foreign-born population play upon them expertly.

The refugee ship St. Louis now rivals the Statue of Liberty as a great, emotion-soaked talisman of American immigration. The experience of the St. Louis, a case of particularistic immigration decision-making, has nourished the expansive refugee and asylum policies of the 1970s and 1980s and haunts current debate over more rational and selective norms. The prevailing conviction among makers of refugee policy has been that the risk of harm to a single asylum seeker outweighs the risk of admitting many who are not bona fide.

Membership in the Polity

of the U.S. by Osmosis?

Dr. Betts' distinction of political and territorial membership led me to the troubling question: does the world any longer accept the proposition that political membership in the United States is conferred only by birth therein or by U.S. government fiat? Is political membership now subtly transmitted to millions abroad simply by American acculturation? Is U.S. citizenship propagated by osmosis?

With the intrusive U.S. political and cultural presence beyond its borders, millions abroad now believe they acquire membership in the U.S. polity through their intense acculturation to the U.S. political and economic hegemony. Immigration, then, is a unilateral act of allegiance: it is the individual's assertion of territorial membership, logically following one's unilateral assimilation into political membership. In effect, the U.S. nation-state has become the metropole to millions, an omnipresent sovereignty in their cultures, economies and politics. For the United States, this is a major drawback to becoming one of the world's few superstates.

Assimilation of membership is most common in the small, weak states of the Caribbean and Pacific. Many of those fragile societies define their feeble national identities in terms of their relationship to the United States. (Haiti, the Philippines, the Bahamas, Panama, Western Samoa). Many lack the scope, size or resources to perform as true nations, even under enlightened rule and economic prosperity.

"millions abroad now believe

they acquire membership in

the U.S. polity through their

intense acculturation to the U.S.

political and economic hegemony."

In those societies, the sense of national destiny and national commitment are largely irrelevant. Education and economic performance are tailored to the needs of ultimate life in the metropole. The societies of middle class Filipinos or Jamaicans are prep schools for them and their offspring to take up territorial membership in the United States to match the cultural and political membership instilled since childhood.

A common characteristic of such immigration-dependent states is a former or current colonial relationship or military subordination by the United States (Cuba, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Haiti), or a long-standing and intimate client status (Jamaica, Taiwan, El Salvador, Mexico's border communities, Liberia).

The self-induction into membership of those abroad is nurtured by the reality that their destinies are determined in great part by U.S. political processes and U.S. financial institutions. Their world view is shaped by U.S. media. When they watch Congress in session on C-Span, as many do, they observe in action an institution that is legislating for their own lives - often more so than their own legislative bodies.

Breaking the Link between Political

and Territorial Membership

These small societies offer a largely empty citizenship to their members. The social compact is weak, participation is discouraged, and the benefits to be allocated through participation are small and hardly worth the effort. Their governments generally have neither the means nor will to provide the protection, economic opportunity or the array of rights associated with citizenship in the industrial West.

The vacuum of citizenship further conditions their people to assimilate membership in the U.S. polity. In turn, the nearly universal expectation of migration further weakens the sense of identity, purpose and commitment within those nations.

In effect, many coming from those states could be termed "refugees from geographical oppression" - and perhaps we may see that claim asserted in political asylum proceedings some day. They may be well-fed, mildly prosperous by local standards, educated, not persecuted by the government, and have careers or professions. Nevertheless, for them, life in their small and provincial quasi-nations is oppressive. Those societies offer neither the scope, size nor potential to provide the expansive civic or cultural lives and stimulating career options that have become a broad entitlement within the United States.

Are boredom, unfulfillable career aspirations, and absence of stimulating civic involvement forms of persecution justifying flight to the United States? A surprising number of Americans think so and are even flattered by the millions of unsought affiliations. The ultimate national flattery is the notion that the only truly valid lives are those lived in the United States.

The United States would do well to examine the British experience as a world metropole. Britain's long decades of universalist rhetoric and gestures promoting Empire and Commonwealth citizenship opened the door to mass immigration after World War II from her populous former colonies and client states. The U.K. solution has been to break the link between territorial and political membership. By creating and then rationing "the right of abode," Britain has limited the immigration of millions of British passport holders whose cultural and social ties to the U.K. are remote.

In the United States, limiting rights of abode could temper what is now a come-one/come-all jus soli basis for mere residence. The right of abode limitation could be applied in cases of children born in the United States to sojourning aliens who have no formal ties to this nation, while leaving unchallenged existing judicial interpretations of birthright citizenship.

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