The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership

The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership

by Linda Bosniak

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Citizenship presents two faces. Within a political community it stands for inclusion and universalism, but to outsiders, citizenship means exclusion. Because these aspects of citizenship appear spatially and jurisdictionally separate, they are usually regarded as complementary. In fact, the inclusionary and exclusionary dimensions of citizenship dramatically


Citizenship presents two faces. Within a political community it stands for inclusion and universalism, but to outsiders, citizenship means exclusion. Because these aspects of citizenship appear spatially and jurisdictionally separate, they are usually regarded as complementary. In fact, the inclusionary and exclusionary dimensions of citizenship dramatically collide within the territory of the nation-state, creating multiple contradictions when it comes to the class of people the law calls aliens--transnational migrants with a status short of full citizenship. Examining alienage and alienage law in all of its complexities, The Citizen and the Alien explores the dilemmas of inclusion and exclusion inherent in the practices and institutions of citizenship in liberal democratic societies, especially the United States. In doing so, it offers an important new perspective on the changing meaning of citizenship in a world of highly porous borders and increasing transmigration.

As a particular form of noncitizenship, alienage represents a powerful lens through which to examine the meaning of citizenship itself, argues Linda Bosniak. She uses alienage to examine the promises and limits of the "equal citizenship" ideal that animates many constitutional democracies. In the process, she shows how core features of globalization serve to shape the structure of legal and social relationships at the very heart of national societies.

Editorial Reviews

Central European Journal of International and Security Studies

The Citizen and the Alien represents a crucial contribution to an intensifying but theoretically ungrounded debate on the sustainability of currently defined democratic principles in an era of extensive transnational migration.
— Markéta Ruliková
Central European Journal of International & Security Studies
The Citizen and the Alien represents a crucial contribution to an intensifying but theoretically ungrounded debate on the sustainability of currently defined democratic principles in an era of extensive transnational migration.
— Markéta Ruliková
Central European Journal of International and Security Studies - Marketa Rulikova
The Citizen and the Alien represents a crucial contribution to an intensifying but theoretically ungrounded debate on the sustainability of currently defined democratic principles in an era of extensive transnational migration.
Central European Journal of International and Security Studies - Markéta Ruliková
The Citizen and the Alien represents a crucial contribution to an intensifying but theoretically ungrounded debate on the sustainability of currently defined democratic principles in an era of extensive transnational migration.
From the Publisher
"The Citizen and the Alien represents a crucial contribution to an intensifying but theoretically ungrounded debate on the sustainability of currently defined democratic principles in an era of extensive transnational migration."—Markéta Ruliková, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies

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The Citizen and the Alien

Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership
By Linda Bosniak

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-11622-9

Chapter One


POLITICAL AND LEGAL thought today are suffused with talk of citizenship. Whether the focus is equal citizenship or democratic citizenship or social citizenship or multicultural citizenship, whether the preoccupation is with civil society citizenship or workplace citizenship or corporate citizenship or postnational citizenship, some version of citizenship is now vital to the intellectual projects of scholars across the disciplines.

Citizenship talk pervades our popular political discourse as well. Citizenship, however, is a more confounding concept than most who employ the word usually recognize. Citizenship is commonly portrayed as the most desired of conditions, as the highest fulfillment of democratic and egalitarian aspiration. But this, I believe, reflects a habit of citizenship romanticism that tends to obscure the deeper challenges that the concept poses. These challenges derive from citizenship's basic ethical ambiguity. The idea of citizenship is commonly invoked to convey a state of democratic belonging or inclusion, yet this inclusion is usually premised on a conception of a community that is bounded and exclusive. Citizenship as an idealis understood to embody a commitment against subordination, but citizenship can also represent an axis of subordination itself.

The fact that citizenship leads us in these contrasting directions is, in one respect, an idiosyncrasy of rhetoric. Certainly, citizenship is an overworked term, and its ubiquity inevitably leads to confusion. But the trouble goes deeper: the divided nature of citizenship as an idea also implicates core issues of political and social theory. It leads us especially to focus on questions about who it is that rightfully constitutes the subjects of the citizenship that we champion. To the extent that we express our ideals of justice and democratic belonging by way of the concept of citizenship, we need to be particularly sensitive to the questions of exclusion implicated in the discussion. Citizenship of, and for, exactly whom?


We tend to answer citizenship's "who" question differently depending on our analytical starting point. Sometimes we view citizenship from an internal or endogenous perspective. From this vantage, citizenship is understood to designate the nature and quality of relations among presumed members of an already established society. As a normative matter, citizenship in this internal sense is understood to stand for a universalist ethic-for the inclusion and incorporation of "everyone." Most of the citizenship revival that has occurred in the academy has taken place within this inward-looking framework.

At other times we approach citizenship by attending to the community's boundaries. Here the concern is not the internal life of the political community but its edges; our focus is the ways in which that community-usually a nation-state-is constituted and maintained as a community in the first instance. In normative terms, boundary-focused citizenship is understood to denote not only community belonging but also community exclusivity and closure. The status of citizenship in any given state is rationed, and the limitations on its availability mark the limitations on belonging.

As a matter of intellectual sociology, there has been a surprisingly limited degree of interchange between these inward-looking and boundary-conscious worlds of citizenship discourse. What has happened is that citizenship's boundary questions are usually taken up by a specialized group of scholars across the disciplines in the field of immigration studies. Just about everyone else tends to presume the boundaries, or, more often, they presume away any world outside the nation altogether. The national society is treated as the total universe of analytical focus and normative concern, and citizenship then has to do with the nature of the relationships prevailing among already assumed members. Certainly, there have been some encounters and mutual incursions across this intellectual divide, but there has not been as much sustained dialogue as is necessary. I believe we need to deepen the conversation between inward-looking and boundary-conscious approaches to citizenship, in the interest of illuminating the dilemmas of inclusion and exclusion that are implicated by the concept. This book's purpose is to advance that conversation.


My own initial interest in citizenship developed from my work as an immigration scholar-as someone who was thinking about citizenship's boundaries. I was preoccupied with questions of exclusion from formal citizenship status and what that means for people residing in liberal democratic states like the United States. It was within that context that I began to read other bodies of citizenship-related literature. These were the aspirational, inward-looking strands in constitutional and political and social theory, which treat citizenship as the fulfillment of all that is socially good and valuable. In some respects, I found this literature inspiring; I identified with the progressive message expressed through ideas like "democratic citizenship" and "equal citizenship," and I wanted to embrace it.

But I was also nervous about it. It seemed clear to me that these citizen-ships referenced nationally circumscribed conceptions of justice and wellbeing, though they were usually not acknowledged as such. And I wondered whether it was a good idea to use the language of citizenship in this aspirational way, given the potentially exclusionary implications of doing so, at least rhetorically. There was, first of all, the question of citizenship's applicability to people beyond the boundaries of the national society. Could citizenship-linked conceptions of justice extend to such people?

But even leaving aside the difficult questions of transnational justice, and given my interests in issues of immigration, I wondered, in particular, about the meaning of this discourse for those people living within liberal democratic societies who lack citizenship by legal definition. If citizenship is treated as the highest measure of social and political inclusion, can people designated as noncitizens as a matter of status be among the universe of the included?

On first reflection, the answer is obviously no: common sense tells us that citizenship is-of course-only for citizens. Further reflection, though, greatly complicates the answer. In the United States, as in other liberal democratic societies, status noncitizens are, in fact, not always and entirely outside the scope of those institutions and practices and experiences we call citizenship. Indeed, many of citizenship's core attributes do not depend on formal citizenship status at all but are extended to individuals based on the facts of their personhood and national territorial presence. The experiences of being a citizen and enjoying citizenship, it turns out, are not always aligned as a practical matter; status noncitizens are the subjects of what many call citizenship in a variety of contexts.

Recognizing that it is not necessarily incoherent to speak of the "citizenship of noncitizens"-or the citizenship of aliens, in legal terminology- is analytically important in a discursive context in which citizenship has become so central. It makes clear that citizenship is not a unitary or monolithic whole: the concept is comprised of distinct discourses designating a range of institutions and experiences and social practices that are overlapping but not always coextensive. Citizenship is a divided concept.

The fact that citizenship is divided in this way might suggest that my initial apprehension about the increasing salience of citizenship talk among progressives is misplaced. Strictly speaking, to embrace citizenship as our normative benchmark is not necessarily to exclude status noncitizens. The trouble, however, is that we tend not to speak or to hear strictly. In conventional usage, citizenship's meanings are conflated. It is easy and no doubt common to hear a reference to citizenship and to think simultaneously of universal citizenship and of the citizenship of borders, or to be uncertain which meaning is intended. It is hardly surprising that, when the term is used aspirationally, we tend to suppose that what is at stake is universal citizenship for formal holders of citizenship status.

In one respect, what we have here is a semantic problem: the term citizenship has multiple meanings, and this creates confusion. But the trouble runs deeper than sloppiness of rhetoric. In fact, I have come to believe that the confusions of citizenship rhetoric are themselves a symptom of a more profound condition, one of substantive political theory. Citizenship is not just divided conceptually, it is divided normatively, and the ambiguities that plague our citizenship-talk often reflect this ethical divide.


Citizenship in liberal democratic states stands, as I have said, for both universalist and exclusionary commitments. Usually, however, these contrasting normative orientations are not understood as conflicting but rather as complementary, with each one relevant to, and operative in, a different jurisdictional domain. Universalism, in this understanding, is applicable within the national political community, while exclusion applies at its edges. This division of normative labor is functional for many purposes, and indeed, it has come to represent our commonsense understanding of the way citizenship works. Citizenship, we tend to think, is hard on the outside and soft on the inside, with hard edges and soft interior together constituting a complete citizenship package.

Yet the complementarity aspired to in this construct of citizenship can stand only so long as the hard outer edge actually separates inside from outside. And in a world of porous borders, real separation is often elusive. This is nowhere clearer than in the context of transnational migration, where foreigners enter the bounded national territory from the outside and, once present, are assigned the status of alienage. These noncitizen immigrants have entered the spatial domain of universal citizenship, but they remain outsiders in a significant sense: the border effectively follows them inside. The question then becomes, which citizenship norms apply? In theory, both sets are relevant and applicable. The fact that they are-the fact that "hard" threshold norms have now come to occupy the same (internal) terrain as the "soft" interior ones-leads to uncertainty and conflict. Determining which set of norms should prevail when they conflict, and under what circumstances, is always difficult, in practice and in theory.

Recognizing that alienage lies at the interface of these normatively contrasting citizenship regimes, and that this liminality inevitably produces normative and policy conflict, is clearly important as a matter of immigration theory. Doing so enables us to understand why it is that noncitizens, although marginalized and subordinated in significant ways, are also in some respects treated as citizenship's subjects. It makes clear, in other words, why the apparently paradoxical idea of "noncitizen citizenship" can make a certain kind of sense, while remaining a source of contestation as well.

But addressing the hybrid condition of alienage is equally important, I believe, for the development of citizenship theory beyond the immigration field. Exponents of citizenship in its inward-looking mode have been able, by virtue of the prevailing conception of spatially divided citizenship regimes, to avoid contending with citizenship's bounded dimension. Citizenship's exclusionary commitments (to the extent they are acknowledged at all) are viewed as relevant and operative not within the national territory but rather "out there," at the community's edges. Yet it is in the very nature of alienage to bring those boundaries to bear in the territorial inside: alienage entails the introjection of borders. Bringing alienage into view, therefore, requires inward-looking citizenship theory to attend to the national border, and in the process, to reflect on the scope and nature of the universality which it professes to champion. Citizenship, once again, of, and for, precisely whom?


Several of this book's chapters begin with an observation (at times, a complaint) about the analytical and normative nationalism that characterizes discussions of citizenship in mainstream constitutional and political theory. Most such discussions presume that citizenship is enacted within bounded national societies. Ordinarily, these presumptions are unspoken and unacknowledged: theorists tend to treat both a national setting and a state of boundedness as already satisfied conditions for the practices and institutions and experiences of citizenship. Making these assumptions permits them to focus their attention on what citizenship requires and entails in substantive terms within these pre-given boundaries.

More often than not, in fact, this literature appears to presume not merely that citizenship is national as a matter of current fact, but also that it is national as a matter of necessity or nature. One of the arguments I make in chapter 2 is that the automatic correspondence commonly presumed between citizenship and nation-state is unfounded. Citizenship's intimate relationship to the nation-state is not intrinsic but contingent and historical, and the forms and locations of citizenship, as we conventionally understand the term, are more varied than ordinarily acknowledged. Citizenship has been, can be, and arguably should sometimes be enacted not merely within national borders but beyond and across them, as well.

There is, however, no denying that many of the institutions and practices and experiences that we call citizenship today take a prevailingly national form. "Postnational" or "transnational" forms of citizenship remain a real but limited part of the citizenship landscape. For this reason, it is essential that scholars attend to the complex practices and institutions and experiences that we call citizenship within the national society. Doing so is a central aim of this book.

But to say that nationally situated citizenship requires scholarly focus is not to endorse the kind of insular framework that so many scholars of citizenship employ in their studies. To state the problem briefly, inward-looking citizenship scholars often treat the national society as the total universe of analytical and moral concern. They rely on the kind of analytical premise made explicit by Rawls, whose theory of justice presupposed a conception of a "democratic society [that is] a complete and closed social system." In his most influential work, Rawls aimed to develop principles "for the basic structure of society conceived for the time being as a closed system isolated from other societies."

Yet to the extent that a society's completion and closure are the analytical starting points, these premises obviously escape critical examination themselves, and simultaneously serve to preordain an insularity of focus. As some of Rawls's critics have pointed out, moreover, community closure and autonomy are empirically untenable and normatively unsatisfying premises on which to ground any political theory of justice and governance. These presumptions, it seems to me, are equally (if not more) untenable as a backdrop for any convincing account of citizenship.

They are lacking, to begin with, because they are implausible. Few if any political societies are hermetically sealed, and certainly those that are the subject of most citizenship theorists' interest-liberal democratic societies-are deeply imbricated, economically and socially and politically, with other societies in a larger world landscape. Cross-border relationships have always existed, but their intensity has accelerated to the point that most of us are embedded, irremediably, in various fields of interaction that traverse national borders. Transborder movements of consumer goods, production processes, money, crime, information, music, disease, religion (the list is long), as well as people, are less tightly constrained today by the territorial and institutional parameters of individual nation-states than they have ever been.


Excerpted from The Citizen and the Alien by Linda Bosniak Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are saying about this

No other legal academic has confronted the divide of constitutional equality and citizenship's inherently exclusionary aspects as Linda Bosniak does in this book. It persuasively highlights the failure of most constitutional and political theorists to account for the boundedness of citizenship even as they aspire to its universality. The book brings a compelling new perspective to an important subject.
Peter J. Spiro, Temple University Law School
As the relationship between national territory, regional identity, and global jurisdiction becomes increasingly complex, questions of citizenship become more pressing: What forms of belonging and exclusion emerge on the transnational landscape? How do we conceive of the rights of aliens in a global polity inhabited by, and indebted to, guest workers, migrants, and the undocumented? Linda Bosniak's outstanding book rises to this challenging situation with remarkable clarity and extends her inventive legal perspective to provide insightful reflections on cultural and ethical issues.
Homi K. Bhabha, Harvard University
Mark Tushnet
This is a valuable work on the intersection of immigration law and the law applicable to resident aliens. This is almost certainly the most scholarly extended discussion of the linkage between those two fields yet written.
Mark Tushnet, Georgetown University Law School
Kenneth Karst
Citizenship is more than a legal status. In the literatures of American law and political theory, citizenship has accumulated multiple (even contradictory) meanings. Linda Bosniak illuminates those meanings, starting with the rhetorical use of citizenship as an avenue to inclusion and national unity, and as a foundation for constitutional equality. She also explores a colder region, where the idea of citizenship excludes aliens even when they contribute positively to our local and national communities. Noting that we have already accepted a degree of 'the citizenship of aliens,' she forcefully argues for more. If you would study citizenship in America, read this book.
Kenneth Karst, UCLA Law School
Saskia Sassen
Linda Bosniak is one of the leading scholars on citizenship and alienage in the U.S. In this brilliant book she deploys her mastery of the subject in a manner that creates conceptual openings in the discourse on immigration. This allows her to discuss immigration in ways that also illuminate citizenship and personhood.
Saskia Sassen, author of "Territory, Authority, Rights"

Meet the Author

Linda Bosniak is a professor at the Rutgers University School of Law.

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