There are roughly 4,000 ‘citizens of nowhere’ in the United States today. They are from Kuwait, Burma, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and many other places. Legally speaking, however, they don’t belong anywhere. No country claims them as citizens. Some were rendered stateless after their nations disintegrated; others were stripped of their rights because of ethnic, racial, gender, or religious discrimination in their home countries.
An Open Letter in Response to Barriers to Free Movement
The day is rapidly approaching when the epithet “nativist” will carry as much power as “racist.” Not only is nativism — the practice of favoring the established inhabitants of a country over recent immigrants — hateful and based on a fallacy; its destructive consequences are becoming more apparent by the day.
Nativism, and its manifestation in debates over American citizenship, is a form of discrimination deeply embedded in common parlance and the minds of many people. That it is widely accepted, however, does not mean that it is logically coherent or moral.
On the contrary, as a practice of excluding outsiders, nativism amounts to little more than a nefarious type of union membership. It grants legal monopoly privileges under the misused banner of patriotism. The union leaders (anti-immigrant pundits and politicians) pretend to defend those who carry official American citizenship as though they were inherently more important than the “aliens,” the nonunion members.
Consider these two statements:
“This is without question a terrorism on a community … and boy it is time the community itself spoke up and said ‘get the Hell out of here, we don’t want you.’… We’re going to mobilize our union, and scabs are not coming through.” — Bob Chernecki, Canadian Auto Workers Union
“The invasion of illegal aliens … places the very life of our nation in jeopardy.… These people are a clear and present danger to all of us; so we need everyone to roll up his/her sleeves and get to work to stop this flood of problems.” — Kevin Collins, Western Center for Journalism
Regardless of the particular choice of words, the sentiment is the same. The only clear difference is that Chernecki (the union boss) fears people are supposedly stealing the jobs of his union members, while Collins (the anti-immigrant pundit) fears for the jobs of American citizens, as he explains in the rest of his article. Both are misguided, and in the end, we all suffer from their unfounded fears.
Given a respect for freedom of contract and association, people are welcome to form or join any voluntary union. Similarly, in the absence of special union legislation, employers may choose to hire or not hire union employees. So violence against the people Chernecki calls “scabs” — people who compete honestly with their labor for employment but do not possess union membership, is merely naked aggression.
What is so different about attacks against noncitizens, carried out by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement?
At first glance, the underlying distinction may seem simple: some people were born within the borders and others were not. Why someone is more or less important based on where his mother gave birth is problematic and discriminatory enough, but the arbitrariness of the classification gets worse.
Consider that the borders of the United States have changed vastly over the years. As Alamo historian,Richard Winders, explains, “One of the concepts we have as modern people is that borders are stagnant, that they don’t move. But throughout history, what we can see is that borders do move.… You have people who, because of a shift in border, change nationalities.”
Further, some parts of the United States are still not actually states, and the leaders there never voluntarily joined the union. That includes American Samoa, the occupants of which find themselves treated as noncitizen “nationals,” subject to different legal treatment than citizens.
The writers and enforcers of such laws also ignore geography when it suits them. For example, if you’re born to military parents outside of the current borders, as John McCain was in the Panama Canal Zone, no problem. On the other hand, a majority of nations withhold citizenship if the mother does not have government approval to be present in the region, and staunch American nativists want to eliminate birthright citizenship in the United States as well.
For those born without American citizenship, the legal process for becoming a citizen — the immigration, or, should we say, union-membership application — is incredibly time-consuming, expensive, andarbitrary. Even worse, it’s basically closed to a majority of people, despite the U.S. government’s public-relations strategy of holding a literal lottery for immigration, the “Diversity Visa,”
In fact, the legal process is just another protectionist barrier to entry. Like the myriad of occupational licensure laws that are proliferating across the United States, it is a counterproductive attempt to keep out people who are supposedly competitive threats.
The destructive consequences
Take the case of Mikhail Sebastian. He was originally from the Soviet Union, but his former nation no longer exists, and Azerbaijan, where he was born, will not grant him citizenship. He is one of an estimated 12 million people with no legal tie to any nation — an “alien” everywhere he goes. Until recently he was stuck in American Samoa for more than a year, with no legal capacity to leave or provide for himself.
Sebastian is actually relatively fortunate. Immigration controls incentivize human trafficking, and many illegal immigrants die as they attempt to enter the United States. Government officials in the Kleberg and Brooks Counties of Texas claim that “so many undocumented immigrants are dying in the area that they are running out of space to bury them.”
All of the purported justifications for barriers to noncitizens — that they are criminals, that they increase citizen unemployment (PDF), that they use up welfare funds (PDF) — fall flat under any scrutiny.
Meanwhile, the destructive consequences of nativism and of enforcing the citizenship union, including a record 400,000 deportations in 2012, are simply enormous. The National Bureau for Economic Researchhas estimated that net gains from open borders would be “about the same as the gains from a growth miracle that more than doubles the income level in less-developed countries.” Immigration is an effective yet forgone way to help people from poorer nations, and it wouldn’t require any redistributive taxation; imagine that.
Perhaps without realizing, enforcement proponents are also facilitating the rise of an expensive police-state apparatus, and not just at the border. The reality is that one can only enforce strict movement controls and legal inequalities with police-state tactics such as inland checkpoints, encroachingsurveillance, a militarized border, and the imposition of law-enforcement duties on private individuals.
A way out
Whether lawmakers like it or not, people are going to engage in civil disobedience and defy these laws, as millions already do in the United States. The lawmakers can, if they so choose, continue to waste money and ruin people’s lives fighting against this. An understanding of nativism and its fallacies, however, leads us to realize that immigration is not a problem but an opportunity — an opportunity to open our minds to genuine legal equality and the value of freedom of movement.
Akin to the Tom Hanks movie “The Terminal,” Mikhail Sebastian is a man with no nationality who was stuck down in American Samoa for more than a year. He reveals the painful reality of laws that discriminate based on someone’s nationality, as explained in my commentary on the matter, “Nativism, the Citizenship Union, and Barriers to Movement.”
Sebastian’s presence also helps to clarify what “stateless” means for the Stateless Man. It does not mean throwing one’s passport into the river or renouncing citizenship in such a way that would grossly impede one’s options. On the contrary, it means the renunciation of confining allegiances, being an independently-minded person towards rather than against greater freedom. It also means being pragmatic, and Sebastian can tell you how important your travel documents are in that regard.
Mikhail Sebastian, the stateless man who finally left the territory more than a week ago, after being stranded in American Samoa for 14 months, arrived in Washington D.C. this week, after being invited, while his lawyer is working on his case to remain permanently in the U.S.
In an email yesterday from D.C. to the news media, including Samoa News, Sebastian said that while in the nation’s capital, he also had a chance to give a speech to the Refugees International meeting about the issue of statelessness in the U.S.
He also met with the UN Refugee Commission (UNHCR) team who “worked hard to get me back home, and we filmed additional footage for the documentary that was already produced.” (The UNHCR team was in the territory last year to film the documentary, which has already been aired in the U.S.)
Sebastian said he also visited Congressman Faleomavaega Eni’s office and met with one of his senior staffers, Tavita Richmond. The pair discussed “statelessness issue and some changes needed for your territory,” said Sebastian.
“Congressman Faleomavaega Eni is committed to work with other members of Congress to add statelessness issues to our new comprehensive [federal] immigration reform,” he said.
Earlier this month, Faleomavaega wrote to local leaders seeking suggestions and recommendations on four pieces of legislation that he plans to introduce in the U.S. House for inclusion into the broader federal immigration reform bill that Congress will consider in months ahead.
One of his proposals is to address what is called a dilemma faced by ‘stateless’ individuals, who are not citizens of any country, such as Sebastian’s case.