Publisher web: Amazon, Princeton University Press

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. Bosniak argues that globalization and the accompanying motion of populations challenge the fundamental ideals of democratic citizenship as designed and celebrated within the boundaries of nation states.

As an inevitable tool for grasping the complexity and impasses of contemporary democratic citizenship, Bosniak presents a typology of discourses on citizenship, emphasizing the multiplicity of meanings of citizenship and the juridical interpretations of alien status. Even if her analysis draws almost entirely on the American constitutional experience, her practical, legal, political-theoretical, and ethical insights into and concerns with the citizen-alien pairing are readily transferable to the general debate on citizenship in other liberal democracies and the global community generally. 

The most recent constitutional challenge to contemporary liberal democracies comes from the realization of the legally unequal position that aliens (noncitizens) encounter in their host countries. As demonstrated by Bosniak, citizens and aliens experience differently their status, rights, benefits, and identity in given political, economic, and social spaces. Despite this fact, few theorists have focused on the contrasting experience of citizens and aliens, and Bosniak argues that this ‘delayed’ concern with “alienage” as a challenge to democratic principles is caused by the fact that most political theorists operate within a narrowly defined understanding of the “citizenship narrative.” On the one hand, the inward-looking narrative approaches citizenship in a universalistic manner where “everyone” is included and incorporated into a community. The universalistic discourse is mostly concerned with the problem of “secondary citizens,” that is with social groups that, despite their formal citizen status, are deprived of the opportunity to enjoy rights and benefits stemming from that status.

On the other hand, the boundary-focused narrative justifies the securing of external boundaries so that communities can preserve their privileged democratic principles and the generated welfare of community members. An important component of this discourse is the emphasis on immigration policy, which sets criteria that those who seek entry must pass. The nationalistic bent of such narratives is mostly legitimized through practical arguments. According to Bosniak, discussion of citizenship and alienage can be divided between these two narrative extremes, but unfortunately, this narrative divide separates those who study the subject into two insular worlds, in neither of which is proper attention devoted to the increasing presence of aliens crossing ever more porous borders. 

Despite the inadequate and bifurcated theoretical concern with the relationship between alienage and democracy, contemporary jurisdiction and existing legal and social theory tend to stick to a “hard-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside” liberal approach to treating aliens. This model maintains that there is a need for stiff controls over external borders, accompanied by rigid criteria as to who is to be invited to share community space, rights, and benefits. Once admitted though, aliens should be allowed to enjoy rights and privileges almost equal to those of citizens – a position described as “the citizenship of non-citizens.”

This seemingly discrepant notion is meaningful provided that we realize the semantic and conceptual complexity of “citizenship” in the Anglo-American linguistic and political arena. Citizenship is casually used to mean either formal membership in a political community, but can be also interpreted as entitlement and enjoyment of a set of (civil, political, social, economic, culture) rights. Referring primarily to American constitutional practice, the author notices that the territorially present person might not need to be in possession of formal membership status in order to be allocated rights and benefits, such as due process rights in criminal proceeding, the right to education, protection under the state’s labor and employment laws, freedom of expression, association, religious rights, etc.

The principle that individuals possess certain rights regardless of their formal membership status applies as well to undocumented aliens, who are the most vulnerable of noncitizens, but who nevertheless receive vital protection through what is referred to as the “non-convertibility principle.” This principle posits a division among separate spheres of justice and the notion, for example, that an individual’s immigration status (or lack thereof) cannot damage his or her position in relation to other spheres. An undocumented person, therefore, can be prosecuted for violating immigration law, while at the same time preserving her right to sue her employer for unfair labor practices. (For obvious reasons, this is a theoretical assumption because in real life undocumented aliens rarely exercise their constitutional rights out of fear of deportation.)

Distinguishing between citizenship-as-membership and citizenship-as-entitlement-to-rights provides a powerful tool for considering forms of inequality experienced by noncitizens, but it is not without its problems. Thus, even if aliens de facto benefit from many privileges, they still remain deprived of political rights (among them, the inability to shape the community that decides their future) and constantly face the threat of deportation, a fact that the theoretical analysis can make us lose sight of. Likewise, the distinction can be useful for explicating two qualitatively different forms of inequality: that of secondary citizens (persons with formal membership status but without practical access to member’s rights) and of aliens (persons without formal status but able – de facto – to enjoy most citizenship rights). Bosniak develops a hierarchy of these inferior statuses, and demonstrates the sometimes contradictory interrelationships among them. 

One powerful example involves the achievement of the feminist movement in ensuring the right of gainful employment for women, an advance that was partly achieved thanks to the availability of alien women to handle childcare and other traditional domestic jobs. Such analytical cases illustrate how the subject-substance citizenship divide can obscure the incongruity and hypocrisy between how contemporary Western countries celebrate themselves as superior democratic polities, while nevertheless allowing sometimes gross forms of inequality to go unchallenged.

Referring to the work of several recognized legal and political theoreticians, Bosniak considers possible solutions to the new challenges that migration presents to nationally conceived democracies. Would the extension of political rights to noncitizens suffice as a remedy to the deficiencies of democratic principles as they are presently constituted? Would immediate naturalization remove criticism of the double standards that exist in current concepts of “citizenship”? Perhaps, but how realistic is it to imagine existing communities extending their embrace and solidarity to newcomers who sometimes look different, speak different languages and practice different customs? And how would straightforward naturalization – even if such a process could be brought into being -- accommodate new trends in migration, e.g., temporary or pendulum migrations between home and host countries? And indeed isn’t the normative nationalism which legitimizes the exclusion of aliens at the physical border of the community in conflict with ideals of universal equality?

Bosniak does not propose answers to these questions; rather, she sets the framework for further examination of the unavoidable ambivalences and ethical conflicts that migration creates. In her own words, “...we liberal national subjects are chronically divided over the proper location of boundaries – boundaries of responsibility and boundaries of belonging.” So far, it seems that current globalization and its practical outcomes will force us to either redefine the place of citizenship in democratic polities or the meaning of democracy itself. In this sense, the plight of aliens in question does not only test the humanity in each of us, but also sustainability of democratic principles as currently embedded in nation states.


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