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Civil Laws

Beyond Sovereignty and Uniformity: The Challenges for Equal Citizenship in the Twenty-First Century

A review of several recent books on immigration law and citizenship



BEYOND CITIZENSHIP: AMERICAN IDENTITY AFTER GLOBALIZATION. By Peter J. Spiro. New York: Oxford Univ. Press 2008. Pp. 194. $29.95.

THE CITIZEN AND THE ALIEN: DILEMMAS OF CONTEMPORARY MEMBERSHIP. By Linda Bosniak. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press 2008. Pp. xii, 222. $22.95.


Virtually everyone who will read these words was born in the latter two-thirds of the twentieth century. Our formative experiences during those years have led most of us to think about American citizenship in two ways that are not wrong, but are partly misleading, and are now changing.

We tend to think of American citizenship as membership in a sovereign state of the sort that we take to comprise the most important unit of world politics. And we think of American citizenship as something that should be and now largely is an essentially uniform status, conferring the same legal rights and duties on all those who possess it. Neither of these things has ever been wholly empirically true or normatively uncontested. The world has never been politically organized exclusively in terms of sovereign states, and many have never wanted it to be. Citizenship has never been essentially a uniform status, in American law or anywhere else, and many have never wanted it to be. But both things seemed true to a greater degree in the last third of the twentieth century than ever before – and, it now appears, than ever since. Today both citizenship as membership in a sovereign state and citizenship as a uniform status face empirical transformations and normative challenges that loom increasingly large. Just how much these conditions are really changing, and how we can and should respond, are the central issues facing the architects and bearers of American citizenship, as well as other forms of citizenship, in the twenty-first century.

This Review considers three books written for general audiences by leading scholars of immigration law and citizenship in order to assess how far they help readers to understand these challenges and possible responses: Hiroshi Motomura’s Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States; Linda Bosniak’s The Citizen and the Alien: Dilemmas of Contemporary Membership; and Peter J. Spiro’s Beyond Citizenship: American Identity After Globalization. As their titles suggest, these books have related but distinct foci, and this Review’s concerns are not exactly those of any of the authors. Part I of this Review details the historic transformations in citizenship that merit consideration today. Part II examines the aims of these three works and evaluates the extent to which the authors realize them, while also exploring how the authors’ arguments reflect and illuminate the transformations now occurring. Finally, in Part III, this Review contends that while these works make important contributions on their own terms, and also help readers grasp the emerging horizon of citizenship issues, they do more to clear the path toward that horizon than to take us far into the uncharted territories ahead. In order to undertake all the intellectual, legal, and political work now required in regard to citizenship, it is necessary to confront the political challenges of building enduring, effective forms of community that can thrive in a world of less than fully sovereign states and of many profoundly differentiated forms of political membership residing both within and beyond state boundaries.