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Citizenship. Privilege, Subjective Right, or Way of Co-existing?

The “sense” of citizenship has accompanied the evolution of human society, defining time and time again who is part of the “people.”

by Claudio Rossi
trump-protest new york

La protesta a Downtown Manhattan, il 29 gennaio 2017, contro la politica anti immigrati del presidente Donald Trump (Foto VNY)

Integration is characterized by a process of sharing objectives, rights, duties, and above all, the ability to make decisions in discussions of the society that integrates itself. The Roman emperors were cheered and praised because other people searched for the “Roman happiness.” Couldn’t the same happen to the United States’ leaders if they were to let themselves be guided by the American Dream that they represent?

The conference held on November 2-4 at Stony Brook University

This paper was recently presented by sociologist and Prof. Claudio Rossi (Università La Sapienza, Rome) at the International Conference  “The Challenges of Migration in North America and Europe: Comparing Policies and Models of Reception”, organized at Stony Brook University (SUNY) by the Center for Italian Studies on November 2, 3, and 4, 2017. 

The concept of citizenship conforms to the sphere of a society that participates in, regulates, and carries out the sense of mutual relationships and of the organization of groups of individuals that are recognized in that society. It indicates the greater common interests which call for supportive behavior among citizens. The concept of citizenship, therefore, does not simply represent a product of legal procedure, but it is a cultural product that concerns the profound motivation of the sentiment of sharing the society that expresses it.

Let’s quickly retrace the meaning that it has had in history, without ever forgetting that when one is going to speak of the meaning of citizenship, one will speak of the cultural premises that indicate which society it is expressing.

We will also see that in every place and time, the sense of citizenship has represented for human communities a way to interpret the system of relationships between the members of a community, and between themselves and the “outsiders,” the “others,” and the “foreigners,” those who are not part of that community.

For this reason, the “sense” of citizenship has accompanied the evolution of human society, defining time and time again who is part of the “people” and how they are a part of it, for the purpose of assuring its own survival. In these interpretations, the term “citizenship” can indicate:

  • The sense of belonging to a community, the group of citizens considered as a group that is united and synonymous within the population;
  • The possession of rights and the carrying out of duties associated to the title, as an instrument that conveys the individual’s membership to a group or territory.

From the interlacing between these two meanings, we will discover that the function of citizenship moves like a pendulum between union and separation, parity and discrimination, participation and exclusion, referring both citizens and non-citizens. In discussing citizenship, therefore, it is fundamental to understand that, as an instrument, it can be utilized for opposite purposes.

Because of this interlacing, in every place and time, citizenship has intersected the phenomenon of immigration, in both its symbolic aspects and its practices; and today, especially in the West, it is the element of perhaps the most intensive debate in discussing the politics of immigration management and its effects on the receiving community.

The idea in this Conference is to offer a contribution to the understanding of the role that can be attributed to citizenship in the process of integrating the immigrant population.

To do this, I must initially clarify that the definition of integration to which I refer is the process of direct participation in the ordinary and extraordinary life of society, with parity between citizens and without discrimination.

Integration is characterized by a process of sharing objectives, rights, duties, and above all, the ability to make decisions in discussions of the society that integrates itself. “That integrates itself” and not “that is integrated,” the sharing indeed is a reciprocal and interdependent two-way process that engages all parties that are part of the process.

As a result, the process of integration produces the changes necessary to social system’s balance, which will be major or minor depending on the starting distance between diversities.

Integration is different from social inclusion, which instead regards the way in which the aspiring immigrants are received and allowed to enter. Included indeed, in the social system in being in it, without entailing any changes, if not limited and functional, to the system. It is destined to remain what it is, and the task of adjustment is essentially up to only the immigrants.

Social inclusion is the subject and objective or the process of reception, which can be interpreted as the initial phase of integration but does not entail any sharing.

Therefore, the question of citizenship does not regard the reception, but the successive path in which it assumes the role of a strategic instrument in the simultaneous stabilizing of both the immigrant and the society that they enter.

Traditionally, studies on citizenship historically place its definition in Classical Greece, attached to the affirmation of the polis as a city-state. However, some scholars highlight that the sense of citizenship may be tied to the concept of polis, but may be present in different civilizations even preceding Classical Greece.

We are around 3500 B.C. when the first civilizations, in Mesopotamia and Egypt, establish the first “cities” with an organized interweaving of relations, division of tasks and work, and rules of coexistence.

In this early phase, the potential citizens are those who permanently live in the territory subject to the dominion of the city, exercised by the authority of a king or commander whose legitimacy of power they recognize. Generally, this territory is surrounded and protected by large walls, which defend its citizens from enemies and simultaneously separates their community from all others.

They are “permitted” to see themselves as citizens, however, not everyone who lives inside the walls, only those who are mutually recognized to hold some power to govern or apply the rules of coexistence, persons who are considered “free” in comparison to slaves and prisoners. Free and therefore equal.

In these situations, organized in a complex way, everyone has a role and a specific function and in some way, participates in the life of the community, but with a fundamental difference: the citizens have the ability to make decisions, the slaves, prisoners, foreigners, and everyone who does not permanently live in the city do not.

Already from the beginning, then, the sense of citizenship presents its fundamental meanings: identification of a status of membership, the definition of the conditions of mutual parity, and the determination of the capability of sharing.

Compared to these characteristics, the early Indian civilization instead regards the concept of belonging to a physical land as secondary, since the essence of any man is the interior soul, which is a part of the universe. In this dimension everything is equal and integrated to the highest degree and as a result, this concept removes the sense of social mechanisms of managing the parity and integration of diversities. The sense of citizenship does not have a place in the interior dimension, as the difference between citizen and foreigner or immigrant.

On the contrary, Confucius, in VI century B.C. China, gives citizenship a meaning that we could define as “moral,” connectable then to social mechanisms. Philosophically, the individual is as much a citizen belonging to a given society and is involved in all the relations that derive from such membership. Therefore, citizenship embodies a set of moral duties that aim “to continue to allow himself and the society to exist,” for which everyone is responsible, immigrants included. Membership, mutual equality, and integration, therefore, are determined time after time by the duties of the citizen to protect the community, which in turn become a cause for individual contextual fulfillment.

In the pre-Columbian civilizations of the Incas and Aztecs, citizenship has the purpose of separating the permanent residents of the kingdom or empire from the nomads. The citizens that belong to the community are the permanent residents, considered the “true human persons,” equal among each other. The foreigners are tolerated guests while the nomads are separated from the citizens and are objects of segregation and discrimination.

Conversely, for the Mayans, citizenship has a sense of integration: a citizen is someone who actively participates within the society, independent of origin. Therefore, the conferring of rights and duties corresponds with this participation, as opposed to those who live isolated and show indifference and do not deserve neither equality nor membership.

It is, in any case, in Classical Greece that we Westerners traditionally put the origin of the philosophical-political definition of citizenship.

It assumes importance and evidence in the time of the poleis, the city-states endowed with independence and sovereignty that developed on all the Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts for about six centuries, until the end of the Hellenistic age and the following Roman conquest.

Due to how it was born, the Greek city is territorially limited and must continuously contend with cities bordering the area of security relating to mobility, production, trade, but also cultural and political management.

The concept of the Greek polis is a concept in itself elitist, it is nothing other than the place in which the elite, composed of the city’s founders and their descendants, practice politics. The citizen is not “a part” of the polis, they “are” the polis and therefore the power to participate in its government, more than a civil right, is understood as a privilege that concerns the elite.

With this cultural point of view of membership and capability of rights and duties, the pendulum of the sense of citizenship was bound to reach separation between an “us” of equals, with the decision-making power, and “everyone else,” legitimately discriminated against and excluded. In some cases, the purpose of separating the citizenry assumed sophisticated aspects: for Plato, two types of citizenry existed, one executive, with government roles, and one passive, which must be governed.

Attention to privilege and to social separation pushed the Greeks to be extremely reluctant to grant citizenship, e.g. in Athens where only adult males and Athenian descendants could be considered citizens with political rights. The elite originated in the area encircled by the walls. They did not come to the city from abroad. This gives them the natural right of superiority contrary to other members of the society.

A belief that produces a refusal of integration of the immigrant and foreign population in all of the Greek world. If citizenship is a privilege, then it is defended. Besides foreigners, exiles have to suffer, subjects, in a certain sense, comparable to today’s refugees, who are left without citizenship, having abandoned their own city and deserving of contempt in the eyes of the elite for this reason.

This concept of citizenship lasted as long as the culture of the poleis, which at a certain point dissolved within a new culture that changed the interpretation of the city, citizens, and, therefore, citizenship. The diffusion of the sophist philosophical doctrine and the open and tolerant environment incited by Alexander the Great’s conquest in the IV century B.C. opened the doors to Hellenism.

The two new driving cultural premises of the Hellenistic revolution: all men are equal, apart from political and social characterizations, and if everyone is equal, then it is possible that they may equally be part of a single people. The sense of citizenship is transformed from a selective and discriminatory tool to a container of universality. The idea incited by Alexander the Great is, in fact, a society of a universal foundation, with a common language, religion, and culture, within which each one, as much as being human, can feel like a citizen.

Because this is possible, citizenship inverts its role to the largest opening regarding individual, social, cultural, and religious conditions between those differing, which must no longer compete to dominate one over the other, but whose realization is that of blending. And so, there is no longer need of a dominant elite, but membership, parity, and integration are equal for everyone, without a need to distinguish between Greeks and barbarians, between citizens, immigrants, and foreigners.

As a result of the cultural shift, in place of the aristocratic elite’s privilege, the idea of a single people is born, in which the merging of diversities ensures internal peace; and they can be led by a head, the emperor, who has the task of sustaining mutual integration and facilitating effective conditions of equality, parity, and participation.

Knocking down the political and economic barriers between cities, population growth and diversification, and development of associative life are the new characteristics of the Hellenistic city. It is now seen as the center of culture rather than a type of state, in which the integration of differences no longer causes fear, but rather is a condition of citizenship.

While Alexander the Great was pushing his influence east, the great power of Rome was emerging in the Western Mediterranean.

However, let us quickly mention that regarding the current debate on granting citizenship, the appearance of the duality between jus sanguinis and jus soli is not a part of the Roman political culture, but is introduced much later by Medieval jurists in the XII century.

Rome’s originality instead lies in conceiving an idea of citizenship that is not rigid and static, but justified in adapting to the society’s social and political changes from time to time.

The foundation of the city of Rome was the product of the blend and balance of early Sabine, Etruscan, and Latin communities that, due to trade, settled around the Tiber River and needed to be sustained and organized. Even the original social composition can be imagined as very varied: farmers, breeders, merchants, free men but also servants, rebels, and exiles from neighboring cities.

The Roman citizens maintained this awareness of originally being mixed people. This awareness fostered openness to the integration of diversities on an ethical, social, and cultural level according to the effectiveness of coexistence.

An important awareness, because the problem the Romans always faced was how to manage the continuous assimilation of human communities, caused by continuous territorial expansion, in an orderly and productive way.

Throughout their history, the Romans used the concession of Roman citizenship to tie foreign allies and statesmen to themselves, and to obtain new men for the army and new contributors for the treasury.

Roma antica: Il Circo Massimo

Regarding immigrants and foreigners, the political problem concerning whether or not to integrate them into the Roman community simply does not arise: all those who can make themselves useful sooner or later become citizens, even slaves. To do so, a gradual integration strategy is laid out with layers regarding the role the new citizen could have for the Roman citizens’ community.

The Romans’ culture had indeed developed a typical rational and practical approach towards the situation, which justified the use of flexible strategies that were partial and progressive, even case by case, as long as they were useful to the community’s coexistence. This flexibility had a strategic purpose: to obtain the acceptance of the cities, communities, and peoples that they were gradually surrendering their authority to Rome’s dominance.

The advantages of citizenship were offered in exchange for loyalty, alliance, contribution, and military supplies. The Italic cities launched a war against the Roman Republic precisely because of its refusal to grant citizenship. Rome won the war, but to stabilize the realm it granted citizenship to everyone.

A few centuries later, the empire reached its height of expansion. Roman citizenship was extended to all its inhabitants and Rome needed new laborers, new soldiers, new taxpayers, and a renewal of the ruling and military classes. To fill the gaps, refugees from beyond the borders were allowed to enter; but not only that, when necessary, the army took entire tribes and placed them in imperial territory.

Unlike how current States are used to granting citizenship today, Rome acknowledged its own interest to grant it, backed by a process of social planning for which immigrants and refugees knew what to do once they entered and what to expect from the authorities if they were to accept the rules of coexistence.

In this, the army is an extraordinary tool. Its proverbial operative ability is used as an instrument of social as well as military management. Everyone, without distinction of birth or origin, can have a military career and achieve high social status and political command. It establishes an important mechanism of integration: it assimilates immigrants, foreigners, refugees, and barbarians and after their service, they return to civilian life as Roman citizens.

Centuries have passed, yet some writers suggest a sort of parallelism between the experiences in Rome and the United States of America:

  • Both accept the melting pot as a desirable cultural model;
  • Both use a large and powerful as a practical route towards citizenship: one can enter regardless of status and exit as a citizen.

Let’s propose adding another basic similarity: the American culture, like Roman culture, is well aware that its people are from mixed origins, therefore citizenship becomes a political instrument rather than an identifying instrument.

Whoever is born in the United States is an American citizen, as well as someone born to American parents in foreign territory, as long as at least one of them was a United States resident. The model is therefore the so-called jus soli integrale, currently the legal mechanism of great openness in the West. It was codified in the American Constitution by an amendment in 1868, oriented towards the protection of the birthrights of slaves of African origin.

In spite of the lights and shadows of the fight against racial discrimination that we all know, even this demonstrates that the American Constitution’s sense of citizenship is to safeguard a coexistence among equals in its communities who participate equally in the nation’s development. Proof of this is the fact that the application of jus soli is also guaranteed to those born to irregular immigrants on national soil.

Regarding the immigration phenomenon, it is noteworthy that, unlike Europe, in the United States, immigrants are not only those who are “not citizens,” but they have a precise status, connected to the relative rights and duties in the community. Green Cards legally and socially identify them to the eyes of citizens as an “aspirant for the condition of citizenship.”

And the system that allows an immigrant to become a citizen is naturally inclusive, through a relative’s sponsorship, a job offer, a business investment, a request for asylum, and even in a random way, the famous Diversity Lottery.

According to official data, there are over 35 million legal immigrants and about half that number in illegal immigrants in the United States today.

Therefore, we understand that regarding the sense of citizenship, the problem they are facing is how to balance the initial stages of membership, parity, and integration within a national community where differences in origin are growing. In order for the United States to be cohesive with its own constitutional principles, it must choose integration systems that actually facilitate the economic, cultural, and political participation of immigrants, that actually avoid discrimination of immigrants, and that actually keep situations of equality in the communities under control.

The Roman Empire had a border, the “limes,” which was vigorously protected, but it was not a place of rejection, if not in the event of armed warfare. It was a place of meeting, of mutual understanding, of commercial and also cultural exchange. Rome, while it could do so, never erected a wall to repel migrants and refugees who asked to enter, simply because it would not have done any good to manage this type of inflow.

We do not want to speak about the stress test that current events are presenting to the American integration systems. We seek only a reflection that involves its culture as well as its politics: the American Dream.

What did America represent for past migrants and what does it represent still to today’s migrants? To live better and to survive. An easy but superficial response. It is enough to read pages from assimilated writers or just letters that emigrants wrote at home to understand that this response represents a world. A world where one believes that freedom among equals, equal opportunity, and integration through participation in the economic and civil life where they live are all possible.

The Constitution states “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Just rhetoric or it can be pointed to as the cultural basis that expresses the meaning of American citizenship, that it unites whoever lives the dream as truth in a common belonging. Because by participating, one can become considered an equal person integrated with everyone else, despite the difficulty of doing it.

The Roman emperors were cheered and praised because other people searched for the “Roman happiness.” Couldn’t the same happen to the United States’ leaders if they were to let themselves be guided by the American Dream that they represent?

Unlike the United States of America, Europe has not yet defined a concept of European citizenship and a European citizen with a supranational significance. In the Old World, each State preserved a concept of its own. This is the result of historic processes and differences that are still evident between the societies’ cultural models. Regarding citizenship, this conservative attitude is producing a series of personalized legal procedures that are not always identical or harmonious, though scarcely analyzable in a place such as this.

What is certain, however, is that to recognize the possession or acquisition of citizenship, everyone must use legal instruments handed down from tradition:

  • jus sanguinis: citizenship tied to descent or marriage, with automatic hereditary transmission;
  • jus soli: citizenship as an automatic consequence of birth, without restriction to lineage, that provides entry from abroad to the community of citizens;
  • jus domicilii: citizenship tied to continuous residence, subject to a series of regulations, with discretional evaluation of identity and non-automatic.

From a theoretical point of view, each of these instruments refers to a defined understanding of the sense of citizenship that provides diverse ways of understanding citizens’ belonging to a community, the conditions of equality among equals, and the desirable level of integration.

Therefore, in an extremely synthetic way, starting from the legal beginning or beginnings used, let’s try to return to the sense of citizenship that various nationalities seem to express.

Most nations of the European Union favor the acquisition and transmission of citizenship through blood ties. The adoption of blood ties (jus sanguinis) recalls cultural views of an elite character and a cultural heritage of identity protection typical to the cultures of nation-states. Identity culture that is expressed in the a priori assignment of a privilege due to a direct line of descent from an original community.

In this sense, membership is a closed and automatic system that tends to separate, discriminate, and exclude whoever is outside of that descent.

Precisely for these reasons, facing migratory pressure and especially requests for asylum and international protection, these countries have felt the need to lessen the effect of closing off, even adding, in some cases, elements related to mechanisms of acquisition through birth or elements tied to continuous residence. These additions tend to render greater permeability and flexibility possible, which is necessary to permit the system to respond to environmental changes.

However, the exceptions are important, which instead favor the acquisition and transmission of citizenship by birth (jus soli), such as France, Germany, or Ireland.

As we have seen, the model based on birth shows a more open cultural point of view that is functionally oriented toward adapting to the citizens’ community at social, political, and economic events.

In this case, the sense of citizenship spreads the feeling of union and equality, even when it refers to descent or continuous residence. Additionally, it stimulates the construction of participation mechanisms that are integrative and open also to aspiring citizens, under certain conditions.

It is in relation to immigration that jus sanguinis and jus soli present the most profound difference, because integrating non-citizens in a system based on privilege of origin inevitably produces structural inequality and discrimination, which prevents the immigrants from “conquering” that privilege on their own.

Otherwise, being recognized as a citizen, and therefore equal to other citizens for the simple fact of being born in a certain territory, allows the new citizen to participate in the life of the territory in which they live and by participating, they “deserve” that status.

In our view, the largely layered structural capacity is precisely the peculiarity of the United States’ sense of citizenship compared to the European states in their entirety. A difference in potential that remains even when historic events push the governments of the two continents to similar conduct.

What conclusions to draw on the nature of citizenship…

We covered its complexity, through which privileges and rights are assigned, and coexistence among citizens is also regulated.

Above all, we understood that it represents a border, subsequent to a material one, but no less decisive and dangerous in relation to migratory phenomenon, because a border can be a place of meeting but also of definitive exclusion.

Zigmunt Bauman writes that migrants (displaced persons, refugees, etc.) are also a metaphor of exclusion and “refusal” of a society that, too often only in words, has human dignity at its heart. The migrant who does not find their own identity and homeland is similar to a waste product.

It is this type of society that we must avoid in every way going forward.


In this videos below, Prof. Luigi Troiani, Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas, presents a summary and personal reflections on the Conference: “The Challenges of Migration in North America and Europe: Comparing Policies and Models of Reception,” held at SUNY Stony Brook, on November 2-4, 2017.

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