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Excerpted From: Rose Cuison-Villazor, Rejecting Citizenship: Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era. By Ming Hsu Chen. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2020. Pp. Xi, 215. $28., 120 Michigan Law Review 1033 (April, 2022) (154 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RoseCuisonVillazorCitizenship for undocumented immigrants is once again on the horizon. Just a few weeks after President Donald Trump left the White House, and several years since the last time Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, President Joe Biden announced that he will push for legislation to provide millions of undocumented immigrants with a path to become U.S. citizens. Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Linda Sanchez subsequently introduced the Citizenship Act of 2021, which seeks to create different ways that immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, may earn citizenship. The next few months in Washington, D.C., will bear witness to whether President Biden's promise will be realized.

The potentially millions of people newly eligible for U.S. citizenship would join thousands of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who apply for naturalization each year. Among LPRs, the desire to become citizens has been robust. Indeed, naturalizations have increased over the last few years. In 2019, for example, 843,593 individuals became naturalized, an 11 percent increase from the 761,901 individuals who were naturalized in 2018. And that 2018 figure is also higher than the number of people-- 707,265--naturalized in 2017.

In Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era, Professor Ming Chen examines the rise in citizenship applications and conducts an in-depth analysis of the reasons why LPRs naturalize. Given the Trump administration's heightened enforcement of immigration laws, it is no surprise that citizenship applications climbed. As Chen thoughtfully explains in her book, citizenship applications increased because of what she describes as “citizenship insecurity” felt by noncitizens (p. 3). Chen critiques the federal government's immigration regime, which led many immigrants, undocumented and documented alike, to feel vulnerable. Accordingly, Chen claims that green-card holders applied for formal citizenship in greater numbers than previous years (p. 1). Notably, the Trump administration's enforcement also impacted substantive citizenship and the ability of noncitizens to become better integrated into society. Chen therefore argues for less immigration enforcement and more governmental efforts to promote citizenship, which would further a socially cohesive society “fueled by shared purpose and values.”

As Pursuing Citizenship illustrates, the desire for citizenship among eligible immigrants is undoubtedly on the rise. However, Chen's book tells only one side of this story. As this Review argues, the story regarding the pursuit of citizenship must be examined alongside the story of how individuals--citizens and noncitizens alike--are refusing citizenship. This Review conducts this examination by drawing attention to those noncitizens who have rejected or are rejecting citizenship. As it explains, many LPRs who are eligible to become U.S. citizens do not, in fact, take the final step and apply for naturalization. In 2019, for example, there were more than one million LPRs who were presumptively eligible to naturalize. Yet only 830,560 applied that year. Immigrants are not the only ones refusing citizenship: other noncitizens such as American Samoans--who are not U.S. citizens despite the “American” in their name--have chosen to reject citizenship. U.S. citizens also are renouncing their citizenship in increasing numbers.

Limited attention has been paid to the ways in which noncitizens refuse formal citizenship. Most legal scholarship has, like Chen's book, focused on the desire for citizenship and the ways in which those who seek it experience various barriers. But as Professors Robin Lenhardt and Jennifer Gordon have pointed out, more critical attention should be paid to the ways in which formal citizenship is acquired. This Review takes up that work by canvassing examples of citizenship rejection and raising questions that have implications for our understanding of citizenship. Why would noncitizens and U.S. citizens who stand to benefit from U.S. citizenship choose to remain or become noncitizens? What do their decisions to reject citizenship suggest about the value of citizenship? By asking these questions, this Review aims to highlight an underexplored dimension of citizenship.

Specifically, the Review aims to make four points. The first is to counter the view that citizenship is always beloved and chosen. To be sure, as Part I discusses, Pursuing Citizenship makes a strong case for why noncitizens choose to naturalize, particularly when an administration is engaged in heightened immigration enforcement. But as the Review's second point contends, contrary to conventional wisdom, citizenship is not always desired or viewed as ideal. Part II describes individuals who find citizenship unnecessary, questionable, and undesirable. These include LPRs who choose not to naturalize, American Samoans who reject birthright citizenship, and U.S. citizens who abandon citizenship. The Review's third point is that the rejection of citizenship illuminates underappreciated critical views about how citizenship is acquired. Using ideas borrowed from critical race theory (CRT), Part III challenges the conventional view of citizenship as a means of inclusion and equality and shows how citizenship has served as a tool of oppression and subordination. Fourth and finally, this Review raises questions that consider the normative and theoretical implications of the repudiation of citizenship. This includes building on the concept of “unbundling citizenship,” which I have explored elsewhere, to encourage revisiting what membership in the American polity should look like.

[. . .]

From a descriptive and normative account, citizenship is understood as an ideal status--one that noncitizens surely want if given the opportunity. The ongoing advocacy for citizenship for Dreamers, DACA recipients, and unauthorized immigrants reflect citizenship's desirability. After all, citizenship comes with a host of rights, privileges, and benefits.

Undoubtedly, the need to understand why noncitizens have pursued citizenship is crucial not only for appreciating the meaning of citizenship but also for developing legal and policy approaches to helping immigrants integrate into the United States. But as this Review contends, it is equally important to explore why noncitizens and citizens alike have rejected citizenship in order to gain a nuanced and fulsome understanding of the value of citizenship and what it means to belong to the United States.

The most pressing question posed by opting out of naturalization is whether citizenship should continue to be encouraged. The ongoing need to provide a path to permanent membership for millions of undocumented immigrants today clearly suggests the importance of ensuring security in citizenship for these vulnerable noncitizens. Ultimately, this Review reveals gaps in our understanding of citizenship that demand attention.

Interim Co-Dean, Professor of Law, and Chancellor's Social Justice Scholar, Rutgers Law School (Newark).

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