Debating Citizenship, post-Brexit and mid-Trump

US passport image

The entirely unironic leaflet that came with my son’s US passport

Since Brexit, I’ve been asked a few times if I will now apply for US citizenship. Up until this point I had never even considered it. I have permanent residency, and as far as I could tell (although to be honest, I hadn’t even looked that far into it) the only advantage citizenship would give me is the right to vote.

That wasn’t enough to motivate me, especially when the whole idea just felt weird somehow. But these are strange times, and the current climate has challenged me to consider being more cautious.

Having lived abroad for most of my adult life, much of my identity is now bound up in being a foreigner. When I was asked in the past about whether I aspired to citizenship I’d perhaps answer that I won’t ever feel like I’m a US-ian*, so it seems perversely fraudulent to take that step.

But a day or two after the Brexit vote I found myself having a long conversation with a friend who is, now, officially a dual Mexican and US citizen. She challenged me to think about it more rationally. “It’s just as much work to get citizenship as to renew the Green Card, so you might as well get citizenship and save time and money having to renew every few years. And it’s just a piece of paper,” she pointed out. “If you feel weird about it, it doesn’t have to mean anything more than that.”

“Like getting married!” I replied. Because this is, incidentally, the exact same argument I make to people who whine about not wanting to get married because they don’t believe in it. If you don’t believe in it, just sign the piece of paper and be done. Get the legal protections and don’t bother about the rest.

My friend is right, of course. I don’t have to believe in being a US citizen; I can just sign the piece of paper and be done.


All this has only come up because of the cataclysmic shift in both British and US politics in the last few months. In the light of a US presidential candidate whose idea of sound foreign policy is building a wall and banning entire religious groups, grabbing all the legal protections one can with both hands seems sensible.

Most of the “Should we get citizenship?” conversations have occurred with friends who are here in the US under similar circumstances to me: permanent residents from countries in the Global North who originally arrived to study.

We are the kind of people they call ‘expats’ rather than ‘immigrants.’ Instead of being accused of stealing jobs, we get asked for vacation tips and recipes. In other words, we are the white people from rich countries whose ability to live and travel anywhere in the world has always been celebrated rather than challenged.

What if Trump does win, we are now wondering? Even if he doesn’t, the climate has changed so much it could still continue to be bad—or worse, if Clinton believes she needs to placate the Right. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to think about it and get the forms ahead of time, just in case?

Just because we have been benefiting from white- and first-world-privilege so far, it doesn’t mean the landscape of discrimination can’t shift. After all, although the anti-immigrant fury is nakedly racist, the UK is a prime example of how Othering expands according to its own twisted logic. At first the anti-immigrant fervor was aimed at Poles, Bulgarians, and Romanians. But Brexit demonstrates that it now encompasses people like the Germans or the Irish, or the Spanish or the French (and more! The hatred doesn’t stop at xenophobia, but brings with it racism, homophobia, misogyny, Islamophobia…)

For my European friends in the UK who were subject to xenophobic abuse in the days and weeks immediately after the vote, my sense is that this has been a doubly shocking experience. On the one hand the abuse itself, popping up in sudden and unexpected places; but on top of that, the fact it was aimed at them: white, educated, Northern Europeans from rich countries. They realized, very suddenly, that they are also targets. And I have realized, watching from a distance, that similarly fragile sheens of privilege are all that stop me from becoming a target as well.

The UK is also an example of a related structural phenomenon. Although the popular rhetoric of anti-immigrant hatred was primarily racist and aimed at people coming from poor countries, the State responds by creating all-encompassing policies. Ironically, immigrants from all non-EU countries have been affected by the Conservative Party’s (and particularly the former Home Secretary and now PM Theresa May’s) ever more draconian immigration rules. Policies like the ones that, for instance, put financial restrictions on who is allowed to get a spousal visa, or say that only rich people can stay.

The newspaper articles that recount shocked stories of families from countries like Australia and the US who have been denied UK visas always seem to have a slightly perplexed subtext to them: “But these are not the kind of people we meant! How can this have happened?”

It has happened because, once you try to translate popular xenophobia into government policy, it will take you at your word and treat everyone just as appallingly.

Of course, shock that nice Australian or US (or now German or Irish) families could be could be torn apart and ‘sent home,’ after saying nothing about the similar treatment of, say, Iraqis or Indians, is pretty much the definition of privilege. But it is worth remembering that such lines between who is a ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ category of person can change on a dime. Moreover, we have no control over how we are categorized.

We imagine ourselves to be one thing, right up to the moment we discover that we have been seen as something entirely different, all along.


So the question remains: What does citizenship actually get you? (Other than the right to vote, of course, which means very little while it remains a right that can be taken back remarkably easily for reasons both explicit and obscured. Maybe I’m cynical, but then voting is a right I too will soon lose.)

Will citizenship help, if Trump wins? Will my German or French or Spanish friends feel safer, once they have paid several thousand pounds each and become UK citizens? Will a piece of paper stop their next-door neighbor from shouting “Go Home!” over the garden fence?

Perhaps we should ask the citizens of the US who are Black or Brown, Jewish or Muslim; we could ask the Native Americans: Does citizenship protect them? Does it make them feel safer? Does it stop people telling them they don’t belong?

In applying for citizenship—those of us who can do it easily; as easily as re-filing our Green Cards, which were nothing more than an inconvenient and expensive formality for us to acquire in the first place—I wonder if we are just reinforcing the idea that the rules of discrimination are just.

As it becomes more acceptable to say that immigrants are valid targets, if those of us who are able to choose to take citizenship do so, it might just be that we are saying: “Look, we are now no longer even technically immigrants. We have a piece of paper, now, to prove that we are different from those other immigrants.” The more we play along, the more we reinforce the idea that the rules are just and the discrimination that results from them is justified.

The rules of the game can shift at any moment because they are driven by hatred. What if, instead, we responded to this hatred not by trying to save ourselves, but by insisting that all people deserve respect and dignity, and the right to move and live in peace, regardless of which country they were born in, their race, or their religion?


*  Dudes, your country needs an English translation of Estadounidense. I can’t always be contorting my grammar.



  1. Pingback: A Piece of Paper. Waking up as an immigrant on Nov 9, 2016. | Dispatches From The Wrong Side
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