Penn Arts and Sciences

Being American/Becoming American: Immigrants’ Membership in the United States (Irene Bloemraad)

Thursday, March 20, 2014 - 3:30pm - 5:00pm

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WHAT MAKES SOMEONE AN "AMERICAN"?  Political theorists and political sociologists have emphasized "ethnic" and "civic" distinctions in national belonging, while scholars of immigration focus on boundary making around language, religion, citizenship status and race.  In a presentation of ongoing work, Professor Bloemraad explores the contours of membership in the United States that emerged in interviews with 182 U.S.-born youth and their immigrant parents born in Mexico, China, and Vietnam. Despite a discourse portraying U.S. citizenship as a civic and political affiliation blind to ascriptive traits, many of those interviewed equate “being American” with racial majority status, affluence, and privilege.

Bloemraad argues that contemporary scholars of politics and immigration have not sufficiently explored economic notions of American-ness, which immigrants and their children can see as both a barrier to membership, but also a pathway to symbolic inclusion, notably for undocumented migrants.  For many immigrants, membership through naturalization – the exemplar of citizenship by consent – does not overcome a lingering sense of outsider status. Perhaps surprisingly, birthright citizenship offers an egalitarian promise: it is a color-blind and class-blind path to membership.

These findings have implications for current political debates. Various politicians and public commentators seek to deny birthright citizenship to children born in the United States to undocumented or temporary migrants. Among their claims, critics of universal birthright citizenship contend that the practice flies in the face of liberal principles, in which both individuals and the state should consent to membership. From this perspective, citizenship through naturalization is valorized, since it rests on the affirmative choice of the immigrant and the clear consent of the state.  This research suggests instead that the Citizenship Clause of Fourteenth Amendment provides constitutional legitimacy for the ideals of inclusion and equality, facilitating immigrant integration and communal membership through citizenship. 

Irene Bloemraad is the Thomas Garden Barnes Chair of Canadian Studies and Associate Professor, Sociology, at the University of California, Berkeley.  An internationally recognized expert on immigration, in January 2014 she was named a member of the U.S. National Research Council panel that will report on “Integration of Immigrants in U.S. Society.” Bloemraad’s work examines the intersection of immigration and politics, with emphasis on citizenship, immigrants’ political and civic participation, and multiculturalism. 

Her research has appeared in top academic journals spanning the fields of sociology, political science, history and ethnic/ migration studies. Recent articles include “Is There a Trade-off Between Multiculturalism and Socio-Political Integration?” (co-authored with Matthew Wright) which appeared in Perspectives in Politics and won the “Best Article” award from the Migration and Citizenship section of the American Political Science Association in 2013. Bloemraad has authored or co-edited three books: Rallying for Immigrant Rights (2011), Civic Hopes and Political Realities (2008) and Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada (2006), which won an honorable mention for the best book from the American Sociological Association’s International Migration section. 

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