Citizenship: An Exclusive Club

Migration of the Serbs by  Paja Jovanović .

Migration of the Serbs by Paja Jovanović.

We take citizenship for granted. This birth lottery that provides us access to a nation's political, social and economic benefits simply on the basis of being born in the right geography. Citizenship's rewards come in the form of education, occupational opportunities and others - at the expense of taxes, of course. I won't argue that sometimes, being a citizen of a country may have shortcomings worse than its benefits. But it feels nice to belong, regardless.

Throughout history, migration is one of the human activities that also play an influential role on citizenship and how we've come to give it such an elastic concept. Move UP by Dr. Clotaire Rapaille and Dr. Andrés Roemer underscores this concept by explaining the push and pull factors behind why people move to other countries that have "forward" cultures. Nations and communities that have cultures that bring about social and economic benefits best for individuals who reside there.

There are plenty of reasons why people choose to leave their home countries. In the recent decade, the mass exodus from the Middle-East to Europe can be traced back to the political instability or war and conflict back in their countries. More could also be said of the European countries who are tightening their borders to this perennial problem. The UK's Brexit from the European Union and the political flaying of immigrants is yet another neon light to this already glaring problem.

The American "Green Card" dream. Source:  Today I Found Out .

The American "Green Card" dream. Source: Today I Found Out.

Even America, whose foundations are built on the narratives of migration (and the "Green Card" dream), is facing some sense of xenophobia against perceived aliens coming to take their jobs and livelihood. Yet despite all these - migrants come daily by the hundreds and thousands to these developed countries. Looking for livelihood and a better chance at their economic and social opportunities. And this narrative exists everywhere, even among the developing nations themselves.

Indonesian and Bangladeshi migrants who work in the Malaysian labor and domestic industry, on the basis of the latter's stronger currency. We're driven by money. But we're also driven by better social opportunities. Why wouldn't a concerned middle-class parent prefer that their child stay in Australia after their studies; working there and apply for a permanent resident status? Why come back home where the political state of the nation is in disarray and the economic future uncertain? Humans are driven by opportunities and what benefits their chances. This is the underlying argument presented in Rapaille and Roemer's Move UP.

But coming from the other side of the wall, citizenship can be perceived as an exclusive club. Those from the lower-economic range countries look to the developed one and say, "I want those same opportunities" and would make advances to move. But the process is rarely easy. Unless, of course, a nation's open arms are part of an alleged long-term political strategy.

To be part of a nation would also to be a part of their institutional tools, such as the banking, education and health system. The visa a migrant first gets only offers an entry-point but rarely is it a guarantee of acceptance. Access to these institutional tools very often have pre-requirements of documentation and access that a home-born citizen usually has (and takes for granted) such as property and a social security number.

Take applying for a bank account for instance: one needs to show proof of identification (check), proof of address from official institutions (wait, what?). The latter, which means needing to be in a sense of some official ownership of property. Unless the migrant came through an official body or company that can serve as a guarantor, in most instances, this is where the checks fail and the application rejected. To function adequately in a new country, you need access to its institutional tools. But access to these institutional tools require opportunities and documentation that only citizens usually have.

It's not that the process of achieving these accesses are impossible. It's just made a lot more difficult, with more rings to jump through. And acquiring a sense of legitimacy from the state, also requires you to prove that you want it enough. Think of the years needed for one to be able to apply for a permanent resident permit. Or the tests and interviews one has to go through to become a citizen of another country, after years of half-assimilation. Citizenship functions like an exclusive club in its own right - with access to political, social and economic benefits that you would like a part of.

But of course, for those who toil their life away working in working class jobs and earning enough to just support their children, this move into citizenship and acceptance is for their children. To provide access and opportunities they otherwise didn't have in their own childhoods back home. Sometimes, when headlines talk about tighter immigration laws, there is a need to examine what is it that the administration is trying to protect the nation from. The perpetuation of burdening public welfare systems, taking away local jobs, etc. has been debunked if not economically unproven.

Xenophobia; the in-out group mentality and simplistic categorization is not uncommon to human history and nature. But boxing oneself in may prove to be counter-productive, and even more so detrimental to the fluid nature of identities and citizenship. One only needs to examine history and trace the dotted paths our own ancestors took across the continent.


A few months ago, I recorded a podcast-episode on the concept of citizenship and identity on BFM's Bila Larut Malam, a show I used to produce and present with Haniff Baharuddin. You can listen to the episode here, although it is in the Malay language.