The Salience of Territorial Location: Everything Old is New Again

by Jonathan Weinberg

[Jon Weinberg is Professor of Law at Wayne State University.]

Thanks so much to Opinio Juris for hosting this discussion, and to Peter for making it possible. Peter’s is a terrific and thought-provoking book, even if I do disagree with most of it. In this post, I want to talk about some of its empirical bases. Alex has already pointed out that the data show U.S. naturalization rates to be rising, not falling, so I won’t belabor that point. I’ll turn instead to the argument Peter sets out below that our birthright citizenship and naturalization rules increasingly don’t work. With the declining salience of territorial location, Peter tells us, they’re increasingly disconnected from our larger goals as to who ought to be a citizen. Because the legal and the actual boundaries of our national community don’t coincide, Peter writes, that community is becoming increasingly incoherent.

But is the fit between our citizenship rules and their underlying goals that much worse than in the past? Peter in the book talks about “happenstance Americans”: A child may be born in this country to a visitor, or to an immigrant (legal or illegal) who is here temporarily; that child may move away quickly, following his parents to the country of their birth. Such a person, Peter warns, is a U.S. citizen but has almost no meaningful connection with the United States.

Peter continues that today, children are born in the U.S. whose parents are part of emigrant communities that maintain strong ties with their homelands — “diasporic communities” that “may give the lie to the American tradition of immigrant assimilation.” Globalization has empowered immigrants to the U.S. to maintain their strong ties with their home countries, so that children born and raised in the United States “may pursue their whole lives within their diasporic communities, defined not by geography but by social ties, even if they episodically venture into the larger national community otherwise defined.”

Indeed, Peter argues, the five-year rule for naturalization no longer assures that new naturalized citizens will have absorbed the American identity through the activities and exposures of everyday life. Immigrants can lead their entire lives in “large, geographically concentrated immigrant communities . . . . Such immigrants might as well be back home for purposes of assimilating the American identity. They are, in effect, in a different part of their homeland, one that happens to be physically located in the United States.”

The factors Peter identifies as leading to “happenstance” or uncommitted Americans, though, aren’t unprecedented products of globalization. Peter talks about circular migration as a source of happenstance Americans; a migrant might have an American child during the brief U.S portion of her sojourn and then raise the child elsewhere. But circular migration has long been with us. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, more than half of all immigrants to the U.S. from southern Italy ended up returning home, at least for a time. Indeed, according to one source, the proportion of immigrants returning to their homelands in 1900-1920 was one-and-a-half times as high as the rate in 1971-90.

And more fundamentally, transnationalism — the phenomenon of immigrants’ maintaining active involvement in, and ties to, their homelands — isn’t a new thing. Here’s a quote:

The conception of citizenship itself is rapidly changing and we may have to recognize a sort of world or international citizenship as more logical than the present peripatetic kind, which makes a man an American while here, and an Italian while in Italy. . . . The old barriers are everywhere breaking down. We may even bring ourselves to the point to recognizing foreign “colonies” in our midst, on our own soil, as entitled to partake in the parliamentary life of their mother country.

The passage is nicely complementary to Peter’s concern that, by virtue of the ease of international travel and communication, insular “colonies” of migrants may be so strongly tied to their homelands as to lack primary identification with the United States. The speaker? Gino Speranza, secretary of the Society for the Protection of Italian Immigrants, in 1906.

We’re heard it before about aliens and their children forming insular, self-isolating communities within the United States. Justice Field in Chae Chan Ping talks about Chinese immigrants as having “remained strangers in the land, residing apart by themselves, and adhering to the customs and usages of their own country,” unwilling or unable “to assimilate with our people or to make any change in their habits or modes of living.” Kobayashi points to Japanese-Americans’ asserted inability to “assimilat[e] as an integral part of the white population.” And though lots of folks were more sanguine about European assimilation, you see the same sentiment in connection with the enactment of the restrictionist sentiment of the 1920s. A 1924 newspaper editorial, thus, explained that restricting immigration was desirable precisely because it would “result in the gradual elimination of foreign communities on American soil. There will be no more ‘little Germany,’ ‘little Russia,’ ‘little Poland’ or ‘little Italy.'”

Natch, all those folks were wrong. Immigrants to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century abandoned their mother languages and shifted to (English) monolingualism more quickly than in any other country. To the extent that they didn’t assimilate, their children and grandchildren certainly did. Is there reason to think that Peter’s concerns are better-founded? Modern advances in communication and travel have made transnational ties easier in ways that weren’t thinkable a hundred years ago. But the data don’t support the notion that the affiliations and acculturation of children born into immigrant communities are very different now.

Let’s start with language acquisition. Peter suggests that language acquisition means less in the modern world, when so many immigrants already speak English, than it did a hundred years ago. But a lot of immigrants today enter without language skills; two-thirds of recent immigrants from Latin America, in the 2000 census, reported that they spoke English “not at all” or “not well.” Where the parent doesn’t speak English, the child’s acquisition of English both evidences and makes possible her integration into the larger society. Studies consistently show language acquisition in the second and third generations of modern immigrants to be comparable with that in earlier waves.

Or look at intermarriage. Peter in his book mentions Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, El Salvador, Cuba, India, China, the Philippines and Korea as potential diaspora homelands. Those nine countries, plus Vietnam, dominate the immigrant flow here from Latin America and Asia. If immigrants to the United States from those countries find themselves in insular, imperviously sealed communities that maintain that insulation across multiple generations, you’d expect to find children of Latin American and Asian immigrants marrying within those communities. So far at least, that’s not especially so. A study of 1990 census data showed nearly two-thirds of U.S.-born Asians marrying non-Asians, and nearly 40% of U.S.-born Hispanics marrying non-Hispanics.

To be sure, immigrants today often live in coethnic enclaves, just as immigrants in the past did. But as Alex wrote a few years back, a “review of the social science research literature on immigration reveals that assimilation . . . appears to be progressing roughly as it always has.”

Bottom line: I’m unconvinced that new globalization trends cause territorial location to be any less salient to citizenship than it ever was. In my next post, I’ll try to talk about American identity and the meaning of citizenship.

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