Civis Romanus sum: “I am a Roman citizen!” Two thousand years ago, those words protected one throughout the Roman Empire, imposing strict limits on the punishments that public authorities might inflict. Today, we’re seeing a powerful conflict between the national and the foreign in the Western hemisphere. At the United States southern border, a father and daughter lost their lives attempting to cross the Rio Grande. Along the shores of Italy and Spain, meantime, boatloads of migrants risk their lives sailing across the Mediterranean.
More than 1 billion people would improve their lives by moving to a relatively small number of countries—namely, those of Western Europe and North America. Polls confirm the desire of citizens of poor countries to move to the West. These people do not merely seek material advantage, though that’s certainly a factor. They also want protection from violent elements of their society, from criminals, and even from their own governments. In many parts of the world, declaring one’s citizenship offers no such protection. Chinese citizenship doesn’t save the Uighurs, for example, from the abuses they have suffered. Even Rome’s decaying republic and corrupt empire had better protections for citizens than do some contemporary countries.
Citizenship, like monetary currency, operates on a principle of trust. Currencies are valued highly if one can be assured that others will exchange goods and services for them at face value. Similarly, advanced countries acknowledge one another’s passports virtually as tickets to entry. Citizenship is treasured when one’s rights can be assumed—but worthless when one cannot leave a country or reenter it, when a government doesn’t protect property or individuals, or when one must take desperate measures to escape.
Just as government policies can undermine currencies, so, too, can they degrade citizenship. Cancelling debt is one way to devalue a currency; printing too much money is another. The Democratic presidential hopefuls seem set on similar policies for American citizenship. Most have, in one form or another, suggested decriminalizing illegal entry to the United States. “That is tantamount to declaring publicly that we have open borders,” said Jeh Johnson, former head of Homeland Security under Barack Obama. Most of the Democratic presidential candidates have also endorsed providing illegal immigrants medical insurance, even as millions of American citizens lack coverage. With these measures in place, what would remain of American citizenship?
No one knows how sincerely the candidates hold these positions (or how long they will hold them). We do know that they took these positions in response to the migrant crisis at the Mexican border. The deaths of Óscar Martínez and his daughter, Valeria, as they fled El Salvador and attempted entry into the United States only added to anxiety about the crisis. In response to the deaths, El Salvador’s recently elected president, Nayib Bukele, made one of the most courageous and honest statements of any politician in recent memory. In an interview with the BBC, he said of the Martínez family: “We can blame any other country but what about our blame? What country did they flee? Did they flee the United States? They fled El Salvador, they fled our country. It is our fault.”
It’s refreshing to see a leader confront the failures of his nation. Bukele’s frankness seems inspired by a practical understanding of citizenship. By contrast, chants of “send her back,” directed at Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar, are the kind of repudiation of citizenship that even Nero might not have gotten away with. President Trump was right to repudiate those chants. They are a denial of the protections of American citizenship.
Will American citizenship still mean something in the future? If Americans can be expelled from their own country, no. If noncitizens have as much right to live here as citizens, no. If we effectively extend the rights of citizenship to everyone in the world, how can we still be a country? The question of citizenship could become the most pressing political question of the twenty-first century. The danger, as we’re seeing, is that we will answer the question without thinking it through.