On day one of his administration, President Biden sent a sweeping immigration reform bill to Congress (known as the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021) whose centerpiece creates an eight-year path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the U.S. To be eligible for green cards and ultimately citizenship, unauthorized immigrants must pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes (among other requirements). While at first glance, these requirements seem to be common sense, I contend that whether someone should be granted citizenship should not be dependent on whether they have committed crimes or have unpaid taxes.
As an analogy, consider first citizens, rather than unauthorized immigrants, who have evaded taxes or committed crimes. Even for individuals who have committed the most egregious and violent crimes, we do not ordinarily think that they should have their citizenship stripped from them but simply that they should be justly punished. Political exile is no longer seen as a legitimate form of punishment for crime. Similarly, felon disenfranchisement has been criticized on the ground that citizens should have voting rights simply by virtue of being citizens and regardless of their past criminal activity, even if felonious. If felon disenfranchisement is objectionable (as I think it is), then it seems we cannot even strip citizens of a subset of the core political rights essential to their citizenship, much less their citizenship status as a whole, even if they have committed serious crimes.
If the citizenship of citizens is not contingent on their past criminal activity, then why should the citizenship of unauthorized immigrants be? The ethical basis for granting citizenship to long-term residents including unauthorized immigrants, as many political theorists have argued, lies in the simple fact that residents have already been participating in U.S. society and have already formed relationships and ties with other members. As Joseph Carens put it in The Ethics of Immigration, “social membership gives rise over time to a moral claim to citizenship” (page 158). But if being a member of society entails that one should also be a citizen of political society as well, it does not require that one be the “ideal” member of society or that one be on “good behavior.”
More generally, discriminating between “good” and “bad” immigrants, those who are “deserving” of becoming U.S. citizens and those who are not, is frequently tied up with anti-immigrant ideologies and biases. Furthermore, it obscures the fact that the U.S. owes long-term residents citizenship as a matter of justice (rather than as an act of charity or a gift to be bestowed to them)—an obligation that has not been fulfilled for many for a long time. A policy that requires unauthorized immigrants not have committed crimes as a condition for their citizenship may both be a function of and even contribute to the stigmatization of immigrants as criminals, even though immigrants (both legal and unauthorized) are less likely to commit serious crimes than native-born citizens.
Disqualifying unauthorized immigrants from citizenship because they have not paid taxes also ignores the many ways in which unauthorized immigrants participate in the social, cultural, and economic activities of the U.S. and are already members of society whose citizenship should be legally recognized (even if paying taxes is admittedly one way of participating and contributing to society). This is not even to mention the fact that unauthorized immigrants pay billions of dollars each year in taxes (including sales, property, and income taxes) and would pay significantly more in taxes if they were granted a pathway to citizenship. Additionally, denying citizenship to unauthorized immigrants based on unpaid taxes seems to get things backward: citizens are taxed because they are citizens; they are not citizens because they pay taxes. Having unpaid taxes, just like committing crimes, is not a reason to revoke or withhold someone’s citizenship but is, at most, a reason to punish them justly. The ethical basis for politically recognizing someone as a citizen lies simply in the fact that they are already members of our society. And for many unauthorized immigrants in the U.S who have already been fellow members, co-workers, friends, and family members for years and years, the recognition of their citizenship is a long time coming.