Every single country in the world has a policy of naturalisation. This means that once an immigrant who is not a citizen of their country of residence fulfils certain criteria, they can obtain citizenship of their country of residence. In some cases, naturalisation is fairly straightforward, particularly in South American countries. Here, it sometimes only takes a few years of permanent residence in order to qualify for citizenship. In other countries, naturalisation is very difficult. In Italy, a person is required to have had at least ten years of continuous permanent residence in order to be eligible for naturalisation. However, there is currently no country on the planet that does not have a policy of naturalisation, even if some countries are extremely strict in granting citizenship to non-citizens. With increasing levels of international migration flows, naturalisation is becoming an important issue for more and more people.
Kieran Oberman’s recent article ‘Immigration, Citizenship, and Consent: What is Wrong with Permanent Alienage?’ deals with a central question in debates around naturalisation, namely why permanent alienage, i.e. the principle of denying naturalisation to immigrants, is wrong. However, its main innovation is to suggest that support for naturalisation (the principle of granting citizenship to immigrants) ought to change people’s views on immigration. In other words, supporting naturalisation but denying a human right to immigrate is inconsistent. According to Oberman, if someone supports naturalisation, she should also support a human right to immigrate. Given that there is currently no human right to immigrate but widespread policies of naturalisation, the article uses the linkage between the two as a way to argue for implementing a human right to immigrate.
Specifically, the article argues that the strongest argument for why immigrants should be afforded naturalisation is that they deserve equal treatment to citizens. According to this argument, there is no morally significant difference in moral standing between citizens and long-term residents, hence discrimination between them on the basis of citizenship is wrong. While this is a strong argument, there is one powerful objection to it. Some migrants migrate voluntarily. As such, they might be understood to have consented to the terms of their admission. If they migrated knowing there would be treated unequally, then they could be understood to have consented to this inequality. But Oberman argues that with a human right to immigrate, even voluntary migrants should be afforded citizenship. For he argues that people cannot be said to have consented unequal treatment if what they are doing is merely exercising a human right. Thus the presence of a human right to immigrate means that there is no morally significant difference between citizens and long-term residents, even though some long-term residents migrate voluntarily. This argument can be flipped around as well: given that most people support naturalisation, the fact that voluntary migrants would not otherwise have a claim to citizenship under the equal treatment argument should lead us to change either our view on the wrong of permanent alienage or our view on the (lack of a) human right to immigrate. Oberman contends that the reasonable choice is to change our view on the lack of a human right to immigrate. Hence, a human right to immigrate is supported by our common belief in naturalisation.
‘Immigration, Citizenship, and Consent: What is Wrong with Permanent Alienage?’ is forthcoming in Journal of Political Philosophy. It is accessible online through Early View here.
Written by Lukas Slothuus
Kieran Oberman is Chancellor’s Fellow in Politics at the University of Edinburgh.