Citizenship is central to modern narratives of individual well-being. The popular conception holds that significant rights and obligations attach peculiarly to the citizenry. In his 2012 convention acceptance speech, for example, Barack Obama framed citizenship as “a word at the very essence of our founding,” as part of a recognition that “we have responsibilities as well as rights.”
This essay interrogates the conventional wisdom that citizenship is central to situating the legal place of individuals in society. It concludes that citizenship status has limited consequence. What the state extracts from you and what it owes you is contingent on citizenship status in some contexts. Within the national territory, civil rights are extended without regard to citizenship or immigration status. Permanent resident aliens are legally disadvantaged with respect to some economic incidents of the welfare state, political rights, and immigration benefits. However, formal differentials are subject to work-arounds and underenforcement. In other words, rights differentials are not as significant as they might appear. The differential is narrower still in the context of obligations. With the exception of jury duty, citizenship imposes no additional societal burdens not also shouldered by non-citizen residents. Tax and military service obligations fall equally on citizens and noncitizens. Americans are required to do nothing for their country that they would not be required to do as mere legal residents.
Outside the national territory, citizenship has greater salience on both sides of the balance sheet. Passport issuance is contingent on citizenship, as is diplomatic protection by U.S. authorities. The Supreme Court has found certain constitutional protections inapplicable to non-citizens outside of the United States, where the Bill of Rights has been fully portable for citizen carriers. External citizens also carry substantial tax obligations that are citizenship contingent. However, formal rights differentials have been counterbalanced by the rise of international human rights, which applies on a citizenship-blind basis. Recent growth in the number of external citizens renouncing their citizenship suggests that citizenship-contingent tax obligations are unsustainable.
The contemporary convergence of citizenship and non-citizenship status reflects an evolution from more significant historical differentials. Citizenship status has grown less important in orienting the individual to law.