AuthorCuison-Villazor, Rose
PositionAnnual Book Review Issue

PURSUING CITIZENSHIP IN THE ENFORCEMENT ERA. By Ming Hsu Chen. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2020. Pp. xi, 215. $28.


Citizenship for undocumented immigrants is once again on the horizon. Just a few weeks after President Donald Trump left the White House, and several years since the last time Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, (1) President Joe Biden announced that he will push for legislation to provide millions of undocumented immigrants with a path to become U.S. citizens. (2) Senator Bob Menendez and Representative Linda Sanchez subsequently introduced the Citizenship Act of 2021, which seeks to create different ways that immigrants, documented and undocumented alike, may earn citizenship. (3) The next few months in Washington, D.C., will bear witness to whether President Biden's promise will be realized.

The potentially millions of people newly eligible for U.S. citizenship would join thousands of lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who apply for naturalization each year. Among LPRs, the desire to become citizens has been robust. Indeed, naturalizations have increased over the last few years. In 2019, for example, 843,593 individuals became naturalized, an 11 percent increase from the 761,901 individuals who were naturalized in 2018. (4) And that 2018 figure is also higher than the number of people--707,265--naturalized in 2017. (5)

In Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era, Professor Ming Chen (6) examines the rise in citizenship applications and conducts an in-depth analysis of the reasons why LPRs naturalize. Given the Trump administration's heightened enforcement of immigration laws, it is no surprise that citizenship applications climbed. As Chen thoughtfully explains in her book, citizenship applications increased because of what she describes as "citizenship insecurity" felt by noncitizens (p. 3). Chen critiques the federal government's immigration regime, which led many immigrants, undocumented and documented alike, to feel vulnerable. Accordingly, Chen claims that green-card holders applied for formal citizenship in greater numbers than previous years (p. 1). Notably, the Trump administration's enforcement also impacted substantive citizenship and the ability of noncitizens to become better integrated into society. Chen therefore argues for less immigration enforcement and more governmental efforts to promote citizenship, which would further a socially cohesive society "fueled by shared purpose and values." (7)

As Pursuing Citizenship illustrates, the desire for citizenship among eligible immigrants is undoubtedly on the rise. However, Chen's book tells only one side of this story. As this Review argues, the story regarding the pursuit of citizenship must be examined alongside the story of how individuals--citizens and noncitizens alike--are refusing citizenship. This Review conducts this examination by drawing attention to those noncitizens who have rejected or are rejecting (8) citizenship. (9) As it explains, many LPRs who are eligible to become U.S. citizens do not, in fact, take the final step and apply for naturalization. (10)

In 2019, for example, there were more than one million LPRs who were presumptively eligible to naturalize. (11) Yet only 830,560 applied that year. (12) Immigrants are not the only ones refusing citizenship: other noncitizens such as American Samoans--who are not U.S. citizens despite the "American" in their name--have chosen to reject citizenship. (13) U.S. citizens also are renouncing their citizenship in increasing numbers. (14)

Limited attention has been paid to the ways in which noncitizens refuse formal citizenship. (15) Most legal scholarship has, like Chen's book, focused on the desire for citizenship and the ways in which those who seek it experience various barriers. (16) But as Professors Robin Lenhardt and Jennifer Gordon have pointed out, more critical attention should be paid to the ways in which formal citizenship is acquired. (17) This Review takes up that work by canvassing examples of citizenship rejection and raising questions that have implications for our understanding of citizenship. Why would noncitizens and U.S. citizens who stand to benefit from U.S. citizenship choose to remain or become noncitizens? What do their decisions to reject citizenship suggest about the value of citizenship? By asking these questions, this Review aims to highlight an underexplored dimension of citizenship.

Specifically, the Review aims to make four points. The first is to counter the view that citizenship is always beloved and chosen. To be sure, as Part I discusses, Pursuing Citizenship makes a strong case for why noncitizens choose to naturalize, particularly when an administration is engaged in heightened immigration enforcement. But as the Review's second point contends, contrary to conventional wisdom, citizenship is not always desired or viewed as ideal. Part II describes individuals who find citizenship unnecessary, questionable, and undesirable. These include LPRs who choose not to naturalize, American Samoans who reject birthright citizenship, and U.S. citizens who abandon citizenship. The Review's third point is that the rejection of citizenship illuminates underappreciated critical views about how citizenship is acquired. Using ideas borrowed from critical race theory (CRT), (18) Part III challenges the conventional view of citizenship as a means of inclusion and equality and shows how citizenship has served as a tool of oppression and subordination. Fourth and finally, this Review raises questions that consider the normative and theoretical implications of the repudiation of citizenship. This includes building on the concept of "unbundling citizenship," which I have explored elsewhere, (19) to encourage revisiting what membership in the American polity should look like.


    Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era provides a powerful account of the struggles that many noncitizens and their families faced during the increased immigration enforcement of the Trump era. Through interviews with noncitizens between 2016 to 2018, coupled with analysis of data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and other sources, Chen illuminates the nuanced perspectives and experiences of noncitizens and their families, which contextualize her policy insights. Overall, Chen's work deepens our understanding of citizenship.

    This Part explains three key contributions of Pursuing Citizenship. Descriptively, the book offers a deeper understanding of why noncitizens pursue citizenship. Normatively, Chen maintains that the acquisition of formal citizenship is important for gaining substantive citizenship. Finally, as a prescriptive matter, the book calls on the federal government to strengthen pathways to formal citizenship.

    First, Chen adds to the citizenship literature by explaining in both quantitative and qualitative terms what might have been obvious to many immigrants during Trump's presidency: immigrants lived in a state of fear due to the administration's immigration enforcement system (p. 76). During the election year, noncitizens, particularly Latinos, applied for citizenship in significant numbers. (20) In 2016, 972, 151 individuals submitted naturalization applications, compared to 783,062 in 2015--an increase of more than 189,000 applications in just one year. (21) The number of citizenship applications rose higher still in 2017 to 986,851. (22) Pursuing Citizenship bolsters these numbers with compelling and sympathetic narratives formed through interviews of noncitizens. Noncitizens, as she notes, belong in different categories within a spectrum of immigration statuses, including those who are undocumented, those who enjoy deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA), those with temporary visas, and those who are LPRs (p. 5). Recognizing these different categories highlights the social reality that there is a continuum of experiences with respect to citizenship, which complicates the citizen-noncitizen binary (pp. 4-5). However, as her interviews underscore, increased immigration enforcement ignored the spectrum of citizenship and essentially hardened the citizen-noncitizen divide, which in turn forced many noncitizens to seek citizenship (p. 6). As Chen elegantly explains, "legal status" as an LPR is basically a "social construct" and is rendered, from a legal perspective, virtually meaningless (p. 6). Many LPRs experienced "citizenship insecurity" and faced barriers to being considered full Americans (p. 3). Chen notes that immigrants of color, particularly darker-skinned immigrants, became even more vulnerable during the Trump era (pp. 32-34). The administration's heightened enforcement increased the necessity for formal citizenship because LPRs and others with lawful status, such as those on student and HIB visas, became vulnerable to being detained and removed (p. 34). LPRs thus considered citizenship an "insurance policy" against immigration removals and closure of the borders (p. 2)--offering possibly the only means of remaining in the United States in the age of enforcement (p. 28)--while also providing benefits such as the right to vote (p. 2).

    Second, Chen's book is valuable for its contributions to normative views of the purpose of citizenship and how those purposes have been hampered by increased immigration enforcement. Recognizing that citizenship and immigration law creates distinctions among various categories, documented and undocumented alike, Chen writes that the purpose of citizenship is "to build a national community" (p. 35). The insecurity that stems from amplified immigration enforcement, however, obstructs the integration of immigrants that is necessary for building national community. Indeed, it furthers "[citizenship inequality" among immigrants and "obscures other claims to belonging" (p. 37). Under the enforcement scheme, noncitizen...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT