The Birthright Lottery: Selective Openings and Closings of Citizenship

1. Introduction

The notion of citizenship and its selective accessibility serves as a focal point in current scholarly discourse. Innovatively described as a birthright lottery by Shachar (2009), the acquisition of citizenship appears to be an arbitrary process with minimal predictability and considerable repercussion. In more colloquial terms, the citizenship status of an individual has frequently been likened to a random draw – a hit-or-miss game, where the comfort, convenience, and conditions of life are decided by pure chance, specifically the chance of one’s place of birth.

This simile eloquently captures how radically different life trajectories can be merely by virtue of birthplace. More essentially, it questions the primordial assumption in the global order of things, where human beings, through no choice or fault of their own, are confined or privileged by their assigned citizenship, and subsequently, their collective national identity. To that end, the randomness and the inevitable consequences of the birthright lottery expose the disconcerting levels of inequality and disparity inherent in the global system of citizenship as we know it.

As a contentious topic, the birthright lottery – the uncanny randomness of acquiring citizenship – has imminent implications for both individuals and societies. For individuals, the citizenship secured by the lottery of birth could mean the difference between life opportunities and constraints. At the societal level, the birthright lottery exacerbates existing systemic inequities, challenging the principles of socioeconomic justice and global equity, thereby calling for urgent scholarly attention and discourse.

An illustration of the concept of the birthright lottery

2. Conceptual Understanding of Citizenship

The concept of citizenship is rooted in notions of reciprocity, mutual obligation and defined boundaries of belonging. As Christian Joppke (2010) points out, it is a legal contract between an individual and a state. This contract doesn’t just denote one’s nationality, it also tacitly demarcates a set of privileges, rights, and obligations that are bound to the individual for, often, their entire life.

These privileges may include social, economic, and political benefits, such as the right to vote, freedom of movement, access to state-funded services such as healthcare and education, and protections under the law. The responsibilities, on the other hand, may encompass respecting laws, paying taxes and, in some cases, compulsory military service. However, the access to these rights and responsibilities is not uniformly distributed.

Unfortunately, as highlighted by Shachar (2009), the allocation of citizenship frequently mirrors the birthright lottery. That is, the geographical happenstance of one’s birth drastically shapes their lived experiences and future prospects. Being born in a developed country often results in access to a myriad of social, economic, political benefits and protections. However, should the lottery of birth place someone in a developing or underprivileged region, they might face stark limitations in their rights, resources, and opportunities. This level of arbitrariness in the global distribution of citizenship calls into question not just the political integrity but also the ethical validity of the birthright lottery.

Visual representation of global citizenship distribution and disparity

3. Citizenship Jurisprudence: A Transformation

Over time, the legal doctrine of citizenship has undergone profound transformation, as clearly outlined in the works of Shachar (2020). Traditionally, citizenship was primarily awarded based on either jus sanguinis, which is citizenship by descent, or jus soli, which is citizenship by birth within a certain territory. These principles essentially reflect the lottery of birth concept – your citizenship is inherently defined by your parental heritage or your place of birth, and has little to do with your individual qualities or attributes.

However, recent years have witnessed a radical departure from these longstanding principles towards more selective, and arguably exclusionary, policies. Rather than relying solely on the principles of blood and soil, many contemporary states are adopting socioeconomically grounded modes of citizenship allocation. These modes fundamentally tie the prospects of obtaining citizenship to an individual’s potential or actual socio-economic contributions, such as professional skills, entrepreneurial capacities or investment abilities. It’s a tilt towards a form of merit-based citizenship, where one’s financial potential or intellectual prowess possibly outweigh the markers of one’s geographical occurrence or ancestral lineage.

While these selective citizenship policies can reasonably align with national strategic interests, they could also engender a more exclusive, divisive and inequitable global citizenship regime. It could privilege the wealthy, the educated, and the beneficial, and systematically exclude those near the fringes of these socio-economic spectrums, thereby potentially amplifying global disparities and injustices.

Graphic depicting the evolution and disparities in global citizenship

4. Ethnically Selective Policies

Examining the latitude and longitude of global citizenship from a different perspective, Szabolcs Pogonyi (2023) provides a compelling analysis of ethnically selective policies, particularly prevalent in Europe, where ethnic lineage supersedes geographical confines in determining citizenship status. In essence, these policies place substantial weight on an individual’s ethnic background in defining their eligibility for citizenship.

A striking manifestation of this trend can be witnessed in Hungary, where the laws explicitly encode a sense of ethnic preference. Here, personal connections to Hungarian ethnicity, which would typically require evidence of Hungarian ancestry or Hungarian language proficiency, have become the de facto criteria for citizenship grants. What is significant to note is that this emphasis on ethnic connections surpasses even the significance of actual residence within Hungary. Consequently, an individual residing outside of Hungary, but with Hungarian roots, could arguably have an advantage in obtaining Hungarian citizenship over someone who has been living in Hungary without such ancestry.

This ethnic preference in citizenship allocation insinuates a shift away from citizenship as a symbol of territorial belonging towards a more ethnonational construct. It illustrates the fluidity and complexity inherent in current citizenship models and raises probing questions about national identity, cultural continuity, and the balance between inclusivity and exclusivity in citizenship policies. However, it also risks reinvigorating ethnic divisions, accentuating majority-minority disparities and potentially fostering xenophobia, thereby adding a new, intricate layer to the global citizenship conundrum.

Diagram illustrating the influence of ethnicity on citizenship

5. Interplay of Ethics and Politics

Miriam Ticktin’s seminal work (2006) illuminates the consequential interplay between ethics and politics within the context of the birthright lottery. Ticktin critically investigates the current French model – a model that, on the surface level, appears to be grounded on humanitarianism and inclusivity, yet, in practice, creates distinct exclusions and inequalities. Primarily, she delves into the ethics or, rather, the ethical dilemmas that emerge from the seemingly contradictory citizenship and immigration policies.

France, with its long-standing commitment to the principles of ‘Libert√©, Egalit√©, Fraternit√©’, espouses an ideal of inclusive citizenship. However, in reality, this ideal has been contested by restrictive immigration policies that make French citizenship elusive for certain population groups. By limiting access to citizenship through these policies, France inadvertently creates a divide between the favored and the unfavored, often based on parameters over which individuals have little or no control, akin to the birthright lottery.

Essentially, Ticktin’s findings highlight a conundrum inherent in many contemporary citizenship regimes: how to reconcile the purported ethical foundations of citizenship – the ideals of social justice, equality, liberty and fraternity – with the often discriminatory and exclusionary political machinations that govern its actual implementation. This dissonance between ethical aspirations and political realities calls for a re-evaluation of the ways in which citizenship policies are curated and enacted, with a focused commitment to minimizing exclusion and fostering inclusivity.

Illustration depicting the ethical and political dynamics in citizenship

6. Conclusion

The conception of citizenship as a birthright lottery lays bare the inherent arbitrariness in the current global regimes of citizenship. It outlines a stark reality wherein the circumstances of one’s birth – an event entirely out of one’s control – can dictate the bounds of one’s opportunities, resources, rights, and, essentially, life narratives. This perspective not only questions the fairness of such arrangements but also underscores the fundamental issues of equality and justice embedded in the global distribution of citizenship.

The tussle between jus soli and jus sanguinis, the transition towards socio-economic and ethnicity-based citizenship, and the ethical/political dichotomy prevalent within these policies – they all reveal a pressing need for reform. And why? Because they collectively contribute to a citizenship landscape that seems increasingly exclusive and, at times, perpetuates imbalances at the global scale.

As we tread deeper into the 21st century, where the world is more interconnected than ever, it’s imperative that the existing citizenship laws and policies are thoroughly scrutinised and rigorously challenged. Amid growing transnational challenges and the evolving notion of global interconnectedness, it is high time to establish citizenship frameworks that are less arbitrary, more inclusive, and truly reflective of the principles of justice, equality, and shared humanity. In essence, it is time to rethink the very foundations of the global citizenship regime and move towards a more equitable world order.

Image of a balanced scale symbolizing fairness in citizenship

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