Given the concern that European societies, for example, will be turned upside down by an influx of Syrian refugees, an article by Branco Milanovic (a visiting scholar at NYU) in the Financial Times this week raises an interesting argument. He suggests that granting immigrants legal status that does not necessarily include a path to citizenship could be a winning proposition. These are ideas that have been unsuccessfully kicked around the U.S. Congress, to be sure, but he lays out the argument succinctly:
The arrival of migrants threatens to diminish or dilute the premium enjoyed by citizens of rich countries, which includes not only financial aspects, but also good health and education services, and public goods like the preservation of national culture and language.
Can that threat be defused? I believe it can, so long as we redefine citizenship in such a way that migrants are not allowed to lay claim to the entire premium falling to citizens straight away, if at all. Restricting the citizenship rights of migrants in this way would assuage the concerns of the native population, while still ensuring the migrants are better off than they would be had they stayed in their own countries.
This would require significant adjustments to traditional ways of thinking about migration and citizenship. We should stop thinking of migration as a voyage of reinvention in which an African, say, “becomes” a European, and start viewing it simply as a way of finding a better job in a foreign country. Moving from a Nigerian village to work in London should not be seen as any different from working in Lagos while one’s family stays in the countryside.
Indeed, this is exactly how many professional ex-pats live in the world--living in one place for short or long periods of time, while still retaining their foothold in the country of origin.
It is not clear that the old conception of nation-state citizenship as a binary category that in principle confers all the benefits of citizenship to anyone who happens to be physically present within a country’s borders is adequate in a globalised world.
In effect, there is a trade-off between such a view of citizenship and the flow of migration. The more we insist on full rights for all residents, the less longstanding residents will be willing to accept more migrants.
If graduated categories of citizenship were created — ranging from those that grant almost no benefits other than the right to temporary work, to those that are close to full citizenship, like the US green card system — we would be able to reconcile the objective of reducing world poverty with reducing migration to acceptable levels.
The big issue that Milanovic sidesteps is that of the children born to migrants in the host country. My own view is that they should be granted citizenship in the country of birth--either immediately as in the U.S. or after some continuous period of residence after birth, as in most countries.