Whose country?

I cannot guarantee to be prompted by my Friday morning coffee discussions, but they certainly provoke a lot of thought. Today, the ROMEOs that meet at a particular coffee-house were spurred to talk about nationality and citizenship. It was sparked by some remarks about whether the US likes dual nationals. Of course, views did not mesh, though I think we were often not far apart.

Should nationality be something that a nation-state determines or should there be some element of election by individuals to be citizens or nationals? I use those terms interchangeably, though in many countries you can be a citizen without being a national, or a national without being a citizen. On one side, concern was expressed about leaving people in a state of statelessness. I think that, as far as infants are concerned, if one is found within the borders of a country and there is no way to establish parentage, then most countries would bestow nationality/citizenship on that infant. When it comes to adults, things start to get more complicated because they have arrived at a point where they can exercise choices. A person may decide that he/she no longer wants to be a citizen of a country and adopt the citizenship of another, but who should govern that choice? The host population may think that, if anyone who wanted to could become a citizen just by desire then that could open the door that could never be closed. Depending on the resources a country has (land, employment, housing, but much more) and where these are located and where newcomers may want to go, reactions will be different. On the small island of Tortola, it is easy to see that the hosts could feel swamped by an influx of ‘foreigners’ more rapidly than would be the case in the US.

Most countries have immigration and nationality rules that are a mixture of automatic rights and elective rights. Automatic ones may be place or birth, parentage, or a combination of these. Elective rights may include residency criteria, but can also include some notion that the person has a significant interest in a country, such as a certain amount of investment or job-creating activities.

But the positives and negatives of any set of rules occur on the part of the country and on the part of the persons who have to abide by the rules. Someone may want to become American, let’s say, for the things they think will help them (quality of life, work, freedoms), but would be less happy with the obligations that come with that (taxes, possible military commitments, etc.) But, you can’t cherry pick the benefits.

Countries and their people are often happy to see new entrants whom they deem add something positive, and less happy when they feel that newcomers add something negative. It’s hard to agree on what those two perceived contributions really mean, as they are often contextual, including due to time and economic circumstances. If Indian engineers are seen to add to national wealth they are more likely to find a welcome that if people feel that Indian migrants are going to add to the ranks of the unemployed. Few people would opt for allowing people to merely elect to be part of a country: that would be a great recipe for creating ‘crime havens’, for those who wish to escape from facing legal action just by jumping a national border.

From my experience, I notice that once people live in a place for any period of time they start to think of it more in terms of belonging, even if they are not nationals/citizens. They may find their real status staring them in the face every now and then: no voting rights, different legal rights, more difficulties leaving and entering the country that nationals/citizens, etc.

At a personal, or non-official level, how foreigners are treated or feel often also revolves around things like ease of assimilation. Reactions to and by migrants are often less (at least initially) if they seem to have similar characteristics to those whom they are due to join. A white German entering Sweden is more likely to find less resistance from the current population of Swedes or a lesser sense of being out of place than would a black Somali. Of course, both could in time become great Swedes, in terms of cultural adaptation, language ability, etc.

Whether or not states have too much control over issues such as immigration and nationality is hard to discuss because government is something that societies choose, though it’s true that forms of government and the policies they put in place are hard to change once they come into existence.

Not an easy bunch of things to grapple with in a few moments (especially as the sun is out and it looks like the day will be nice enough to go and do some work outside), so I will mull over them more during the weekend.

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About The Grasshopper

Professional international economist, recently retired from an international organization. I use blogging as a way of organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, and spent many years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for a few decades, and worked and travelled abroad extensively. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of girls. Also, married to an economist.
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