home Featured, Human Rights, July 2017, Legal Discrimination In Small Places, Close to Home

In Small Places, Close to Home

Born in New Zealand, my son was an American citizen before he’d ever set foot in that country. Both citizenships are his birthright, a special privilege of being born the son of an American and a New Zealander.

As a dual citizen myself I understand the implications of his new passport – that he may be required to declare income and file taxes in both New Zealand and in the United States, that he may be able to vote in both places or serve in either military. Even though I doubt that he will ever consider himself ‘American’ before Kiwi, he has an opportunity to find a home there should he choose to use it.

To have dual citizenship is to be exceptionally privileged in a world where millions of people find themselves refugees: disowned, displaced, deported.

The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) outlines seven emergencies of displacement around the world, including crises in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and the Central African Republic. According to the their statistics:

  • 65.6 million people are displaced globally. This includes 22.5 million refugees.
  • 10 million “stateless” people have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
  • Conflict displaces almost 20 people a minute.

They also highlight the added vulnerability of women and children. Of the 22.5 million refugees, half are children. Of all displaced people, half are women and girls.


Adding injury to injury: treacherous escapes by boat from southeast Asia culminate in detainment at inhumane camps for asylum seekers — those run by Australian military on Nauru and Manus islands. The Guardian’s Nauru Files especially highlight the abuse of women and children in Nauru.

The most recent report by the U.N. again rebukes Australia for this situation, which has continued for over 15 years. The United Nation’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, also criticized use of the phrase ‘illegal immigrant’ as a way of justifying the detainment of asylum seekers as if they were criminals:

“While migrants who arrive in countries of destination without documents may be in an ‘irregular’ or ‘undocumented’ or ‘unauthorised’ situation, they have not committed a criminal act,” he said. “A human being cannot be intrinsically ‘illegal’ and naming anyone as such dehumanises that person. The conceptualisation of irregular migrants as ‘illegals’ has undoubtedly played into the criminalisation of migrants and thus into the use of immigration detention.”

(source: the Guardian)

On the other side of the world, Trump’s immigration policies increase the number of deportations of ‘illegal’ immigrants. Many of these are central Americans, and increasingly they include both DREAMers (people who have been in the United States since childhood) and parents of American citizen children. In fact, many of these deported are mothers, which Sarah Stillman, the director of the Global Migration Project at Columbia Journalism School, highlights in a recent New Yorker piece:

“We’re sharing one trend that conflicts with Trump’s rhetorical focus on immigrants who “are criminal and have criminal records, gang members, drug dealers.” In fact, his administration’s agents are targeting, in large numbers, individuals for whom public-safety justifications for removal don’t apply. This includes a considerable number of women who have no criminal records and who are either the primary caretakers of young children, or the primary family breadwinners, or both.”

Stillman briefly mentions that many of these places to which these women are deported — Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras — are torn apart by violence, drugs and poverty. In leaving those places, emigrants are not far from the definition of refugees or asylum seekers.

Such treatment of immigrants underscores many of our entrenched beliefs around the criminality of trespassing and the significance of property. As Stillman notes above, Trump’s rhetoric is only justifiable if these people are criminals. Of course they are trespassing and this is still a country where you are allowed to shoot trespassers.

The defining feature of citizenship is belonging to a country; a country belonging to us. It is our birthright, our privilege, to turn you away at the gate, to send you ‘back’ to a place in which you’ve never lived. Our land, but not your land.

The notion of a birthright is closely tied up in this prerogative. It contributes to the parameters of inequality in our society, and is rooted in racism and patriarchy. By definition, a birthright confers special status, most often an advantageous one, and most often to do with property or wealth. These advantages are more often handed to white men.

In biblical times the birthright was traditionally passed from father to firstborn son, fostering divisions between the likes of Jacob and Esau. Slaves were themselves part of this birthright: they were inheritable. Nowadays presidents’ sons may themselves become presidents, or famous buffoons might inherit enough wealth to mitigate multiple bankruptcies. On the other hand, should a black person become president, he will be plagued with questions about his birth certificate.

If by being citizens we can lay claim to an entire country as a kind of communally inherited property, then perhaps our concept of citizenship is not far removed from this interpretation of birthright as a suspicious offshoot of our racist and sexist history. It is not difficult to see the racial or gender divisions in the history of citizenship — pre 1870, no black man in America was considered a citizen and pre 1930s, an American woman would have almost by default taken the citizenship of her husband. In New Zealand, there was similar discrimination in citizenship policy. Here for example, it wasn’t until 1951 that Chinese people could naturalise. (source: Te Ara)

That my son can even take on my citizenship today, when he has not even inherited my surname, is an advantage not guaranteed to women everywhere. According to the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, 26 other countries restrict a woman in passing her citizenship onto her children, usually if she is married to a non-citizen. This gender discrimination in nationality policy is one of the main causes of statelessness — when a person has no citizenship.

By its other definition, a birthright is also a human right: the entitlement at birth to certain of those liberties which no person should ever be denied. “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

How much freedom is preserved in detaining people who have already been stripped of their homes? How much dignity in sending people away from the only home they’ve known due to the technicalities of incomplete paperwork? And how many rights does a stateless person have in practice? It probably goes without saying that in all cases, the answer is none.

Read any further into the declaration and it becomes even harder, if not completely impossible, to justify these policies.

  • Article 2: “Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

“Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.”

  • Article 14:”Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.”
  • Article 17: “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.”
  • Article 29: “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

Written into the declaration is an assumption that all people belong to a place (“a place to which a person belongs”); that all have a government and a nationality. That all people have a home and a state in which they can participate.

Only then it would seem, in having a home, being at home, can one exercise his rights.

My son’s dual citizenship comes with fine print, like possibly declaring income to another government, but this fine print means he might also participate as a citizen there. The stateless person, falling outside the exclusive circle of citizenship’s participatory rights, becomes like a ghost. She has no rights or responsibilities.

The illegal immigrant’s status is similar to that of the stateless person in that not only can she not take part in any political process, but the services that would be at her disposal as a citizen are out of reach. How can she go to the police if she is afraid of deportation?

Of course these issues are not just statutory; they are deeply personal. One’s place of origin usually carries a special and private power: the homeland beckons. The Maori phrase for this is tangata whenua, people born to the land. I understand this as a kind of intense pang when I see the flatirons of the Colorado Rockies, which overshadowed my youth. That landscape is as much a part of me as the family that raised me there. I imagine that the loss of a home could only be expressed as a cavernous aching grief.

As chairperson of the U.N. Human Rights Commission, Eleanor Roosevelt began her introductory speech, “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home.”*

Our very first right then, the most unspoken and natural birthright, is to have a home. Yet today 66 million people live without one.

In light of this fact, how can we justify stringent immigration policies at all? On what ethical grounds do we draw a circle around ourselves and say to the persecuted, injured, grief stricken and voiceless people knocking on our doors: “You cannot come in?”




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