In the wake of the Haiti earthquake crisis, the American Red Cross posted information about the U.S. State Department’s efforts in finding loved ones in the disaster zone. That’s where I saw this sentence:
“Unfortunately at this time, inquiries to search for non-U.S. Citizens missing in Haiti are not being accepted.”
I understand that with limited resources, it makes perfect sense for people to “help their own.” However, this statement is frustrating because I firmly believe that “citizenship” is a flawed way of defining a person’s identity or national ties, and should not used as a segregator — whether in disaster relief aid or other situations.
“Citizenship” is a legal status that is easily manipulated. It is not an identity, it does not define a human being, and it should not be misconstrued as such.
“What’s your citizenship?” as a substitute for “Who are you?”
As TCKs, we know that equating citizenship with a person’s identity is flawed. Every day, people greet TCKs with questions such as “Where are you from?” or “What’s your citizenship?”
Asking “Where are you from” is a vestigial structure in human interaction. People ask “Where are you from” as a shortcut or substitute for “Well, who are you?
The question is born from stereotypes of a pre-globalized society and does not work in today’s modern world, with large international organizations, a world wide web and the ability to quickly (and cheaply) travel. Today, the typical TCK answer to that question — with a mix of six different countries — no longer tells a person “this is who I am.”
Where you were born is not who you are. At least, not for most TCKs, who spend the majority of their lives outside of their country of citizenship.
Citizenship as a form of segregation
As a TCK, I’ve never understood how countries would segregate using “citizenship.” Take two people — one born in America with U.S. citizenship, but has never lived there. The other, a non-citizen who has lived in America for 20 years and pays taxes. Who, in this scenario, is more “American?” What does birthplace have to do with someone’s “citizenship,” and why would only one of our fictional characters get State Department aid in Haiti, should he have been there?
In 2002, California passed a bill that allowed children of illegal immigrants to attend college in-state, provided they meet admission requirements. There was immediate backlash from angry Americans who thought that non-citizens should not be granted this access.
Then California governor Gray Davis said: “I signed AB540 because I believe someone who spends three years in high school and on their own merit gains admission to a California college should not be denied the opportunity to complete their education because their parents many years ago may have decided to enter the country illegally.”
Because really, what is the difference between Andy or Ahmed if they both grew up in the United States, attended the same high school and qualified for University of California on their own merit? Nothing, except their race, social class and “citizenship.” Even if both students graduate from University of California, Ahmed will not be able to work in the United States. And, Ahmed wouldn’t get help from the U.S. State Department, should he run into a natural disaster such as the Haiti earthquake.
Citizenship should not define a person, and should not be used to segregate
The concept of “citizenship” is so problematic that countries struggling to define it have riddled the process with curious legal rules, which are then often manipulated by parents who want to give their children “first-world” benefits.
For example, it is very common for mainland Chinese women to flock to Hong Kong, a Westernized former-British colony, to give birth. In doing so, they are flouting China’s “one-child” policy by having an “invisible” second or third child, while letting their children reap the benefits of a less-stringent Hong Kong permanent residency. Simply by being born elsewhere, their child is suddenly “more free” than their parents have ever been.
Being a “citizen” of a place has virtually nothing to do with who you are, or what your identity is. It is, instead, a tool for first-world nations to grant privileges to their citizens, while locking others out — which is why first-world citizenships are highly coveted (and highly targeted).
With citizenship being such an arbitrary legal designation, it doesn’t seem fair that in disaster relief, the only way of identifying those missing, alive, dead or found is citizenship. In the news, reports of those rescued or dead are separated by what citizenship they hold. State departments seek out people of a certain citizenship before tending to others. I do not mean to paint the United States in a poor light — especially because they are doing incredible work in aiding Haiti. But I am wondering: how can one human be more important than another, purely because of an arbitrary legal term?
Ambrose Chan, a close friend of mine, currently serves in the United States Army. He was formerly a FDNY paramedic. He is, for all intents and purposes, a “great citizen.” But legally, he does not have American passport. Should he have been in Haiti, he would not be first in line for aid from what he considers his home country.
Seeing reports emerge from Haiti made me begin to realize how citizenship’s confusion with identity is incredibly problematic. In a moment of earth-shattering disaster, when humanity’s kindness is tested, it is remarkable that such a meaningless form of legal segregation could prevail.
Do you agree or disagree with me? I would love to hear your thoughts. Please share your opinions in the comments.