Comments 5

Haiti earthquake: why should citizenship matter?

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.


  1. Christiana says

    Very interesting. In other natural disasters, like the tsunami in 2004, I remember there being a set hierarchy of people being helped over others. Also in Rwanda and Cambodia in the past during their own political and social crises. At a time of chaos, it’s sad to think that your passport gives you more rights to safety over another person’s.


  2. (Long response waring.) Interesting article. I agree that it is kind of messed up that someone might be passed over for help because of nationality, but some realities are kind of missing and I see the debate differently.

    The article seems to imply that the U.S. is only helping U.S. citizens in Haiti. This is of course incredibly inaccurate. I’m sure you know this, but I think it merits mention given the message and tone of the article.

    And frankly, a government does have a higher degree of responsibility for its own citizens abroad. In a kidnapping event, the government of the abducted routinely gets involved for this very reason. The college admissions comparison seems off base, but the issue remains: If someone paid taxes (illegal immigrants generally don’t pay them although I have no statistics handy) there are grounds for saying that a citizen operating under the laws of the country and paying taxes should have first crack at social programs such as state-provided education. The U.S. is broke and printing money it doesn’t have as it is.

    Catastrophe survival is, of course, a different animal. But it’s frankly impossible to provide the same high level of search and rescue capabilities for the millions of affected Haitians as are being set aside for Americans and other rich nations capable of providing it. To me, we’re talking about additional help to citizens, not reduced help to Haitians. (If not, that needs to be established and explained to understand the situation.) It’s tough to say a government should tell some of its taxpaying citizens that we could send in extra resources to find their family member, but can’t because we don’t have the resources to help Hatians in the same way.

    Nothing about this situation is fair for anyone involved. Nobody wins here. I do agree that the lines of identity are blurring and the topic is interesting as a quasi-TCK myself. (Go figure: I don’t consider myself to even fully fit THAT identity.) But I don’t consider that gray area to be incredibly relevant here outside of a philosophical standpoint. (Personally, though, I think the “where are you from” question is just a safe, non-encroaching social crutch of a question we use for small talk, mainly because most people know you aren’t going to truly understand who someone is with a single question, assuming they are even comfortable with you knowing them that well in the first place.)

    The real question to me: Is it unethical to pour extra resources into a crisis to specifically help your citizens. Personally, considering the country in question (U.S.) is providing a ton of aid to the host country, I don’t have a fundamental problem with it. But it’s a legitimate question and I could understand someone disagreeing, but you have to include certain realities along with your philosophical principles.


  3. Hi Kyle, thanks for commenting! I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts.

    You write: “The article seems to imply that the U.S. is only helping U.S. citizens in Haiti. This is of course incredibly inaccurate. I’m sure you know this, but I think it merits mention given the message and tone of the article.”

    I completely agree with you. I did not mean to paint the US in any way as a villian — and will update the piece accordingly to soften the tone.

    I also agree that resources is not a topic I discuss in this very philosophical opinion piece — but I have no problem with people “helping their own” because of limited resources. What I am very frustrated by is how countries define people as “their own.” Ambrose is a great example. Though he’s a great “citizen,” he doesn’t have “citizenship” in the legal sense. “Citizenship” doesn’t define national ties, and it doesn’t define a person’s identity.

    In such a flawed system, it doesn’t seem fair to segregate people or aid based on such an ambiguous term such as “citizenship.” What would be the solution to this? Well — that would be up for debate.


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