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Racialised citizenship

In his chapter in the Oxford Handbook on Citizenship, David Scott Fitzgerald confirms our earlier conclusion in relation to racialised citizenship by noting that ‘since the mid-twentieth century, a strong international norm has emerged against racialized citizenship, though it is not dead in practice … The practice of citizenship continues to be racialized much more than citizenship status’.

This matter is also characterized by an overlap between race and religion. While the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is of a different religion than the Buddhist majority, they are also not listed as a separate ethnic category under Myanmar law. Or to give a historical example, people of Jewish or Moorish background were expelled from Spain in the 17th century based on the ‘racialization of religious prejudice’. In the words of Fitzgerald, ‘the limpieza de sangre [blood purity] laws were a strong, multi-generational form of jus sanguinis corresponding to a common religious community of descent’.

While we are currently witnessing demands to restrain the immigration of Muslims to Europe and North America and Latin Americans to the United States, historically these demands were targeted at Asians. According to Sunil Amrith, ‘many of the laws and techniques to control migration originated in the United States, Australia, Canada, and South Africa, and many of these measures arose from the desire to exclude Asian migrants’. Asian migrants were indeed frequently considered undesirable aliens and were for a long time subject to numerical limits on immigration (or barred from immigration altogether), and suffered discriminatory treatment with regard to access to nationality in their country of residence.

Both Australia and the United States for a long time had policies that discouraged or banned Asians from naturalising. Rainer Thwaites notes with regard to Australia that

In contrast with the 1903 [Naturalisation] Act, the 1920 [Naturalisation] Act did not expressly deny persons the ability to apply for naturalisation on grounds of race. In its place it conferred ‘absolute discretion’ on the Governor-General to give or withhold a naturalisation certificate without providing a reason, giving the government scope to apply any policy on naturalisation of non-Europeans it thought fit. Only 45 persons characterized by the government as being of an Asian nationality were naturalised between 1904 and 1953.

Changes to this established policy took place in 1957 and 1966 and would result in Australia formally abolishing this discriminatory treatment from 1972 onwards.

The situation was not much different in the United States. While the question of ius soli was settled with the Supreme Court’s decision in Wong Kim Ark (1898), racial discrimination was to prevail in both immigration and citizenship law from 1790 until the mid-twentieth century. Hiroshi Motomura has shown how it was not until 1952 that racial naturalisation bars were removed, and not until 1965 that the national origins system was abolished in US immigration law.

In a different publication Fitzgerald has argued that Latin America played a key role in removing racial discrimination from citizenship and migration law:

A widespread narrative attributes the demise of ethnic discrimination in immigration laws to the vertical scale of politics within each Anglophone settler state. An extended analysis of the horizontal plane shows that this narrative is partial and inaccurate. Motivated by a search for respect after centuries of racial stigmatization, Asian and African leaders allied with the ‘Latin American bloc’ to challenge the dominance of the great powers of the West and to pressure for anti-racist principles that would ultimately change immigration policies throughout the Western Hemisphere and the Anglophone settler societies.

Still, one should not lose out of sight the fact that during certain periods intra-Asian migration was numerically much more important. Amrith has shown that ‘whereas 40 per cent of Chinese emigrants in the 1850s travelled beyond Asia, between the 1880s and 1930, 96 per cent of Chinese emigrants remained within Asia’. Today intraregional movement still far exceeds interregional movement, which we have seen explains the popularity of passports that give access not just to one country but to an entire regional bloc.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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