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“To wall or not to wall”. Cross-border citizenship as an alternative in the US-Mexico border region?

On 16 May, President Trump announced his plans for a major overhaul of the US immigration system. His “merit-based, high-security plan”, as reported by The New York Times, targets immigrants who have skills and education and who would be required to learn English, pass a civics exam and be financially self-sufficient before being admitted into the United States.

The Guardian, speculating that “[the] effort has little chance of advancing through Congress before the 2020 presidential election”, adds that under the new plan, 57 percent of green cards would be awarded on merit as opposed to the current 12 percent. According to Bloomberg, the new merit-based system promises to bring the skilled percentage up to 57 percent, while reducing the family-based system – currently responsible for two thirds of all immigrants – to 33 percent. Bloomberg feels “the idea of shifting to a more merit-based legal immigration system is a good one”, referring to White House statistics that show that the US is tilted much less towards immigrants with skills than for example Canada, Australia and Japan.

Receiving criticism from the Democrats for not addressing the Dreamers (the roughly 700,000 young, undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children) or the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, the Democrats also oppose Trump’s plans regarding the “desperately needed” wall along the southwestern border.

As an alternative to the wall, Matthew Longo, the author of The Politics of Borders. Sovereignty, Security and the Citizen after 9/11, recently proposed in The Nation the idea of “borderland citizenship”, which relies on a collaborative and binational strategy between Mexico and the US:

One idea would be to match border-zone security with a kind of cross-border citizenship: a formal legal status conferring special rights and responsibilities onto citizens of the borderlands. The proposal would be to delineate a broad zone comprised of districts in the United States and Mexico along the 1,954 miles of the border in which citizens on both sides would be afforded special rights unique to the border zone (on top of their own national citizenship). Certainly, border security would be decided by the wider polity, but local issues—such as cross-border trade, schooling, environment, and waste management—would be resolved jointly by the communities themselves.

Perhaps inspired by the situation in the EU, where EU citizens from another member state can vote in local elections, Longo suggests that “cross-border citizenship might enable borderlands citizens to cross freely between states, participate in local elections, and vote on shared issues … [This] model would cultivate a zone legally that already exists economically and culturally”.

Longo ends with interesting observations about the impact of his proposal on the centuries-old “Westphalian system” (see one of our previous episodes). Agreeing with former Customs and Border Protection Commisioner Alan Bersin, Longo notes that “we suffer from a ‘Westphalian instinct’ –after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), credited with generating the international bordering system—that makes us think in us/them binaries. This model is comforting but outdated, and struggles to handle today’s complicated transnational problems. Our goal should be to encourage this strategic mission, while fulfilling our democratic values as well”. From that perspective, the idea of cross-border citizenship fits neatly in a pattern of trends that eat away the traditional idea of citizenship as an exclusive status, just as dual citizenship and postnationalism/transnationalism have done before.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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