America / Immigration / Other / Politics

National Identity, Citizenship and Immigration Reform

Immigration reform has been a contested issue throughout the history of the United States. Both sides of the aisle have made efforts to draft effective legislation to reform the current immigration system. While Congress debates on how to reform the immigration system, the future of over 11,000,000 undocumented immigrants is at risk. While legislation is necessary to enact reform, there is a strong philosophical component present. Citizenship and nationality play a strong, but silent, role in the political debate. Our notions of these concepts shape the debate surrounding the inclusion of undocumented immigrants into American society.

The philosopher Aristotle discusses citizenship to great lengths and made the distinction between having citizenship and being a good citizen. Many Americans today are passive citizens and, according to Aristotle, while being citizens do not serve as good citizens. In the case of undocumented immigrants, Aristotle considers immigrants as children on the path to citizenship, whom have the capability of becoming good citizens.

Aristotle, a citizen of Ancient Athens, developed a theory of citizenship in which he categorized a country as a family. Aristotle believed that “[citizenship] is not determined by residence, or by merely having access to the court of law.” He views undocumented immigrants as “[children] who are still too young to be entered into the role of citizens.” By no means does Aristotle support illegal immigration, but his analogy of a country as a family supports the possibility of achieving citizenship as an immigrant.

While Aristotle acknowledges birthright citizenship, he also develops a definition of citizenship. He defines a citizen as someone who shares in the administration of justice and the holding of office. He pinpoints two types of office holding. One that is held for a certain period of time and a second in which there is no time limit, such as voting or speaking in assembly. Aristotle’s distinction between someone who is a citizen and someone who is a good citizen is meant to represent the view that a country is only as good as its citizens While being a citizen is having citizenship, a good citizen is someone who actively participates in politics. For example, someone who is considered an American citizen may not also be considered a good citizen, under this definition. Many American citizens do not meet the criteria of a good citizen, and instead are passive citizens. By not participating actively in politics by doing things like voting, speaking in assembly, or being in a jury, many Americans choose to be passive citizens.

How many American citizens would Aristotle consider citizens? Of the 300 million American citizens, do all of them participate in the public sphere? How many of those people vote? When considering these questions, it is clear that a limited number of American citizens hold public office or qualify as good citizens under Aristotle’s general definition. For example, only around 60 percent of the U.S. population votes during presidential elections and only 40 percent during midterm elections. Based on election turnout alone, around half of the U.S. population would not qualify as good citizens in Aristotle’s definition.

We can apply Aristotle’s teachings to the immigration debate, specifically the debate surrounding the current undocumented population. Many of these immigrants have become integrated into American society and nominally consider themselves Americans despite not being legal citizens. Furthermore, many of these undocumented immigrants, if given the opportunity, could potentially fulfill Aristotle’s definition of a good citizen. Immigration reform will require the reevaluation of American citizenship. Undocumented immigrants, in many cases, consider themselves Americans despite their lack of legal status. As Aristotle said, these immigrants should be considered as children on the path to citizenship.


Immigration Reform Rally by Britt Selvitelle is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0