Citizenship in America: A Country’s “Priceless Treasure” Under Siege


In an article published by The Century Foundation, Professor Karen Greenberg writes about how small erosions to citizenship rights can lead to much larger erosions of democracy itself.

Erosion of citizenship is a slippery slope. Small erosions of constitutional and citizenship rights set the stage for major rollbacks of sacrosanct protections. Our response to the war on terror stripped away constitutional protections in the name of security. Less than two decades after 9/11, once-taboo behavior on the part of the state, and of the executive in particular, has become normal. Historically, America prosecuted rebellious or even treasonous subjects in American courts; today it is politically acceptable to simply strip unpalatable or controversial Americans of their citizenship. Practices including extreme surveillance, torture, extrajudicial detention, and targeted assassination have been made routine first for non-citizens and then for citizens. The courts have occasionally acted as a check on these erosions of citizenship, but judicial restraint has not sufficed to stop the steady decline in the value of citizenship. Unless American laws and American practice radically change, the nature of citizenship in the United States will be conclusively degraded.

The further consequence of the erosion of citizenship rights is the erosion of democracy itself. Unchecked executive powers to define the rights of citizens and the rights to citizenship tear away at the very fabric of the nation’s guarantees of fairness and justice, and thus at the identity of the country. There may be remedies, such as legislation forbidding executive orders—without transparent review ahead of time by a body outside the executive. The courts can offer review as well, but the timelines within which they can work are often too slow to be useful. In any case, however, before any remedy can take place, the incursions on citizenship need to be understood by more than a handful: it needs to become part of the national conversation.

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