Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era
Ming Hsu Chen



Pursuing Citizenship in the Enforcement Era

THE SCHOOL CAFETERIA was filled with rows of tables, at least four wide and four deep with approximately 250 seats in total. It was a Saturday morning in 2016, and a place that buzzed with the chatter of teenagers all week now hummed with hundreds of immigrants looking for help on their path to citizenship. This was one of many Colorado citizenship workshops I visited while researching this book. As I waited for the lines to inch forward and the seats to fill, I spoke with some of these would-be citizens about their reasons for coming. Many were longtime residents of the United States: Latinos who had come from Mexico and Central America ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago and who have held green cards for five or more years. Why had they come out today, clutching the N-400 forms that are required to file for naturalized citizenship, to take the next step toward officially becoming American? Why did two million others similarly file for citizenship that year? There were a record number of citizenship applications filed in the 2016 election year, and they have remained high years into the Donald J. Trump presidency, though spikes normally tail off months after an election.

One reason these immigrants seek citizenship comes from Mercedes, a Latino green card holder, who is seeking citizenship. She explained that while she was not usually one to get involved in politics, the election awakened her to the need to become part of the country. More pointedly, she remarked, “Now we may have a president who does not get along [with the immigrant community]. I said that if I could vote, I wouldn’t vote for him. We would have another vote against him: mine.”1 Mercedes immigrated from Mexico in 1977 and received her green card in 1990, meaning she had been eligible for citizenship for sixteen years before feeling that the right to vote was necessary to her sense of belonging. This desire for legal status and the right to vote, emblems of formal citizenship, is commonly discussed. It was evident in the fall of 2016, one month before the presidential election that would usher in Donald Trump, who put immigration enforcement front and center in his campaign promises: to build a wall at the border; to capture and return immigrants who are murderers, rapists, and gangsters; to restrict entry from Muslim-majority countries; to end humanitarian programs for asylum seekers; and to curtail legal migration through trimming of family-based migration, diversity visas, and high-skilled worker visas.2 Immigrants felt they needed the formal rights of citizenship to serve as an insurance policy against federal policies to close the borders—not only to immigrants singled out by the government as threats to the United States but also to immigrants seeking economic stability and safety, to high-skilled workers and international students seeking to learn and contribute to their professions, to refugees and veterans seeking to give back to their country, and to all manner of immigrants seeking to reunite with their families after many years spent waiting for a visa to become available.

While central to questions at the heart of this book, focusing only on the formal rights of citizenship misses a key component. After all, it was too late for many of the applicants at the workshops I attended to register for the November 2016 election in many parts of the country. Most were green card holders, but in a normal year, the naturalization process takes an average of six months.3 In the 2016 election year, the higher volume of applications and changes to processing increased processing times to one year or more,4 before tacking on additional time for residency requirements. Perhaps these immigrants did not realize that despite signing up to become citizens, they would not be able to vote in the 2016 election cycle. If that were the case, however, the lines should have shortened after the election results were announced in November 2016. They did not, nor did they shorten once the presidential inauguration had taken place in January 2017, or following the issuance of three executive actions and several policy reversals that negatively affected immigrant rights in the following years. Moreover, immigrants are making claims for social, economic, and political inclusion that go beyond formal legal status in their appeals for access to education, fair wages, and good jobs. These claims are all substantive dimensions of citizenship that speak to immigrants’ broader desire for integration into American society. While formal rights of citizenship, such as voting, are crucial motivators, the push for citizenship is also a push for cultural belonging. Take Ruth, who immigrated to the United States from China as a young adult and attended American universities for two degrees before qualifying for a green card through marriage. She is an example of successful integration; she already felt that the United States was her country, so pursuing citizenship was “natural.”5

The young undocumented immigrants colloquially known as DREAMers (from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act that would grant them a path to citizenship, had it passed), many of whom migrated as children and came of age in the United States, feel similarly to Ruth. Some DREAMers said their sense of belonging does not depend on papers and that they are already American, having attended American schools, befriended American classmates, and built American lives. Others feel “trapped” by their uncertain futures, caught in a holding pattern and unable to move forward or go back to countries they scarcely know.6 Nonetheless, they take on an activist role. They encourage those who are eligible to naturalize and register to vote, even though they themselves cannot do so.

By and large, the immigrants who came to the Colorado citizenship workshop filed their N-400 applications for citizenship and got involved in American politics because they felt they needed citizenship’s protections, even more than its benefits, and they had to stake out a place for themselves in their communities. Although many had been eligible to naturalize for years, they were filing their paperwork now because it had become too costly not to do so. All around their communities, they saw noncitizens being arrested, detained, and threatened with deportation for trivial offenses. Family members and neighbors who had lived peacefully for many years were being questioned by law enforcement, threatened with government raids, and heckled by neighbors and strangers at their schools and workplaces about their immigration status. They felt insecure about their legal status and were seeking defensive citizenship.

This book is about why immigrants pursue citizenship in the enforcement era and how the experience varies for immigrants with different legal statuses. The desire for legal protection felt by green card holders I met at naturalization workshops affects all citizens. In this enforcement-minded climate, immigrants of every legal status feel insecure about being noncitizens in America. They feel insecure whether legally admitted or undocumented and whether they possess criminal backgrounds or college degrees. This citizenship insecurity shapes the trajectories of immigrants as they make choices about their present lives and future investments in America. Green card holders, technically known as legal permanent residents or lawful permanent residents (LPRs), must debate whether to make a life in the United States or keep open the option to return to their home countries. Meanwhile, family unity is eluded by reduced caps on refugee admission, travel bans for those from Muslim-majority countries, and the turning away of asylum seekers at the US border. Noncitizens stationed abroad or waiting to enlist, whom recruiters had promised citizenship for their military service, find themselves in limbo with heightened security clearances and burdensome application requirements delaying and derailing their naturalization. High-skilled temporary workers and relatives confront new uncertainty about their ability to legally migrate, as Congress debates the caps on temporary visas and the president proposes a point system altering the criteria for immigrant admission. In sum, across the citizenship spectrum, it is now more difficult to be an immigrant and more difficult to feel included as an American.

Various types of noncitizens are also feeling the effects of their precarious status through social exclusion, economic challenges, and political disengagement. Refugee agencies are seeing dwindling numbers of clients and diminished resources for their settlement.7 Muslims and Middle Eastern immigrants throughout the nation face increased scrutiny.8 Mexican and Central American youth are being pulled over and arrested as suspected gang members.9 The federal government’s immigrant serving agency, the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, has deleted “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.10 The White House and Census Bureau have sought information about citizenship status to assist immigration enforcement and to restrict public benefits, purposes that may impede integration.11 Federal immigration policy makes deportation possible for immigrants who were previously considered low priorities for enforcement, putting everyone who is not a US citizen at risk of exclusion and deportation.12 Even naturalized citizens are vulnerable to denaturalization.13 More than ever, immigrants are being told they are not welcome in the United States.

The Meaning of Membership for Semi-Citizens

Studying a range of immigrants with different legal statuses shows how status affects the substantive belonging of immigrants and why some struggle more than others to integrate. The law says that everyone who is not US-born or naturalized is a noncitizen alien,14 but the social reality is more complicated. The citizen/alien binary should be reframed as a spectrum of citizenship. As figure 1.1 shows, categories of immigrants can be arrayed on a spectrum ranging from US citizenship to undocumented immigrants. The interview groups fall within this spectrum: green card holders (e.g., lawful permanent residents, refugees, service members), temporary visa holders (e.g., temporary workers and international students), and DACA recipients. Placing the groups on a spectrum emphasizes continuities between the experiences of citizenship.

FIGURE 1.1. ​Citizenship spectrum. LPR = lawful permanent resident.

The experiences of these immigrant groups can be further differentiated along formal and substantive dimensions of citizenship.15 Formal citizenship is a legal status that permits an individual to attain naturalized citizenship and state-conferred rights and benefits, such as the ability to sponsor family migration, travel without restraint, participate in the political process, and not be deported for committing a crime. It encompasses a spectrum of citizenship statuses, from naturalized citizens to green card holders to temporary visa holders to those with limited or no status.16 Substantive citizenship consists of more informal claims to social belonging and might be accompanied by appeals for economic, social, political, and in some cases legal incorporation.17 While some dispute the desirability of making formal citizenship a prerequisite to substantive belonging,18 this book argues that formal citizenship is a necessary but not sufficient condition for full citizenship in a nation governed by immigration laws that favor enforcement at the expense of membership and integration.

The context of enforcement sharpens the meaning and increases the necessity of formal citizenship. This is troublesome for citizens and noncitizens alike, as the federal government’s obsession with citizenship status renders noncitizens insecure about their rights and benefits. National communities certainly have the right to define their membership, but once the community draws those boundaries, those living within the society—members or not—are entitled to occupy a protected space.19 The federal government’s decades-long emphasis on enforcing the legal status of noncitizens treats them as outsiders living inside a bounded geographic space. Legal status becomes a social construct, as the experiences of different groups of noncitizens consolidate around feelings of insecurity across the citizenship spectrum.

The enforcement bias also erodes substantive citizenship. The sense of insecurity around citizenship status inhibits many dimensions of immigrant integration.20 My interviews with immigrants reveal that the enforcement bias has negative effects on their sense of social belonging, economic opportunities, civic participation, and interactions with legal institutions. As law and society scholars have argued time and again, legal categories operate within and are constituted by social, economic, and political forces in society. Because noncitizen status takes on negative social meaning during periods of enforcement, noncitizens are constructed as outsiders and excluded from many spheres of life.

In an enforcement regime, noncitizen status produces substantive and formal barriers to belonging. Formal citizenship can positively affect socioeconomic well-being, political participation, social identification, and feelings of legal security. And yet, while data shows increases in naturalization applications due to fear of enforcement in the short term, the longer-term repercussions of such enforcement are concerning.21 Legal noncitizens could come to view citizenship as a transactional decision rather than an opportunity to cultivate meaningful ties to a nation. Refugees and military service members could fall off the path to naturalization and fail to integrate into mainstream life. Burdened pathways to citizenship could lead many temporary visa holders to return to their home countries with their skills and experiences. The collective result is a socially disintegrated polity rather than a socially cohesive one fueled by shared purpose and values.


1. Mercedes, interview with the author, Denver, Colorado, September 9, 2017.

2. Official declarations of the Trump administration are collected on White House.gov and the Department of Homeland Security webpage “Executive Orders on Protecting the Homeland,” accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.dhs.gov/executive-orders-protecting-homeland. Campaign statements and Twitter posts are collected in news media. Ron Nixon and Linda Qiu, “Trump’s Evolving Words on the Wall,” New York Times, January 18, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/us/politics/trump-border-wall-immigration.html.

3. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) describes six months as the desired timetable for processing: “Frequently Asked Questions,” US Citizenship and Immigration Services, accessed December 13, 2019, https://www.uscis.gov/sites/default/files/files/article/chapter3.pdf.

4. Processing times can be found by searching the website by USCIS district and immigration benefit. A search for the Denver field office shows close to a one-year wait (July 2016–September 2016 applications for citizenship, adjustment of status, and certification of citizenship were being processed as of August 2017). For an analysis of these figures, see Diego Iñiguez-López, Tearing Down the Second Wall: Ending USCIS’s Backlog of Citizenship Applications and Expanding Access to Naturalization for Immigrants (Chicago: National Partnership for New Americans, July 2, 2019); Colorado State Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights, Citizenship Delayed: Civil Rights and Voting Rights Implications of the Backlog in Citizenship and Naturalization Applications,” September 2019 (reprinted in University of Colorado Law Review Forum 91 (2019), http://lawreview.colorado.edu/citizenship-delayed-civil-rights-and-voting-rights-implications-of-the-backlog-in-citizenship-and-naturalization-applications/).

5. Ruth, interview with the author, Denver, Colorado, May 8, 2017.

6. Esen, interview with the author, Boulder, Colorado, February 27, 2018.

7. Amanda Holpuch, “Trump’s War on Refugees Is Tearing Down US’ Life-Changing Resettlement Program,” Guardian, June 26, 2019. The State Department and Department of Health and Human Service budgets related to refugees show significant decreases from 2016 to 2017, 2018, and 2019, and an executive order permits states to veto refugee resettlement.

8. Miriam Jordan, “New Scrutiny Coming for Refugees from 11 ‘High-Risk’ Nations,” New York Times, January 29, 2018.

9. Philip Marcelo, “Gang Database Made Up Mostly of Young Black, Latino Men,” AP News, July 30, 2019. President Trump warned of the dangers of the MS-13 gang in his 2018 State of the Union Address.

10. “About Us,” US Citizenship and Immigration Services, last updated March 3, 2018, https://www.uscis.gov/aboutus; Richard Gonzales, “America No Longer a ‘Nation of Immigrants,’ USCIS Says,” NPR, February 22, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/22/588097749/america-no-longer-a-nation-of-immigrants-uscis-says.

11. The Commerce Department, which sought to include a citizenship question on the census, lost its bid in the U.S. Supreme Court. Dept of Commerce v. N.Y., 588 U.S._(2019). Soon after, President Trump issued an executive order requiring that agencies with citizenship information share it with the Census Bureau and other agencies. Donald J. Trump, “Executive Order on Collecting Information about Citizenship Status in Connection with the Decennial Census,” July 11, 2010, https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-collecting-information-citizenship-status-connection-decennial-census/.

12. John F. Kelly, “Memorandum on Enforcement of the Immigration Laws to Serve the National Interest,” US Department of Homeland Security, January 20, 2017, https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/17_0220_S1_Enforcement-of-the-Immigration-Laws-to-Serve-the-National-Interest.pdf; “Attorney General Announces Zero-Tolerance Policy for Criminal Illegal Entry” (US Department of Justice, April 6, 2018), https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-announces-zero-tolerance-policy-criminal-illegal-entry.

13. “DOJ Creates Section Dedicated to Denaturalization Cases,” US Department of Justice, February 26, 2020, https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/department-justice-creates-section-dedicated-denaturalization-cases.

14. Immigration and Nationality Act, § 101(a)(15).

15. The conceptual distinction between formal and substantive citizenship is made by a number of scholars. See, e.g., Evelyn Nakano Glenn, “Constructing Citizenship: Exclusion, Subordination, and Resistance,” American Sociological Review 76, no. 1 (2011): 1; D. Carolina Núñez, “Mapping Citizenship Status, Membership, and the Path in Between,” Utah Law Review 2016, no. 3 (2016): 477. Empirically, the significance of citizenship is demonstrable, albeit modest, with the most significant effects for racial minorities and immigrants from poor countries.

16. The meaning of formal citizenship is further defined in chapter 2.

17. Substantive citizenship is further defined in chapter 2. The unbundling of citizenship can be traced to T. H. Marshall, with specific dimensions varying among citizenship theorists and social scientists. T. H. Marshall, “Citizenship and Social Class,” in Citizenship and Social Class: And Other Essays (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1950), 30–39. While legal status can be equivalent to formal citizenship, its inclusion here indicates that some of these substantive benefits necessarily follow from government-conferred legal status and that legal incorporation and political incorporation are distinct, even if overlapping. Hannah Arendt famously said that citizenship is the “right to have rights.” Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Schocken Books, 1951).

18. Some scholars are skeptical of this view, eyeing state-dominated institutions such as citizenship with suspicion or indifference or pointing out their declining control over membership as supranational, subnational, and transnational communities emerge. See, e.g., Linda Bosniak, “Citizenship Denationalized,” Indiana Journal Global Law Studies 7 (2000): 447–509; Yasemin Soysal, Limits of Citizenship: Migrants and Postnational Membership in Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); and Peter Spiro, Beyond Citizenship (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

19. Linda Bosniak, The Citizen and the Alien (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006).

20. Bosniak, “Citizenship Denationalized.”

21. Irene Bloemraad and Alicia Sheares, “Understanding Membership in a World of Global Migration: (How) Does Citizenship Matter?,” International Migration Review 51 (2017): 823–67.