On the U.S.’s southern border, non-citizens trying to gain admittance into the country have been locked up and separated from their children.
Why? What makes them different from a U.S. citizen, exactly?
The idea of citizenship is a pretty new one.
Go back a few hundred years in any corner of the globe, and the idea of a citizen barely existed.
In western Europe, you didn’t have citizenship, you had fealty. Your bonds were with your family, your faith, your village, and your feudal lord. And your lord in turn had pledged fealty to his lord, and so on up the chain until you reached a king or grand duke or pontiff or prince-bishop.
Citizenship, in the sense of a defined membership in a nation-state, along with a series of rights and responsibilities to that state, has only really existed since the 19th century in most places.
And immigration – the changing of citizenship – was fluid for even longer. In many cases, particularly in places colonized by the British, you gained citizenship simply by showing up and being the right colour and gender. In the United States in the late 1700s and early 1800s, the law was that free white men could declare their intent to become an American citizen, and they would simply become one after a certain period of residency, from as little as two to as many as 14 years.
In Canada, we also practiced a largely open-door policy, with only “the ill, the disabled, and the poor” excluded initially.
What’s changed that has turned citizenship and immigration into a vast, bureaucratic process?
Initially, it was racism. We’ve denied citizenship and immigration rights to a host of people over the last century and a half. A brief and incomplete list of people who’ve been barred from entry or treated as non-citizens includes Indigenous Canadians, women, Chinese, Japanese, and Indian immigrants, Mennonites, Doukhobors, communists, and Seventh-Day Adventists.
We were going to keep all the riches of Canada for white people!
But racism, while far from vanished, is no longer as virulent as it was a century ago. So why do we keep our immigration barriers so high, even here in high-immigration Canada?
As far as I can tell, the value of moving people versus moving goods has shifted.
In the 19th and early 20th century, moving stuff was very, very expensive.
This meant that to make money, to develop a national economy back in the day, you needed raw manpower. (And womanpower, to do the unpaid jobs like cooking and cleaning and raising kids, that tend to get left out of economic analysis.)
So for a long time, it made sense to move lots of people. Logs weren’t going to cut themselves, ore wasn’t going to dig itself up, fish weren’t going to fling themselves at the cannery.
And then, technology changed. Machines became more and more efficient. Huge diesel container vessels quartered the ocean and shrank the globe. Fewer hands were needed in factories and mines and farms, even as those factories and mines and farms became an order of magnitude more efficient.
Developing a country now didn’t require raw labour. It required capital. Skilled technicians, too, but only a few of those, compared to the numbers who had crewed assembly lines in our grandfathers’ day.
The story of the 19th and early 20th century is the story of vast movements of people to feed an industrial machine. The story from then to the present is the story of borders becoming porous to goods and money to feed the new version of that machine.
It’s easier by far to permanently move a car or a blender or a few million in financial assets across a North American border than to move a human being.
I’d prefer if people could move at least as easily as goods. Europe managed to reduce its borders to speed bumps without collapsing, and it wasn’t that long ago that it didn’t require a passport to cross from Canada into the U.S.
I know it won’t happen in my lifetime, but I’d prefer a world in which citizenship didn’t pin people down to one spot on the map quite as much as the modern version does.