Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Immigrants and the Right to Stay

reviewed by Melissa Moreno - June 15, 2011

coverTitle: Immigrants and the Right to Stay
Author(s): Joseph H. Carens
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262014831, Pages: 114, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Many educators in the United States across the educational systems have brilliant students who have achieved social and cultural membership, yet because of institutional barriers they struggle with acquiring official legal citizenship. Joseph H. Carens and various citizenship experts in Immigrants and the Right to Stay contribute to our understanding of the tension-filled dialogue regarding citizenship. Political Scientist Carens posits that “irregular migrants,” who reside in the nation for a “long time” should have a moral claim to amnesty if they abide by the law, become steady workers, and are responsible family and community members (p. 5). He argues that some conditions surrounding immigration, such as the status of entering children, serve to strengthen moral claims for migrants to stay (p. 6). Indeed, this claim regarding early life arrival is one that the student activists of the Dream Act movement have been voicing to agents of social and political change in the nation state. However, in the political climate of the current liberal democracy—or what some would call empire—anti-immigrant policies are normalized in various states (e.g., Alabama, Arizona, and Utah).

Early in the book, Carens claims to define moral notions, not pragmatic ones, associated with citizenship (p. 37). He states, “For too long advocates of legalization have relied almost entirely on the pragmatic case, leaving moral arguments to those who oppose legalization in the name of fairness and respect for the law” (p. 39). For this reason, Carens sets out to challenge “the assumption that irregular migrants do not deserve legal status and that the only case for granting it is an appeal to practicality and perhaps compassion” (p. 39). Organizationally, the book presents Carens’ case for amnesty first, and then follows with a series of engaging responses by experts to Carens’ proposition for amnesty. The argument for citizenship access and how the “passage of time creates a moral claim to stay” is introduced by Carens through various narratives about the empirical realities of three unauthorized immigrants who efficiently contribute to their families and communities. The narratives implicitly counter those that tend to focus on deficit views and construct unauthorized immigrants as a “threat” to the nation. In general, the compelling narratives illustrate that the desires and sensibilities of unauthorized immigrants are aligned with those of everyday working U.S. Americans.  

This book on citizenship is distinct insofar as it includes an array of responses to Carens’ proposition on citizenship, by citizenship studies experts, including Ngai, Swain, Massey, Bosniak, Elshtai, and Aleinikoff. Collectively they represent a dialogue across various approaches to the concept of citizenship undergirded by historical and contemporary contexts. Ngai and Massey offer concise histories of how U.S. citizenship has been particularly harsh to those from China and Mexico, and argue that amnesty alone will not solve the unequal political economies that spur unauthorized migration. Bosniak and Aleinikoff interrogate the length of time for amnesty and the role of moral arguments for and against deportation in the context of a liberal democracy. Further, Swine and Elshtain address the ways in which some minoritized ethnic groups have been historically aided or contemporarily hindered by unauthorized immigration. Indirectly they seem to agree that there is a long history of citizenship practices and policies that have privileged or subjugated racialized ethnic groups in distinct ways. Carens and the contributors converge to suggest that, in a global civil society, what counts as citizenship is official legal citizenship. However, they are critical of Carens’ lack of precision concerning citizenship concepts. For more precise citizenship concepts, Jonathan Fox’s article on “Unpacking Transnational Citizenship” provides important insights on what can be counted as citizenship in the empirical world and cues for understanding the distinction between emphases on various degrees of citizenship rights versus membership, particularly for migrants in the context of globalization. Given that Carens places an emphasis on membership and gaining legal citizenship—and less on actually having citizenship rights—some of the experts point out the pragmatic limitations and conceptual stretching of citizenship terms offered by Carens. He responds to their various comments, including disagreeing on being identified as a pragmatist. Interestingly, in practice, the pragmatic approach has dominated pro-regularization arguments, with the exception of faith-based arguments offered by some religious institutions.

It seems that while defensible arguments—be they abstract or pragmatic—regarding citizenship are offered, amnesty may not appeal to a U.S. liberal democracy at this time. Yet the global migration of deterritorialized subjects resisting the globalization from above, or the “New World Order,” continues with various economic and educational structures of inequalities upheld by transnational business and political elites. Social movements of globalization from below take place with irregular migrants desiring political participation in civil society. For example, this includes students who have arrived as children, the “1.5 generation.” Of these students, those who participate in the Dream Act movement understand, as Carens does, that “it is a mistake to divide disadvantaged groups and to set them against one another instead of building alliances to promote common interest” (p. 48). They have done their best to create allies within and across groups to “…exercise their basic human rights without exposing themselves to apprehension and deportation” (p. 34). Young adults of this movement have gone as far as putting themselves at risk for deportation in sit-in actions in Arizona, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Georgia. In calling for the passage of the Dream Act or responding to anti-immigrant legislation, several have been placed in deportation proceedings, yet have been willing to endure that consequence in order to create broader change. As Aleinikoff may state, “They belong, in two senses of the word: they belong in the United States and they belong to American society. Deportation strips long-term residents of this membership, separating them from family and community” (p. 105).

For educators, students, and immigration advocates, this book provides a vital introduction to citizenship discourse and practices. It has pedagogical usefulness insofar as the book offers multiple ontological and epistemological perspectives concerning citizenship, all in one text. It is written in a transparent format and has much to offer those who teach, or are interested in learning more, about power through the regimes of citizenship.


Fox, J. (2005). Unpacking transnational citizenship. Annual Review of Political Science, 8, 171-209.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 15, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16448, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 6:50:23 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Melissa Moreno
    Woodland Community College
    E-mail Author
    MELISSA MORENO teaches and researches in the areas of Ethnic Studies, Multicultural Education, and Chicano/Latino Studies. She was the guest editor of the Social Justice Journal issue “Citizenship Surveillance of la Gente (people): Theory, Practice, Research and Cultural Citizen Voices.” She is co-author of “Cultural Production of a Decolonial Imaginary for a Young Chicana: Lessons from Mexican ImmigrantWorking-Class Women’s Culture,” published in the Journal of Educational Studies. Her current project is her book titled Lessons of Belonging and Citizenship: Sons and Daughters of Mexican Immigrants.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue