Citizen Into Émigré

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Swearing-in Ceremony at USICS, Jacksonville, Florida, October 15, 2021. Photo: Stephen Eisenman.

A New Citizen

Two weeks ago, my wife, the British-born environmentalist Harriet Festing, was granted U.S. citizenship. From application to approval, the whole process took about three years, culminating in a swearing-in ceremony. The latter was an awkward and hybrid affair — like going to a DMV to get married. And when it was over, I thought about the prejudices that disfigure the immigration system, the rudiments of a better structure, and my future as a U.S. citizen.

Everyone at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service office in suburban Jacksonville – about an hour from our home in Micanopy — was very kind. As we approached the front door of the building, we were greeted by a guard with a clipboard who checked off Harriet’s name. After passing through a metal detector, we entered a dimly lit waiting room – like a small-town bus station — with about 50 seats occupied by a dozen people, all masked and well-spaced. Either due to Covid restrictions or security concerns, non-applicants are required to remain outside, but because Harriet is mostly deaf, I was allowed to come along as her interpreter. When she was called up for her final, brief interview before the oath-swearing, however, I botched the job. I was supposed to listen to the questions posed by the masked immigration official, then lower my mask and repeat them to Harriet so she could lip-read. Instead, I kept forgetting to lower my mask, prompting Harriet for some reason to lower hers to hear me, and then answer the questions as best she could.

Fortunately, it was quickly clear that the correct answer to all the questions was “No.” “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” the immigration lady sweetly asked. “Do you belong to any terrorist organizations?” “Have you committed polygamy?” “Have you ever been charged or convicted of perjury?” “Do you have any unpaid traffic tickets?”

When the interview ended, we were ushered into a brightly lit room with chairs for the applicants and one extra for me, all arranged to face a wood and plexiglass podium flanked by American and Department of Homeland Security flags, the latter emblazoned with a round DHS escutcheon, featuring the national bird. What catastrophes might have been averted, I thought, if Benjamin Franklin had his way and the wild turkey was chosen instead of the more bellicose bald eagle!

The future-citizens around me were aged about 25 to 60. There were South Asians, Latinos, an African, and several East Asians. Soon, a 40ish white man wearing a rumpled blue suit and serious expression entered the room, walked to the podium, and asked for attention. “First,” he expostulated, “a couple of housekeeping matters. Do not laminate the naturalization certificate you are about to receive. That will invalidate it.” He continued: “Passports can be obtained through application at U.S. post-offices, not here.” With that, he left the podium and exited the room through a security door. When he returned a few minutes later, he was almost jocular, like tummlers from the old Catskills resorts. He smiled and warmed up the crowd by telling them how hard they all worked and how much time and money they spent to get here: “Give yourselves a round of applause.” Scattered applause. “Now let’s start the show!” Then he read the oath of allegiance:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

I lowered my mask and repeated each sentence to Harriet as clearly as I could, though she looked quizzical when I said, “foreign prince”. She later reminded me that she once worked for Prince Charles and that upon hearing those words, imagined herself standing at an empty intersection in Micanopy “renouncing” and “abjuring” the aged Prince of Wales. As for me, I noted the sad irony that the first demand of the sovereign state was to police the new citizen’s thoughts. Simply hearing the phrase “without any mental reservation” summons up doubt. I remembered that in 18th C. England, it was a capital offense to “imagine the King’s death.” It was a difficult law to prosecute.

After swearing the oath, the new citizens were called up one by one to receive their certificates. I took a picture of Harriet leaving the podium and walking back to her chair. Her expression conveys something like dismay: “I moved to the Florida, land of Trump and DeSantis, capital of Covid, and all I got is this lousy certificate.”

Borders: Closed, Open and None

The circumstances of Harriet’s citizenship were privileged. She was the employed spouse of a citizen, and emigrated from a country with a “special relationship” to the U.S. She’s also white, middle-aged, and middle-class, which doesn’t sound very good when you read it, but clearly counts for a lot with DHS. If Harriet had been Black or brown and fleeing poverty, her chances of even entering the country — much less obtaining citizenship — would have been small. If she had been the victim of gang violence, gender discrimination, or political persecution and was seeking asylum, they would have been vanishingly small. In 2020, just 45,000 asylum seekers and 11,800 refugees were welcomed into the U.S. (The difference between the two is that refugees apply for resettlement while they are outside the U.S.; asylum seekers when they are inside.) There are some 82 million global refugees.

Biden has pledged to welcome into the U.S. substantially more asylum seekers next year, but even if he does, the U.S. will likely remain one of the stingiest nations in the world. That the U.S. immigration system is cruel is clear from the horrific photos taken recently on the Texas border. That it’s unfair is apparent from Harriet’s easy glide path to citizenship (for which we are grateful) compared with the much more difficult route for people who have been made homeless or are fleeing persecution. And given that DHS is mostly incapable of keeping out determined immigrants anyway, why not just abolish the whole system and permit anyone to enter who wants to?

There are two main models for an unrestricted immigration system: “Open-Border” or libertarian, and “No-Border” or radical. The former is based upon on laissez-faire principles. Its advocates say that border controls distort the free-market in labor and that workers should be able to travel between countries just as easily as money and goods. Opening borders would boost the global economy by between 100% and 150% due to increased capital utilization — capital in this case being people. When you consider that the unemployment rate in Syria is about 50%, and in Haiti and Kenya 40%, the argument makes a lot of sense. A vast pool of human potential is being wasted, mostly in southern hemisphere countries, and an equally large quantity of socially necessary labor is not being done, mostly in northern hemisphere countries. The libertarian would deploy the magic of the marketplace to remedy that imbalance.

If U.S. borders were thrown open, laborers would flood in to perform jobs that few Americans want — elder care, childcare, low-skilled construction, cleaning, maintenance, and food service. Better skilled or educated immigrants would find places in high tech, medicine, engineering, and biomedical research. The resulting productivity growth would increase corporate profits. Any reduction in wages due to an increase in the size of the reserve army of labor would be offset by a decline in prices. In some versions of this model, the government would charge immigrants for increased infrastructure costs, though most research indicates that immigrants contribute more in taxes than they spend in services. Open borders would also eliminate expensive and ineffective policing. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s $13 billion budget is higher than that of all other federal policing combined. Yet ICE has failed in its stated mission; since its founding in 2011, the population of undocumented Americans has doubled.

The libertarian model, however, fails to address the impact of higher levels of immigration on politics, workers’ power, and the environment. Citizenship for new immigrants is not assumed in this scheme, nor is union membership. Open borders without union and government protections could create a global race to the bottom that both exploits workers and further widens poverty. In addition, the libertarian approach doesn’t address environmental protection or climate change. By themselves, open borders don’t translate into sustainability, democracy or justice.

The radical, or No-Border position would redress those failures. It begins with a moral, not an economic argument: Ethnic or racial differences between countries are no more salient as barometers of character or ability than differences within them, meaning that global inequalities in income, education, health, and life expectancy are manifestly unjust. There is no rationale – beyond mere prejudice – for consigning one lot of humanity to poverty and early death, while bestowing upon another the blessings of wealth and long life. The global system of labor arbitrage is to blame for this outcome. Multinational corporations, their subsidiaries, and suppliers, pay workers in poor countries lower wages than in rich countries. They accomplish this through coercion as well as payments (bribes) to local compradors and national governments. Strict border controls are essential to this system. Because workers in Guatemala can’t easily migrate to San Diego where wages and working conditions are better, they mostly remain at home, subject to gross exploitation.

No-Border advocates also argue that the existing immigration system promotes physical and ideological violence. The negative stereotype of the migrant, amplified by Trump in 2016 and after, is someone dangerous at best and murderous at worst. It endorses the construction of border walls, detention camps, and prisons, and encourages social ostracism when migrants are finally released. As a result of this treatment, migrants may experience the “double-consciousness” that W.E.B. DuBois described as the existential condition of Blackness in America: a “two-ness” comprising self-confidence on the one hand and “moral hesitancy” on the other. The latter can sometimes be crippling.

The only logical response to the current, morbid immigration system is to reject the whole apparatus of borders and nation-states, as well as the categories citizen, migrant, and indigenous person. Everyone in No-Border-World would be able to travel freely, possess full rights of citizenship wherever they move, and have the chance to shape their workplaces as much as their political communities. A small number of groups, including the No-Border Network and the Open Borders Action Group have begun to lay out out models of a no-border future, though these have been very partial. Many argue that the tide of history – notwithstanding Trumpism – is on their side. The very penchant for walls is a sign that without desperate measures, borders will disappear all by themselves.

Citizen into Émigré

Tom Petty wrote hopefully “You don’t have to live like a refugee.” But tens of millions around the world currently do. And the expanding climate crises will create vastly more refugees, probably a billion over the next few decades. At least 30 million Americans will also become displaced in what is being called the Great American Climate Migration. They will be fleeing floods, fires, droughts, and rising sea levels. Whole industries will disappear, for example dairy and cotton in the Central Valley of California, and tourism along much of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

While the poor, or people from historically marginalized communities are more likely than others to become climate refugees, anybody can become a political exile or émigré. That’s what Harriet and I discussed on our ride home after she became a citizen, and in the two weeks since. If the Republicans regain both houses of Congress in 2022, they would be able to sabotage the Democratic president even more than the Democrats themselves. With their domination of the courts, statehouses, and even election monitors, Republicans would be able to guarantee Trump’s return to the White House in 2024, regardless of the actual vote. And from then on, the assault on civil rights, women’s rights, rule-of-law, free speech, and the environment will proceed unimpeded. The prospect is what keeps us up nights; it’s the tunnel at the end of the light.

Last week, I picked up Victor Klemperer’s I will Bear Witness, 1933-41, his diary of the rise of German Nazism. I put it down a few years ago, depressed by its salience. But now I had to look again, and reading it is like watching a slow-motion train wreck, except that for the passengers on board, the crash isn’t slow at all, it’s terrifyingly fast: Hitler’s consolidation of power after his election as president on August 19, 1934; Klemperer’s dismissal from his university post on April 30, 1935; the Nuremburg Rally on September 30 that year and announcement of the “Jewish laws” including the withdrawal of German citizenship; the atrocities committed against Jews on November 9, 1938, “Kristalnacht” and so on. And yet after every one of these calamities, the were sufficient signs of hope — that the army would rebel, that the churches would resist, that a global boycott would strangle the regime – to encourage Klemperer and many others to hold out just a little longer. But in fact, with every new outrage, Nazi power was further consolidated, and migration became less and less possible. How would we know when the U.S. had taken one step too far on the path to neofascism to turn back? How would we know when we individually – not just capitalist democracy in general – was in mortal peril?

One reason Harriet applied for citizenship was to engage in American politics. Micanopy is run by a Town Commission and a few voluntary civic organizations, and in a town of just 600, a handful of squeaky wheels can accomplish a lot. But the prospect of neofascism makes even local political engagement feel fraught or even dangerous. True believers – blessedly still a minority here – can elevate even the smallest environmental or good-government initiative into an existential threat to supposed American values. And it isn’t just political engagement that’s at risk, as Klemperer’s memoir shows, its critical reason itself — the possibility of speaking and writing freely and imagining a just and sustainable future.

So, a few days ago, I returned to my list of possible destinations for emigration. Because Harriet is a dual citizen, we could move back to the U.K., but given that U.K. governments tend to copy most of the vices and few of the virtues of U.S. administrations, the prospect is less than satisfying. What about British Overseas Territories? When I Googled the list, I for the first time pined for the days of empire. Whereas India, Egypt, and Rhodesia would once have beckoned, now there was only a global archipelago of tax havens including Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Caymans and Gibraltar. Who would want to live in the dull company of the capitalist unspeakables in those places? And even if we didn’t mind them, the price of admission to their club is steep: The average cost of a house in most of these destinations is around $1.5 million. (On the plus side, there is a good selection of vegan restaurants on the Caymans.) Another British Overseas territory, Tristan de Cunha, has appeal as the most remote, inhabited place on earth, but since it is only accessible by a six-day boat trip from South Africa, ($1300 by ship; $800 by fishing boat) Harriet’s parents and our daughters would probably object.

Another option is Svalbard, formerly known as Spitsbergen, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. Uniquely in the world, no visa is required for entry, and anybody who wants to live or work there can. Few have seized the opportunity. The population is only 2,667. Harriet and I would struggle with the climate: The daily mean temperature in summer is between 39- and 45-degrees Fahrenheit, and winter between 9- and 16-degrees. On the plus side, there are few mosquitoes or alligators to menace us, as there are in northern Florida. However, there are about 300 polar bears, which attack and kill an average of about one human per year, accounting in part for the failure of the population to rise.

A safer option for us is Spain which, like Italy and Greece, offers long-term visas for retirees. Panama, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic are also possibilities for people on a pension. None of this, I’m afraid, is very useful for American emigres who are not retired or close to it. The best thing for them and for all of us, therefore, is to make sure the feared political eventuality does not come to pass. Otherwise, we’ll meet you on the deck of the SS Agulhas en route to Tristan de Cunha.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at