Rights Across Borders

Immigration and the Decline of Citizenship reviewed
By Amyn Sajoo

Share Article

Rights Across Borders
David Jacobson
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996,
184 pages: $46 - $90

Long before commerce, technology and the fall of the Berlin Wall gave us today's globalization, there was the universe of human rights. The American and French revolutions reached beyond the confines of the state to proclaim the liberty and fraternity of persons as well as citizens. Even nationalism, the late eighteenth century told us, was an inclusive ideal.

It took the outrages of the Second World War and the unravelling of colonial empires to usher in truly universal claims of individual liberty—and to make them de rigueur in constitutions on every continent. It further required the civil rights and women's movements to renderthe 'human' aspect worth its name. And lest we confuse rhetoric with reality, there are the Rwandans, Bosnians, Palestinians, Kurds and Aboriginal peoples to remind us of the road untravelled.

Indeed, David Jacobson contends in Rights Across Borders that it is the ultimate 'others' in our midst— migrant communities—who have most lent substance to the universality of rights. Their appeals to equality and fair treatment in national and international forums tend to be about personhood.

Established bonds of culture, politics and history that gird battles for the rights of the disabled or veterans or children seldom hold for the alien. So strong is the appeal to universal rights that victims of inhuman treatment in former homelands may sue their tormentors in Canadian or American courts; refugees cannot be deported to where they face persecution and, at least in Canada, they enjoy virtually the same protection from discrimination as citizens.

But Jacobson sees a downside to such cross-border rights. Citizenship, based on the distinction between 'members' and 'non-members' of a defined territory, is said to be eroded when residency alone can confer entitlements against the state.

In North America and Western Europe, he argues, rates of naturalization have been appallingly low since the incentive to acquire the rights and burdens of a citizen has dissipated. If courts and legislatures were less liberal about the distinction, 'membership' would have some meaning.

A recent Angus Reid poll showed that 57 percent of Canadians—61% in British Columbia—opposed granting automatic citizenship to anyone born on Canadian soil. Some 52% of Canadians opposed citizenship tion that the global marketplace calls the shots on so many aspects of national life.

What does the less than 50% turnout in the 1996 US elections say about citizenship? Ironically, the figure would be still lower if not for the highest-ever turnout among new migrants fearful of proposals to severely curtail their rights.

Third, the global economy also mocks sovereignty. The IMF, World Bank and World Trade Organization are more influential than ever in shaping the course of national life on every continent. Nor is this on account of human rights agendas. Skeptics are welcome to check with any finance minister, from Ottawa to Nairobi to Islamabad.

Certainly, the idea of rights vested in persons is more compelling than sovereignty vested in an abstraction called the state. But states are needed to implement those rights, and hardly as passive bureaucracies. On the contrary, the paradox of globalization is to invite fresh attention to the local: we yearn for the familiar while grappling with the novel.

Migrant attachments to old and new homelands are a variant of that reality—like the embrace by most Canadians of multiple cultural, social and even political (federal/provincial) identities. It is 'a fine balance,' to borrow from Rohinton Mistry, often tipped one way or another in the swirl of civil society.

Welcome to postmodern citizenship, warts and all.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Amyn Sajoo
Dr. Amyn Sajoo is Scholar-in-Residence at SFU’s Centre for Comparative Muslim Studies.
[smartslider3 alias="evergreen-ads"]