Immigration & Citizenship in the US: Theoretical Framework

Theoretical Framework

My explanation for immigration politics and policy in the US has two main social theory components: Social reproduction theory and citizenship theory.

David Abraham’s excellent citizenship theoretical framework is required for explaining immigration politics in today’s US, particularly the ideas and legal institutions constructing strong private property right and weak citizenship, as they distribute social reproduction costs and conflict upon class, racialized, and regional non-elites.

As citizenship is historicized and theorized in Abraham, racialization plays a central role in the US. Du Bois, W.E.B. 1935. “Black reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.” See footnote 48, p. 14, in the Abraham 1996 article. By demonstrating the costly impact of anti-citizenship legal and political reform on African-Americans, highlighting Du Bois‘ social scientific approach to citizenship politics shows how racialization connects citizenship rights attenuation in the US with political-economic social reproduction in the US.

Racialization reproduces appropriation (slavery). Historically, the Southern slaver elite were able to expand their slaver institutional structure throughout the rural US with the New Deal, when agriculture workers and domestic workers were exempted from citizenship rights in order to secure Southern elites’ cooperation (Quadagno, Jill. 1994. The color of welfare: How racism undermined the war on poverty).

Social reproduction theory can explain the push-and-pull material impetus to migration in capitalism, and its limits requiring symbolic domination supplement, with implications for the class, regional, and political distribution of immigration/immigrant politics and policy.

While I think his other articles can be used, particularly to state that the US has traded off expanding citizenship for weaker citizenship rights, this early article, Abraham (1996), shows how in the US, as a capitalist settler society, freedom is allocated by market power, while it is nonetheless marketed as available through a venerable, mysticizing concept, universal private property, as well as through the abstraction and celebration of physical mobility, where for elites, mobility is interest-driven cosmopolitanism, but for non-elites, mobility tends to be glorified expulsion from home, agential but not sovereign agency.

In Bourdieuian theory, which is concerned with social reproduction, such Anglo-American settler societies would thus be seen as societies of vast and pervasive symbolic domination (Distinction 1979, La Reproduction 1989, Social Structures of the Economy 2005, Manet 2017).

With the exception of post-war periods, in which citizenship rights were carved out, Americans have always been required to black-box (ignore, romanticize, or mystify) capitalism to presume, as political-economic elites have marketed since Cato the Elder in the 2nd c. BC, that citizenship rights, positive freedom, are irrelevant to non-elite liberty. Black-boxing capitalism, Americans can sink into the familiar, if degraded lullaby of Ownership Society marketing (The Ownership Society is a contemporary version of universal private property idea.), aided by a sleeping pill: freedom’s idealistic reduction to physical mobility, as proposed by that original conservativizer of liberalism, Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651).

Bourdieu’s social reproduction of capitalism theory, particularly the concepts of symbolic violence and habitus, connects to and supports the citizenship framework. According to Bourdieu, feeling “at home” results from a correspondence between our socialized habitus and the rules of the “social game” we must play. In contrast to elites’ sovereign decisions to traverse the world in pursuit of their own interests, the relocations forced (by war, by economic scarcity, by political instability) on non-elites tend to make our habituses ill-fit for our new social environments. We are displaced from home. This theory points out, contra settler country symbolic domination (mandatory romanticization of mobility, idealizing it by abstracting all mobility as if it were elite cosmopolitan mobility), that migration is a distinctive and unequal experience, based on class. The settler-society misrecognition of mobility’s relation to liberty, particularly the notion that migration is to the unambiguous advantage of migrants (equated, in exception-centering idealist philosophy, with the interests of cosmopolitan elites), influences immigration and citizenship politics and policy.

Marxist-feminist and World-ecology social reproduction theory allows for the establishment of the political-economy material incentives background to the politics of immigration.

There is mismatch between cost of living in capitalist countries, wages v. profits, and population reproduction (Kollontai 1915). This incentivizes immigration, and by extension, wars that “loosen” populations from their homes and force them to migrate to the core countries.

As the US hinterlands have been increasingly used, with financialization, as pollution sinks and sources of rents, business owners (such as construction firm owners and their organizations) organize to further expand slavers’ labor institutions, shifting more weight in the US to the rentier appropriation base of the capitalist economy. The relation between the “island” of capitalist exploitation upon the “sea” of appropriation of nature and human work is theorized in Moore, Jason. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life, a contemporary work of social reproduction theory.

The Abraham 1996 and 2000 articles are necessary for understanding the profound political rift over immigration in the US, where the US’s liberal polity protects a cosmopolitan business class’ negative rights to protection from states and people. In effect, when liberal polities’ law and institutions privilege private property right and negative rights—as the US does absolutely—they are recognizing the full citizenship not of the population within their borders, but of the global capitalist class, whose control over property and people permit that global class to exclusively realize negative rights.  That drastically deprioritizes and reduces remnant “citizenship rights” for the human residents, “citizens,” and migrants within Anglo-American liberal countries’ borders, particularly as these are not business interests, to ad hoc legislative protections, as articulated expressly and repeatedly by US jurists and in constitutional law.

While there is no formal reason why legislatures cannot pass ad hoc protections for migrants in liberal countries, these are not protected in constitutional law and not protected effectively in institutions. Legislation depends upon relative capacity for political mobilization. But the constraint is the fundamental state protection for capitalists, heavily incentivizing the inclusion of capitalists in any political coalition addressing Anglo-American legislation.

The exact same is true for territorial “citizens” of liberal regimes. Because there’s no reliable state protection of positive rights that allow the realization of substantive values (beyond raw power, as anteriorly constructed through the market), there’s not much, durable difference between “citizens” and migrants in liberal law and institutions. In liberal countries, the difference is between global capitalists/corporations on the one hand, and non-owners on the other. (So for example, on behalf of global capital, the US and Canada can support coups against democratically-elected leaders in countries, like Venezuela, that are perhaps liberal, but do not have property right & negative rights absolutism as Anglo-American liberal countries do.)

In Anglo-American liberal regimes, positive rights for territorial populations can only be secured in ad hoc-fashion, temporarily through political organization, which induces coalition politics around state-protected, market-empowered actors from the business class. For example, in Canada, hard-won positive language and cultural rights, as well as hard-won, institutionalized health care legislation (legislated but also institutionalized) maintain a wobbly exception to absolute private property and negative rights (Causing jurists “anxiety”). In the early 20th century, economic failure, wars, and internationalist working class political organization produced legislated, institutionalized (and into the late 1960s, even some constitutional theory) ad hoc positive rights incursions on absolute private property  & negative rights in the US, but these were revoked from the 1970s on.

Today, we’re seeing different factions of capital leading two coalitions trying to realize or maintain rights at the legislative level. One is signaling support for citizenship recognition and rights for the territorial population, but the signal is weak—a wall, imprisonment for immigrants and migrants. The coalition is heavily constrained by its business-class leadership. The other, an Open Border coalition, contains a superficially-broader range of interests and power, but is also heavily constrained by its capitalist leadership’s state-protected advantages. The Open Borders coalition tries to ensure that positive rights for territorial life residents (formal “citizens”) do not replace the existing framework of private property and negative rights, as that framework rejects Enlightenment values (such as human dignity) and thereupon equally forbids the positive rights of life-residents, immigrants, and migrants. Where the right-“populist” coalition must be satisfied by symbolic gestures toward territorial “citizenship” far off any positive-rights target, the left-populist coalition is equally confined, safely within the conservative tradition, to rivalristic negative-rights policing.

Because these are not an internationalist political mobilization, neither political coalition is substantively challenging the Anglo-American liberal proscription of substantive universal citizenship, protected in law and institutions, for humans living within (however long) or crossing through the territory. The fundamental dedication of Anglo-American liberalism, to protect global capital from states and humans, in the conservatizing era remains unchallenged, not only in theory, law, and institutions, but in politics and ideology as well.

To move beyond Anglo-American states as the states of global capitalists requires political organization led by internationalist workers. But even that massive, coordinated effort can only effect ad-hoc legislation and temporary institutionalization. If Anglo-American states are ever to protect “human” rights, including positive rights for workers, their constitutional structures will have to be dismantled and built differently. That can only be done through global class war.

When other working classes blame “Americans” for what happens in the US, it may be a cute invocation of Loyalism, for example. It’s also profoundly reactionary, and it signals loud and clear that those nationalistic, unsolidaristic working classes are similarly yoked by capitalist leadership, and in no position to engage emancipatory internationalism.



Abraham, David. 1996. “Liberty without Equality: The Property-rights Connection in a Negative Citizenship Regime,” 21 Law & Social Inquiry 1: 1-65.

Abraham, David. 2000. “The Good of Banality?: The Emergence of Cost-benefit Analysis and Proportionality in the Treatment of Aliens in the US and Germany.” Citizenship Studies 4(3): 237-253.

Abraham, David. 2002. “Citizenship solidarity and Rights Individualism: On the Decline of National Citizenship in the U.S., Germany, and Israel.” Working Paper 53, Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction 1979, La Reproduction 1989, Social Structures of the Economy 2005, Manet: A Symbolic Revolution 2017.

Du Bois, W.E.B. 1935. Black reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.

Gill, Stephen and A. Claire Cutler, eds. 2015. New Constitutionalism and World Order. Cambridge University Press.

Gill, Stephen and Isabella Bakker. 2006. “New Constitutionalism and the Social Reproduction of Caring Institutions.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 27: 35-57.

Hobbes, Thomas. 1651. Leviathan.

Jefferson, Thomas.

Kollontai, Alexandra. 1915. “Preface” to the book, Society and Motherhood.

Losurdo, Domenico. 2011. Liberalism: A Counter-history. Verso.

Moore, Jason. 2015. Capitalism in the Web of Life.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1762. The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right.

Quadagno, Jill. 1994. The color of welfare: How racism undermined the war on poverty.

Wilson, David L. 2017. “Marx on Immigration,” Monthly Review.


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