Times of crisis seem to underscore how fraught, arbitrary and morally inadequate the distribution of political rights in America are. (Actually, times of crisis only underscore the dubiousness of citizenship for those who are already citizens; undocumented people are aware of this injustice constantly.) What constitutes citizenship and to whom should we extend it? Who exactly is entitled to political rights in America, and might those whom we don’t perceive as citizens deserve political rights regardless?
As governments formulate plans to distribute coronavirus aid to their citizens, people lacking citizenship in the states in which they reside find themselves in a dangerously liminal position. Such is the case of undocumented persons in the United States – pending their inclusion in a forthcoming coronavirus relief package, America’s undocumented immigrants may not be granted the same relief as their citizen counterparts. Failing to include undocumented immigrants in the relief package would be a travesty, because although they presently lack citizenship, undocumented immigrants seem nontheless morally entitled to the welfare capacities of the state.
To live in a state is to participate in a cooperative scheme. Most commonly and most ubiquitously, this means carrying a burden: we pay taxes, forgo some of our rights in the form of a social contract and have jobs. When things don’t go well, we collectively experience recession, bad policy, war and disease. But our participation in this scheme doesn’t just require that we bear its burdens – we also become entitled to its many benefits. Our scheme is generally a successful one, and while we shoulder some burdens together, our collective efforts result in a mutually beneficial arrangement of safety, stability, self-determination and a variety of public goods.
Such is the fair play principle which theoretically guides our participation in the collective scheme of statehood (and ostensibly informs our conceptions of citizenship): those who contribute to the project are equally entitled to its burdens and benefits.
The burdens of the scheme dole themselves out without discriminating between citizens, noncitizens and undocumented immigrants. Noncitizens and undocumented immigrants hold jobs, pay taxes, observe the rules and regulations of the state, and when things go poorly (things are going poorly), are burdened alongside their citizen counterparts. However, we tend to use citizenship as the framework for allocating the fruits of our collective effort. Citizens enjoy the political rights which flow from our collaboratively maintained institutions, and accompanying those political rights are a variety of public goods. Welfare is one such public good, and in times of crisis, access to welfare is often a necessity.
Undocumented people in the U.S. bear the burdens of our collective efforts at statehood, but don’t recieve the full array of benefits they are due – namely, the political rights afforded by citezenship. Their case is clearly a violation of the fair play principle, and it is likely that undocumented immigrants should be offered an easy path to citizenship without fear of deportation, given their cooperation in our collective scheme. However, the need for coronavirus relief is urgent. Undocumented immigrants are particularly vulnerable given their lack of insurance and minimal access to medical care. They are justly entitled to the welfare benefits offered by the state given their continuous contribution to its upkeep, so to ignore their needs in a time of existential crisis would be a gross affront to our principles of justice.
Furthermore, failing to extend coronavirus relief to undocumented citezens would worsen the forthcoming economic crisis. Given their particularly tenuous relationship to labor, housing and medical care, undocumented immigrants will be particularly stricken by the economic turmoil that will undoubtedly outstay the pandemic by years. Undocumented immigrants are extremely suseptable to housing insecurity, and as millions of workers are laid off every week, the likleyhood of affording monthly payments for housing becomes increasingly slim for many people. Even in states which have paused evictions in light of the pandemic, many people will be unprepared to pay off months of unpaid bills when evictions are allowed to resume. (A $1,200 stimulus check will not prevent this forthcoming wave of evictions and unemployment, a more substantive relief effort will be necessary for that – certainly one which extends its relief to undocumented immigrants.)
Citizenship as it is practiced in America is fraught and uncertain. The distribution of political rights must truly be extended to those who shoulder the burdens of statehood. However, this might be a project for the future. Presently, millions of undocumented immigrants in America are wondering whether they will recive crucial aid from the government. To not extend it to them would be a profound betrayal of their contributions to the cooperative scheme of statehood.