The Social Contract of Citizenship

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Current political discourse has brought the nuances of citizenship to the forefront of the nation’s psyche. News outlets are rife with reports of injustices perpetrated by “them” on “us.” Them and us — two notions associated as much with the philosophy of citizenship as they are with legality. The legal definition of citizenship emphasizes place of birth, parents’ nationality, or naturalization (Legal Information Institute), whereas the philosophical perspective frames the idea in context of service and nation-building, which “refers to the construction of a national citizenry that is politically and ideologically committed to the fundamental values of the nation and pledges its allegiance to it,” (Xi 7025). In the United States, this definition evolved through the watershed moments of American history, starting from the Revolutionary War, and progressing through the Reconstruction era, the World Wars, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Each of these crises has seen the reemergence of a populace unified by a compelling desire to serve their fellow citizens, regardless of their place of birth or naturalization status. In the COVID-19 mitigation efforts, a seemingly impossible circumstance brought together Americans of all creeds and races — white, black, and brown, migrants and otherwise, documented or not. This response stems from an allegiance to a cause larger than oneself. Citizenship is a culture defined by one’s allegiance to serve their fellow-citizens; it is enhanced by the diversity resulting from migration and globalization and broadens the narrow definition of nationalism rooted in hegemony.

Allegiance is a more powerful predictor of ideal citizenship behaviors than the constitutional definition, which states that citizens are “…persons born or naturalized in the United States,” (Fourteenth Amendment and Citizenship). The USCIS citizenship test places an emphasis on American history and English (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). These criteria, while concrete and measurable, do not reflect an ethos which embraces compassion over self-interest. Allegiance, in a just society, must be a two-way street: people who serve demonstrate allegiance to the government, but the government must reciprocate by extending the social and economic benefits of citizenship to those who serve, regardless of their nationality. In the COVID-19 crisis, immigrant essential-service workers constituted roughly 35% of the workforce, “reporting to work in hospitals, restaurant kitchens, cabs or the fields — for jobs deemed “essential” by the government — many documented and undocumented workers are putting themselves at higher risk of COVID-19 infections” (Kight). It is a travesty of justice for the government to deny a social safety-net to this critical swath of society. The recent proposal to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census is yet a further example of this injustice, because it implies that an individual is eligible for fundamental resources based on documented status rather than acts of service. Allegiance must be the guiding light that compels both citizens and governments to fulfill their beholden duties to each other.

Migration provides further proof to a definition of citizenship based on a deeper understanding of allegiance. A migrant is “any person who … has moved across an international border … from his/her habitual place of residence.” (United Nations). About half of immigrant workers in the United States work in the essential services industry (Kosten). Dr. Anna Podolanczuk, an attending physician at New York Presbyterian/Columbia University, is one such example. Bringing attention to the risks faced by doctors during the pandemic, she tweeted, “I bronched a #COVID19 patient who mucous plugged. It saved his life. Risked mine.” (Chiu). Doctors like Dr. Podolanczuk support America by sustaining its healthcare system. Similarly, immigrant farmers feed America. “Of the approximately 400,000 agricultural workers in California, some 60 to 75 percent may be undocumented migrants” (Tharoor). These farmers, due to the political complexities of immigration laws, are not afforded basic rights, yet they do not shy away from their duty. They embody citizenship by their empathy to others’ needs, even at the expense of their own. Migrants like Dr. Podolanczuk and the farmers in California prove their belonging to their adopted nation by their civic engagement.

Globalization is the growing interconnectivity of the world’s economies, cultures, and populations (Peterson Institute for International Economics). The COVID-19 crisis has brought the importance of this connectedness to the forefront. A key example lies in the partnership between Codagenix Inc., a U.S. biotechnology company, and The Serum Institute of India to “rapidly co-develop a live-attenuated vaccine against the emergent coronavirus,” (Codagenix, Inc.). In countries around the world, there are about sixty clinical trials in progress to discover an effective course of treatment for the disease (Leask). Finding a viable vaccine and an effective treatment plan is critical to mitigating the adverse effects of the pandemic. The international scientific research community is operating as one unified group of global citizens with allegiance to humanity above all.

The relationship between globalization and nationalism is largely dependent on the perceived impact the former has had on the citizens of a nation. Nationalism has a dual definition: either the service of a common good or one that stems from xenophobia. In an example of the former, Dr. Brendan C. Brady, a surgeon from New York, provides health services to Mexican migrant farm workers. “If you’re taking care of patients,” says Dr. Brady, “you are not concerned with whether or not they are documented” (Glickson). Dr. Brady’s service embodies the sentiment of the quote enshrined on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, … I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” Citizens like Dr. Brady show their allegiance to their nation by embracing the form of patriotism that is derived from their commitment to improving their communities.

Citizenship is earned by selfless service to society-at-large. Migration and globalization embellish this enterprise and imbue it with a nationalism defined by compassion. While this doctrine is on glorious display in the modern world’s response to the current pandemic, it also has its echoes in the Maha Upanishad, one of the Hindu sacred treatises, which establishes the tenet of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam – the world is one family. Current events urgently demand the transformation of this creed into action.


Works Cited

Chiu, Allyson. “‘We care, we grieve, we love’: Dispatches from doctors, nurses on the front lines in the battle against coronavirus .” The Washington Post (2020).

Codagenix, Inc. Codagenix and Serum Institute of India Initiate Co-Development of a Scalable, Live-Attenuated Vaccine Against the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, COVID-19. 13 February2020. 11 April 2020.

“Fourteenth Amendment and Citizenship.” Legal Report. 2015.

Glickson, Jeannie. “Dr. Brendan C. Brady serves “invisible population” of migrant workers in upstate New York.” Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons (2013).

Kight, Stef W. Immigrants on the front lines in the coronavirus fight. 3 April 2020. 11 April 2020.

Kosten, Dan. “Immigrants as Economic Contributors: They Are the New American Workforce.” National Immigration Forum (2018).

Leask, Helen. “Huge Global Push for RCTs in COVID-19: From Random to Randomized.” Medscape Medical News (2020).

Legal Information Institute. Citizen. Ed. Cornell Law School. n.d. 11 April 2020.

Peterson Institute for International Economics. What is Globalization? And How Has the Global Economy Shaped the United States? n.d. 4 April 2020.

Tharoor, Ishaan. “Migrants are the unsung heroes of the pandemic.” The Washington Post (2020).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. “Civics (History and Government) Questions for the Naturalization Test.” January 2019. Document.

United Nations. Migration. n.d. 4 April 2020.Xi, Wang. “Citizenship and Nation-Building in American History and Beyond.” Selected Papersof Beijing Forum 2006 (2010): 7025

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