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Commodity Citizenship

Tadgh Healy

Citizenship 2.0: Dual Nationality as a Global Asset, by Yossi Harpaz, Princeton University Press, 216 pp, €25.99, ISBN: 978-0691194066

In 2004 in Ireland, the 27th Amendment was passed and the unconditional right to citizenship for those born here removed from the constitution. The referendum result continued a trend of countries from the common law tradition overturning unconditional birthright citizenship. The UK did so in 1981, Australia in 1986, India in 1987, South Africa in 1995. On continental Europe, you have to go back to the eighteenth century to find a time when birthright citizenship was commonplace. There, versions of jus soli, the right of soil, do exist, but only in a qualified sense. France, for example, employs “double jus soli” – babies born in France to a parent themselves born in France are considered French at birth. Essentially, citizenship is bestowed on third- rather than second-generation immigrants. In Germany, foreign nationals can only claim German citizenship for their child if they are a permanent resident. So when Ireland went to the polls in 2004, it was something of an outlier in Europe. As was noted in the run-up to the referendum, only Ireland provided citizenship to children regardless of the legal status of their parents. Today, birthright citizenship, such as it is, is largely confined to the continents of North and South America.

However, a number of high-profile cases of children born in Ireland but threatened with deportation have led many to reconsider the 2004 referendum. The most prominent was that of Eric Zhi Ying Xue from Bray. He was nine years old when he was served with a deportation order, despite never having left Ireland.  A recent poll suggests that 71 per cent of the public now support a repeal of the 27th Amendment, a near reversal of the 79 per cent majority in 2004. But unlike in the case of the 8th Amendment, a referendum would not be required to change the law. The 27th Amendment merely took the question of birthright citizenship out of the constitution, making the Oireachtas free to legislate on the subject. Indeed, two attempts have already been made.

A Solidarity-People Before Profit bill put before the Dáil in 2017 proposed to reinstate unconditional birthright citizenship and thus effectively reverse the 2004 referendum. However, the minority Fine Gael government refused to grant a “money message” – a controversial constitutional device which allows the government to block opposition bills even if they command a majority in the Dáil. A second attempt was made a year later when Labour senators drafted a proposal more compatible with the referendum result. They submitted a bill that would grant citizenship to children born on the island of Ireland with the qualification that they remain resident for three years, effectively providing what is currently absent in Irish law: a formal pathway to regularise the legal status of children, regardless of their parents’ legal status. (Such a pathway exists in twenty-four of twenty-seven EU countries.) However, again the government indicated that they would oppose the bill – a decision that came as a surprise to many. Even Michael McDowell, the former tánaiste and justice minister who led the 2004 campaign to end birthright citizenship, voiced his support for the bill during a Seanad debate.

When blocking the initial Solidarity-PBP bill, then minister for justice and equality Charlie Flanagan expressed a well-worn concern: unconditional birthright citizenship would act as a draw for non-EU nationals to strategically travel to the island of Ireland in order to avail of citizenship for their soon-to-be-born child. This would, he argued, entitle them to the right of residency anywhere in the EU. Even though, as Senator Ivana Bacik perhaps generously put it, the “Yes” campaign in 2004 offered “no more than anecdotal evidence at best, and certainly no substantial evidence” for similar claims, the more modest Labour 2018 bill was intended to placate those concerns by inserting a three-year residency condition. Nonetheless, acting on behalf of Charlie Flanagan, minister David Stanton voiced the same concern when notifying the Seanad of the government’s intention to block the 2018 Labour bill. It would, he said, incentivise undocumented non-EU nationals living in Europe to travel to Ireland to have their child. “Such persons could, in turn, return to the original EU member state as soon as the child had been granted citizenship, and their parents a residency permission, thus circumventing the immigration laws of these EU member states.”

The government, then, – or at least the government of the previous Dáil – considers Irish citizenship a highly valuable asset.. So valuable, in fact, that if this bill were passed its ministers believe a not insignificant number of pregnant women would conspire to travel to Ireland to give birth, then remain for at least three years to acquire citizenship for their child, all for the purpose of attaining legal residency in another EU state. Yossi Harpaz, author of Citizenship 2.0: Dual Nationality as a Global Asset, would certainly agree with the first proposition: Irish nationality, relative to some others, is indeed valuable on account of the travel freedoms and economic security it brings. But I suspect he would agree with little else in the conclusions reached by Charlie Flanagan and David Stanton.

Citizenship, in a phrase coined by the legal scholar Ayelet Shachar, is a “birthright lottery”. It is an arbitrary status that to a large extent determines the material conditions of one’s life. Harpaz goes as far as to say that more so than class, gender or race, citizenship is the most important factor that affects one’s life chances. Put crudely, some passports come with an array of desirable entitlements; others do not. So in the context of grotesque global inequality, and with a growing number of countries permitting dual citizenship, the thesis of Harpaz’s book comes as no surprise: some passports have become highly desirable commodities many are prepared to pay for.

Citizenship 2.0 gives us three sociological ethnographies that explore how these desirable passports are acquired. Conducting extensive interviews and data analysis, Harpaz investigates the phenomenon of people acquiring citizenship of Western countries they have no intention of living or working in, detailing who is acquiring dual citizenship and why. The final picture presents dual citizenship acquisition as “an instrumental strategy of global upward mobility”.

Of the many ways to become a dual citizen, Harpaz considers three – birthright, ethnicity and ancestry – and devotes a chapter to a case study of each: Mexicans who travel to the United States to give birth, acquire citizenship for their child, and then return to Mexico; Serbs who acquire Hungarian citizenship through language proficiency, primarily to work or study in EU member states other than Hungary; and Israelis who avail of their Polish, Romanian, German, or other European ancestries to acquire citizenship as an insurance policy in case of disaster, and in some cases, a status symbol. Each example provides, in its own way, a useful source of comparison to Ireland.

Charlie Flanagan has, for example, suggested a birthright citizenship policy like that of the United States would lead to pregnant women travelling to Ireland, many of them forcibly, in order to acquire EU residency rights. We would do well, however, to approach such predictions with caution. Those old enough will remember that Flanagan’s claims echo those made during the 2004 citizenship referendum. Then, as now, government ministers claimed pregnant women from overseas were travelling to Ireland in large numbers and overwhelming the healthcare system. Indeed, then minister Michael McDowell said in 2004 that the masters of Dublin’s maternity hospitals had “pleaded” with him to tighten Ireland’s citizenship law; the doctors denied ever making such a request. They had, in fact, asked for a “unified approach” across various government departments so that women could receive better maternity care.

This is not to deny the phenomenon of “birth tourism”. Harpaz’s case study across the US-Mexican border demonstrates that women are indeed willing to travel to acquire dual citizenship for their children. However, those women are neither undocumented nor coerced. To be clear, Harpaz identifies two kinds of Mexican migrant in the US. Those who travel to America in search of employment and higher wages and happen to have children while there, and those who travel to America specifically for the purpose of birthright citizenship, returning immediately after the birth. The first group is predominantly poor and rural. The second, in contrast, mostly belong to a wealthy and urban class of Mexicans from the northern border regions who see American citizenship as a route to educational and economic opportunities for their children.

Though in both cases the US-born children are entitled to both Mexican and US citizenship, claiming that right in practice proves much easier for the latter group. Harpaz explains that mothers who strategically give birth in border cities like San Diego, McAllen and El Paso return to Mexico with their child “already fitted with three crucial documents: a US birth certificate, a US passport, and a confirmation of Mexican nationality. The dual nationality status of such children is undisputed.” However, most Mexicans who give birth in the US do not intend to immediately return to Mexico. As such, they tend not to register their child’s birth at a Mexican consulate.

Many of these workers are deported without notice. (The US certainly has no qualms about deporting the parents of its infant citizens.) Consequently, parents in this group often return without the important consulate registration document, and once in Mexico it proves more difficult and more expensive to prove Mexican citizenship without it. The US birth certificate, for example, must be apostille-approved (officially certified as genuine) and then translated, a process which takes an average of five months. Often it is many months more before Mexico recognises these US-born children as citizens. This matters because many social and health services are only accessible to citizens.

Ireland and the US are alike insofar as citizenship from either country belongs in what Harpaz calls the “first tier” within a “stratified global order”. The rights, security and opportunities guaranteed by both are highly desirable. As such, predictions that reinstituting birthright citizenship would establish Ireland as something of a birth destination are not entirely unfounded. But the picture of undocumented non-EU citizens being somehow coerced to give birth in Ireland does not square with Harpaz’s research findings. Mexicans who take advantage of US birthright citizenship typically arrive on a tourist visa. They tend to be wealthy, well-informed and with no intention of remaining in the US. Indeed, as Harpaz explains, a number of his respondents compared a US birth to the consumer products found in malls across the border – a luxury good worth travelling and paying for.

Aptly, the privatisation of American healthcare means that birthright citizenship is seen in highly transactional terms. The total cost including clinic fees, vaccinations, and accommodation – typically between $6,000 and $20,000 – must be paid out of pocket. (The average yearly salary in northern Mexico is around $8,000.) And many respondents were quick to distance themselves from a class of Mexicans whom they see as a drain on American government finances. Perhaps this also contributes to a sense that, in their case, American citizenship has already been paid for and nothing more is owed. Any further costs, such as taxes on income and assets that the US imposes even on citizens living abroad, are rightly avoided. Among some elite Monterrey families, Harpaz reports, parents planned for girls to be born in the US and boys in Mexico. All taxable assets were then put under the names of the men in the family. Harpaz quotes one respondent from such a family: “My wife was born in Texas, but she is not worried, because she has nothing on her name … She has no income. Everything she buys, signs or pays is on my account … So if they want her to pay taxes, what can they charge? She has nothing.”

What is there to make us think unconditional birthright citizenship in Ireland would operate any differently? The evidence we have suggests that birth tourism is an activity of an elite seeking to maximise opportunities for their children. Indeed, the principal reason respondents gave for availing of US birthright citizenship was easier access to American universities. No student visa is required and those born in Texas are even eligible for the reduced in-state tuition fees, for example. Residency in the US only figured as a motivation as a temporary refuge from Mexico’s periodic spikes in violent crime. So primarily a US passport is conceived of as a gift to one’s children, not as a vehicle to improve one’s own circumstances by a change in immigration status. With this in mind, the scenario envisioned by Charlie Flanagan becomes strikingly implausible; a birth tourism industry in Ireland serving a wealthy elite who would like their children to have easier access to Europe, its universities, and job market is far easier to imagine.

It might be argued, however, that America and Ireland are not so comparable. Surely, one would hope, the Irish state would not be so willing to deport the non-citizen parents of Irish children. And this is exactly the argument offered by Flanagan: a child citizen has a right of residency and the right to a family; therefore that family also has a right of residency. Such was the basis of the well-publicised case of Man Levette Chen, which did much to animate the 2004 referendum. Chen was a Chinese national living in Wales and expecting her second child. Because she did not want to return to China and violate its strict one-child policy, she travelled to Belfast on legal advice to give birth. As her child was an Irish and thereby EU citizen by birthright, and that child had a right to a family, Chen was ultimately granted residency in the UK by the European Court of Justice. It remains to be seen, however, whether an Irish court would defend that right. The 2003 Supreme Court case Lobe & Osayande v Minster for Justice considered that very question. The case involved a Nigerian man, Andrew Osayande, and the Lobe family from the Czech Republic, whose children were born in Ireland and thus Irish citizens. Yet the court ruled in favour of the government, setting the precedent that the Irish state is indeed legally permitted to deport the parents of its infant citizens.

Birthright is not the only way to become a dual citizen of course. The two other case studies of citizenship acquisition Harpaz investigates are founded on the legal principle of jus sanguinis – the right to citizenship based on ancestry.

Like that of many other European countries, Hungary’s population has been in decline for many years.  One way prime minister Viktor Orbán has sought to stabilise it is by giving Hungarian women economic incentives to have more children. Another is the subject of Harpaz’s second case study. The Serbian province of Vojvodina was once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and consequently many ethnic Hungarians still live in the area. In 2011, Orbán passed a new law which made ethnic Hungarians abroad eligible for dual citizenship. Since then, he has been actively encouraging Vojvodina’s Hungarians to apply.

The process is simple. The only requirements are descent from a Hungarian citizen and competence in the Hungarian language. As intended, the policy has proved incredibly popular. Of the approximately 250,000 Hungarians in Serbia, 150,000 have obtained citizenship since 2011. Some within this total have taken the opportunity to “return” to Hungary. But many others, particularly the young in Vojvodina, see it as an opportunity for the kind of global upward mobility that Harpaz describes. Hungary is an EU member state; Serbia isn’t. This has meant many ethnic Hungarians in Serbia have used the law to acquire Hungarian citizenship and access employment and educational opportunities in other EU countries, as is their right.

However, many young Serbians who are equally keen to work and study in the EU are not ethnically Hungarian. But they too have made use of the new law. Crucially for them, the citizenship application does not require any comprehensive proof of Hungarian ethnicity. Applicants are not required to have a Hungarian language name, for example, nor be Catholic rather than members of the Orthodox Serbian Church. The only requirements are Hungarian descent and language. The descent criterion, as it happens, qualifies many Serbs. “Roughly half of Vojvodina’s non-Hungarian population has its roots in the region that stretch back before 1920, to Austro-Hungarian times.” This makes perhaps 900,000 mostly ethnic Serbs eligible for Hungarian citizenship by descent.

Even so, the language requirement is less straightforward. Hungarian is generally regarded as one of the world’s most difficult languages to learn in adulthood, and it is linguistically unrelated to the Slavic languages spoken in surrounding countries. Its closest cousin is Finnish. Nonetheless, an informal industry of Hungarian language instruction has emerged in Vojvodina. Vojvodinians of Serbian ethnicity often devote over a year of study to the language. Harpaz relays that language schools have over time learned how to maximise the chances of success in the language exam. “When students are ready, the company arranges a minivan and takes them to file their application in small towns in Hungary, where the required level of Hungarian is rumored to be lower.” If successful, few have any intention of returning to Hungary. Instead, they dream of travelling to countries where wages are substantially higher and where English – another language they are likely to know – is spoken.

One place they might go is Ireland, and if they do there is something of an historical parallel. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Ireland elected to provide refuge to a small number of Hungarian Catholics fleeing persecution. They were placed in a camp in Knockalisheen, Co Clare – a camp that now functions as a direct provision centre. But just as some of today’s newly-minted Hungarians are not ethnically Hungarian, some of the Hungarian refugees back then were not actually Catholic. Some only pretended to be so to escape the violence in their country. Mark Collins’s 2006 novel Stateless depicts these events. In the novel, one of these would-be Catholics, Eva, is invited to eat Christmas dinner at the house of a kind local. He asks her if she would like to say the Lord’s Prayer in Hungarian as grace before the meal. Not knowing the prayer, and not wanting to betray her irreligious leanings, she says the words to Humpty Dumpty with her host none the wiser.

Charlie Flanagan worries that reinstituting birthright citizenship might lead some to cynically exploit Irish law to circumvent the immigration laws of other EU nations, and that those who have no sincere attachment to Ireland will join the citizenry. Even if we take this concern at face value, the example of Vojvodina makes clear that the instrumentalisation of citizenship is already a reality in the EU. Moreover, we do not need to look so far as Hungary to see this phenomenon in practice. In 2019, approximately 50,000 British citizens acquired Irish passports – an annual total that has increased nearly tenfold since the 2016 Brexit referendum.  No doubt within this number, different people will have many different reasons for acquiring citizenship. But we can be confident there will be a sizable number leveraging their Irish ancestry to circumvent the immigration laws of other EU states. What morally salient difference is there between them and the birthright tourists? Whatever else there is to say about birthright tourists, there can be no doubt they have been to Ireland.

Harpaz’s final case study considers Israeli citizens, specifically Ashkenazi Israelis, acquiring passports from countries in central and eastern Europe. But it is not immediately clear why they are doing so. Certainly it isn’t because of the same reasons Serbians acquire EU passports. Wages are relatively high in Israel (at least for Ashkenazi Israelis), emigration is low even among the young, and within Israel, European universities are not generally thought of as particularly prestigious. But nor do they fit into the other main type of dual citizen, that is, those who acquire a passport for reasons of attachment to the country of one’s parents or grandparents. Jews, particularly those of an older generation, have no sentimental desire to become citizens of the nations where their relatives were murdered.

So what explains Israelis applying for European passports in relatively large numbers (approximately 200,000, or 10 per cent of the eligible population)? A phrase Harpaz heard repeatedly was “‘it’s good to have”. Unlike Serbians, who tend to apply for Hungarian passports for specific reasons, such as, for example, studying for a masters degree in the Netherlands, Israelis are not so particular. Part of the explanation lies in a general feeling of anxiety about the future of Israel. A European passport is for some an insurance policy against various apocalyptic scenarios. Harpaz quotes Aviva, a daughter of Holocaust survivors: “I applied for the German passport to secure a safe place for the children, and also for myself … This is part of being second generation. In my parents’ generation, if you had the right papers you were saved, and if you didn’t, you were doomed. So I, as their child, internalized this message. You must always have some place that you can escape to.”

Nonetheless, many in the older generations are understandably reluctant to acquire European passports. They are persuaded by the narrative that, like in Mexico, dual citizenship is a gift to one’s children and grandchildren, something that will bring them greater opportunities. Harpaz meets one man, Haim, whose father left Germany in 1939 and was the sole survivor from his large family. Even though Haim has never set foot in Germany and has boycotted German goods all his life, when his daughters asked him to acquire German citizenship on their behalf, he agreed. As Harpaz puts it, “Now he is a German citizen with a German passport who continues to boycott everything German, including his own passport.”

It is easy to see how the process of putting together an application like this might provoke feelings of grief and shame. It involves sourcing documents, which might include birth certificates, travel permits, or even high school diplomas. It also involves coming into contact with state officials from countries many want nothing to do with, and, in many cases, proficiency in a language which has been lost through the generations. So to make the process both more palatable and accessible, an industry of lawyers and fixers exists to help applicants navigate it. The middlemen source documents, conduct visits to embassies, and generally provide a degree of remove from the intimacy of the process. And so, once older generations are persuaded, acquiring an EU passport often involves little more than an exchange of cash.

Harpaz’s achievement is to have furnished an account of citizenship’s commodification. In Israel, Mexico and Serbia, a second passport from a “first-tier” nation has become a way for individuals to separate themselves from their fellow citizens. Few Israeli dual citizens call themselves German, for example, but instead “Israelis with a European passport”. Becoming a member of another nation is not conceived of as joining a political community with attendant duties to others, but as the purchase of a commodity that brings superior rights for oneself. It is striking, then, that Harpaz does not consider in his book the most glaring examples of citizenship’s commodification. Namely, those where there are no requirements of ancestry, birth, ethnicity, or residency, but where passports can be purchased for large sums of cash. Such a policy exists in some small island nations in the Pacific and Caribbean, but also in two of the EU’s island nations. In Malta, citizenship can be purchased for you and your family for a little over €1 million. This total includes a direct transfer to the government, an investment in government bonds, and the purchase of property on the island. Cyprus, by contrast, requires a minimum €2 million investment. Both being EU member states, Malta looks to be the better deal. But Cypriot citizenship comes with the advantage of a comparatively fast processing time of just six months. You are also permitted, unlike in Malta, to rent your property to recover some of the costs of investment. The wealthy, then, are not so beholden to the citizenship lottery.

Ireland too has a history of selling its passports. The 2006 Moriarty Tribunal concluded that then taoiseach Charlie Haughey had given a passport to, among others, a Saudi businessman in exchange for £50,000 he received personally in 1985. In 1989, Ireland both formalised the process and upped the price, eventually to £1million. One of the most notorious customers was Viktor Kožený, famous for defrauding his fellow Czech citizens out of millions during the privatisation of the country’s economy in the 1990s. After similarly defrauding American investors in a scheme to invest in Azerbaijan’s privatisation, Kožený is now fighting extradition to the US and is confined to the Bahamas with his reported six Irish passports.

The practical benefits of dual citizenship are clear. But as with the purchase of any other luxury good, much of the allure of an additional passport exists in the sophistication and status that can accrue to its owner. Indeed, in Israel Harpaz reports that for some citizens a European passport functions as a way to distinguish themselves socially from Mizrahi Jews and Arabs. European passports are cool, Harpaz tells us. “One of the main things Israelis do with European citizenship is to talk about it.” A word he heard often was the Hebrew slang magniv: “something that is magniv is good because it expresses its owner’s uniqueness.” A few Ashkenazi Israelis reported feeling their uniqueness expressed when queuing in the EU line while travelling abroad, enjoying both the proximity to their fellow Europeans and the distance from their fellow Israelis.

Interestingly, US citizenship is not so highly thought of in Mexico. Though expensive and exclusive, Harpaz tells us Mexicans don’t talk about it so much and rarely see it as a source of pride or social position. Why? Several respondents replied, “Anybody can get it.” The meaning of “anybody” here is telling. They are referring to America’s racial diversity. They mean that anybody, regardless of their ancestry, can become American. Indeed, America’s policy of birthright citizenship, enshrined in the 14th Amendment, was specifically intended to include the descendants of freed slaves in the citizenry. Spanish, German or French passports, on the other hand, are considered a “formidable status symbol” in Mexico. This is precisely because they are not available to anybody, but only to Mexicans of European descent. The social significance of citizenship, then, is a colonial legacy, one that creates a hierarchy codified on one’s proximity to whiteness.

So, when dual citizenship from “first-tier” countries is understood as a commodity, it functions either as a route to economic opportunity or a racist badge of sophistication. Citizenship 2.0 provides ample evidence of these phenomena. But it is vital to remember that a second passport is not always a commodity. Citizenship 2.0 implies citizenship 1.0. The remit of Harpaz’s study is specifically those who acquire dual citizenship for a country they neither live nor work in. But what of those who do? After reading Citizenship 2.0, it is all too easy to see Charlie Flanagan’s fears crystallised – albeit differently from how he imagines – and come away with the opinion that citizenship laws exist solely to be exploited. But to do this obscures the stated intention of legislation like Labour’s birthright citizenship bill: to include in the citizenry children who know no other home but Ireland. For children such as Eric from Bray, a boy whose deportation order his classmates campaigned against, citizenship is not a commodity for maximising opportunity and status in an unjust world. It is simply state recognition and protection of what his wonderful classmates realised well before the minister for justice: he is a full member of his community.


Tadgh Healy studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin, and recently graduated from Cambridge University, where he researched political theories of citizenship.



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