Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

The Borders of Naturalisation



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4 Minutes

Guest post by Hannah Bliersbach. Hannah is a doctoral candidate at Leiden University, the Netherlands. Her PhD project focuses on naturalisation policies and the experiences of naturalised citizens, studying the effect of the process of citizenship acquisition on the individual’s notion of formal membership.


The ship Empire Windrush



In April 2021, the British high court ruled on the Home Office’s handling of Windrush citizenship applications, which had been denied due to minor, decades-old convictions. The high court found the oftentimes repeated rejections of citizenship applications based on a requirement of ‘good character’ as unlawful – a relief that came too late for many victims of the Windrush scandal. The initiator of the court case, Hubert Howard, passed away in October 2019 while others were deported from the state, they had called home. In 2012, then Home Secretary Theresa May introduced a policy aiming to create a “hostile environment” for irregular immigrants in Britain, which triggered numerous Windrush generation residents to be falsely categorised as being in the country ‘illegally’. Their subsequent efforts to naturalise were frequently rebuffed.

As the institution of citizenship has been ‘liberalised’ in many Western democratic states through the inclusion of ius soli provisions alongside ius sanguinis, scholars have called attention to a “restrictive trend” regarding residency requirements (de Groot/ Vink 2010: 726), increasingly necessitating legal residence for naturalisation. This development has shaped what Bridget Anderson describes as the typical trajectory of long-term migration: entry, temporary stay, settlement, and citizenship (Anderson 2013). Naturalisation can only occur between settlement and the acquisition of formal membership, but the new citizen also has to go through the steps of entry and temporary stay in order to make it to the settlement stage in the first place. This is to say, the new citizen at one point in time had to be granted territorial access to the state and not be removed from it subsequently.

Early work on naturalisation did not consider those who did not meet all the requirements necessary to initiate the naturalisation process. Scholars mostly examine the process itself or the differences between naturalised and natural-born citizens concerning their political participation, national identity or labour status. Their work on citizenship acquisition centred around the motivations and characteristics of the individual gaining citizenship – particularly Latin American immigrants residing in the United States (Grebler 1966; Yang 1994; Jones-Correa 2001). The outcome (naturalising or not) was seen as stemming from the immigrant’s intentions. If a person wanted to naturalise, then they would do so; intention equalled result.

The set of determinants of naturalisation outcomes has since been expanded to include two more dimensions of factors beyond the immigrant themselves. The first dimension denotes the characteristics of the individual’s country of origin such as dual citizenship or citizenship renunciation regulations as well as the country’s level of development (Bloemraad 2004; Vink et al. 2013). The second dimension illustrates the citizenship policies of the destination state, in particular its requirements for citizenship status. This framework created by the citizenship laws in the countries of destination is also referred to as the ‘opportunity structure’, within which immigrants act.

The inclusion of these further dimensions in the naturalisation literature hints at an increased awareness of scholars that the simple term of ‘intention equals result’ was not painting an accurate picture. This awareness has most recently been translated into the inclusion of immigrants’ ability to acquire citizenship. Thomas Huddleston (2020) illustrates the conceptual difference between an immigrant’s interest and ability to naturalise with the latter requiring not only motivation but also eligibility and the capacity to submit a citizenship application. Referring to sociologists Irene Bloemraad and Sofya Aptekar, Huddleston views the ability to become a citizen as determined by the ‘context of reception’ created by bureaucracies and service providers both before and during the formal naturalisation process (Bloemraad 2002, 2006; Aptekar 2016; Huddleston 2020). Yet, the ability of individuals to apply for citizenship has been difficult for scholars to study as the determinants of whether or not an immigrant initiates the formal naturalisation process remain largely invisible to scholars. Those never attempting to acquire citizenship might differ in significant ways from those who try and fail or those who succeed. The difficulty lies in gaining insight into this blind spot, the period of time before a person has reached the ‘settlement’ stage in a country and is able to apply for formal membership.

As naturalisation and citizenship policies fall – at least partly – under the jurisdiction of immigration law, recent scholarship has taken to include states’ respective policies in their analyses of naturalisation developments. Citizenship regimes are commonly categorised as “restrictive” or “liberal”, exhibiting “thick” or “thin” configurations of nationality (Dronkers/ Vink 2012; Goodman 2010; Orgad 2010). While contemporary work on naturalisation incorporates various factors possibly influencing an individual’s pathway towards and through the naturalisation process (e.g. Huddleston/ Falcke 2020), the legal frameworks of destination countries have not been explored beyond the categorisation of the laws on the books. Modern naturalisation research has to move further and include the contextualisation of citizenship policy within the respective legal framework, in line with thinking on ‘crimmigration’, the increasing entanglement of immigration law and criminal law. The growing interweaving of both bodies of law has created a legal framework able to control migration through the criminal justice system leading to the criminalization of the immigrant and its behaviour as well as the usage of immigration law for criminal justice purposes.

In the context of naturalisation, crimmigration influences the implementation of citizenship requirements and impacts the difficulty of fulfilling them. Two states with each a five-year residency condition for naturalisation might be categorised similarly if one only examines the policy as it is written. There might be significant differences in how attainable these five years of residency actually are for immigrants. Does a speeding ticket qualify for the revocation of a temporary status? Can an individual be deported based on the suspicion that they might pose a security threat? Even though both states require the same number of years of residency, there might be a noteworthy difference in how able immigrants are to reach this goal.

Citizenship requirements have to be analysed in the context of the legal framework they are implemented in. Naturalising into a citizenry is not only determined by an individual’s motivation to gain citizenship, but also various factors that lie outside their control. Research on naturalisation has to prioritize the fates of those who remain unable to apply for citizenship – much like the Windrush generation. Their exclusion from the British citizenry due to the ‘good character’ requirement, when they had spent decades living and working in the state and viewed themselves as British signals a necessity to examine naturalisation policy not only from the perspective of those who succeeded in gaining citizenship, but also those who remain excluded from formal membership.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Bliersbach, H. (2021). The Borders of Naturalisation. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/05/borders [date]

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