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Investor citizenship and the public charge rule: What do they mean for Americans?


‘Investor citizenship and the public charge rules are two poles of the same logic of marketised citizenship, a logic which in turn undermines the meaning of belonging to America.’ Photo by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay.

This November, the Prime Ministers of St. Lucia, Albania, and Montenegro gathered in London at a £1,500-a-ticket conference on buying citizenship. These officials, alongside representatives from at least three other countries, presented over 300 super-rich elites with the opportunities to gain residency and citizenship in return for investment in property, businesses, and directly in state coffers. The conference is part of an emerging trend of states with smaller economies granting citizenship for investment in their countries. But investor citizenship is neither new nor isolated to small states. In fact, investor citizenship has existed in the United States since the 1990s. 

Under the American Immigrant Investor Program, a migrant can invest $900,000 ($500,000 until this November) to buy permanent residency and eventual citizenship for herself, her spouse, and her under-21 children. While the investor citizenship program accounts for a small minority of American immigrants, it ties citizenship to capital in a similar fashion to the Trump administration’s recently proposed public charge rule. The rule, which has been temporarily blocked, proposes removing the path to residency and citizenship from any immigrant who might be a ‘public charge,’ or who receives certain public benefits like Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously known as ‘food stamps’).

Investor citizenship and the public charge rule both constitute what Ayelet Shachar calls the ‘marketization of citizenship’. One of the few scholars working on American investor citizenship, Shachar identifies that investor citizenship risks linking membership to money and thereby hollowing out the meaning of citizenship. Family-based migrants are members because of their family connections, and job-based migrants work and invest their efforts in an office with Americans for an American business. Even migrants who enter because of specialised skills invest their human capital, or their knowledge and expertise, rather than their financial capital. Investor citizens only invest their money. 


Americans should be deeply sceptical of programmes that grant conditional access to legal status and citizenship on wealth. While investment may benefit American businesses, the immigrant investor programme weakens citizenship in the same way as the public charge rule. Both programmes subject citizenship to the market, meaning that citizenship is further removed from equal rights. If we grant citizenship based on having money, then we open the door to rejecting citizenship based on not having money. And if we can reject the citizenship claims of poor migrants, then what does that mean for poor (or even middle-class and underinsured) Americans who use those same welfare services? 

Investor citizenship and public charge rules are concrete policy manifestations of the expanding influence of market capitalism on American citizenship. Investor citizenship and the public charge rules are two poles of the same logic of marketised citizenship, a logic which in turn undermines the meaning of belonging to America. 


The Marketisation of Citizenship Through Investment

Last August, Ken Cuccinelli, then-acting head of Citizenship and Immigration Services, was widely derided for rewriting Emma Lazarus’ famous New Colossus poem: ‘Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.’ Yet while the public charge rule has faced public criticism and legal challenges, the immigrant investor programme raises similar challenges by further marketising citizenship. 

Investor citizenship is now a global phenomenon, with one expert valuing the industry at $25 billion a year. A global and regional infrastructure of agents, marketplaces, and state representatives ‘sell’ citizenship to the global elite, facilitated by the rise in dual citizenship. Jelena Džankić traces contemporary citizenship-selling to small Pacific and Caribbean island states after decolonisation, for these states with small economies turned to citizenship to attract investment. These states can make a somewhat reasonable case that they need or at least significantly gain from investor citizenship. 

Unlike those small economies, however, Americans cannot claim to depend on investor citizens to boost the American economy. The $1 million per investor citizen goes much further towards the $13-billion GDP of Malta, than $900,000 to the $19-trillion GDP of the United States. While American businesses undoubtedly gain from investor citizenship, as the investment must create at least ten full-time jobs before the investor is granted residency, the total benefit is likely mild on the American economy. Yet the demand for these visas has significantly spiked in the past decade. The government approved 1,571 petitions in fiscal year 2011 and 11,321 petitions in fiscal year 2017. 

But don’t we always want our community members to contribute to the community? That is, after all, how we think about our school communities or religious organisations. But while we may value investment, each community has its own logic about how people get to join. You join the PTA if you’re a parent with a child in that school district. You join the mosque if you practice Islam. It seems problematic to say that you may join the political community if you pay $900,000.

The Consequence of Marketised Citizenship: The Public Charge Rule

Proponents justify selling citizenship as a win-win: these investors contribute to American businesses, so we grant them citizenship in return. The problem with this justification is that the same logic of marketising membership applies in the case of the public charge rule. The growing role of the market in citizenship undermines the claims to citizenship of poor, middle-class, un/underinsured, and welfare-needing migrants. 

While investor citizens gain membership through financial investment, migrants can lose their path to membership by being a ‘public charge.’ Investor citizenship has historically retained bipartisan support, but until this year Americans had resisted widespread public charge rules. Under the proposed rule, it would not matter if migrants contribute to the American community socially, through civil society; politically, through activism; or even economically, though working or entrepreneurship. Taking advantage of public benefits can exclude you from citizenship. 


The aim here is not to rehash the critiques of the public charge rule. Rather, I want to underscore the shared logic between public charge rules and investor citizenship: the marketisation of citizenship. Once we open the door to market influence over citizenship with investor immigrant programs, we let the market discriminate against poor people as ‘public charges’. The current administration already proposes to raise fees for asylum seekers, DACA renewals, and citizenship applications, and to deny visas to migrants who cannot prove they can pay for healthcare. The immigrant investor program and the public charge rule are a small sample of a much larger complex of global capitalism that, according to scholars like Wendy Brown and Aihwa Ong is challenging the meaning of American citizenship, migration governance, and state sovereignty. These efforts all share the same increasingly powerful logic: that citizenship is a privilege for the rich, not a right for all.

Investor citizenship does not just support American businesses; we cannot separate investor citizenship from the marketisation of citizenship and its manifestation in public charge rules. 

So, What is American Citizenship Worth? 

This shared market logic of citizenship does not just connect investor citizenship to the public charge rule. Letting the market govern citizenship further weakens the value of citizenship, pushing poor people to the edges of the community. And, given that Americans are already not treated as fully equal members of the community, American citizenship may not be prepared for even more market discrimination. 

Identifying the marketisation of citizenship helps us point out the current failures of citizenship and the threats to its future. Citizenship in America has always been a symbol of equal status, but never a practice of equality. And so scholars and activists have long argued that black people, women, disabled people, and poor people (among others) can be second-class or less than citizens. A country that faces historic and current practices of unequal citizenship must recognise the looming threat of even more unequal marketised citizenship. From investor citizenship to public charge rules, the way the rich and powerful treat migrants is a warning sign of the weakening of citizenship that is to come.

Citizenship can mean anything from legal rights to social belonging, but it has not yet come to mean money. But if we can include residents because they pay $900,000 and exclude residents because they use food stamps, where does that leave the vast majority of Americans who are not super rich and who are themselves ‘public charges’? We already see attempts to tie welfare to ‘work requirements’ or drug testing, which do not increase work but which do discriminate against black Americans

If we can discriminate against migrants based on how much they ‘contribute’ to the market, then what is to stop us from using this logic on native-born citizens down the line? If we allow citizenship to be tied to class (and its implications of race, ability, and background more generally), then we allow citizenship to be further hollowed out by global capitalism. The marketisation of citizenship is not a new phenomenon, but it is increasingly manifested in actual policy forms in America.

Thankfully for Americans, our President has yet to fly to London to try and sell our citizenship. But as more and more countries take up investor citizenship, we need to be wary that the marketisation of citizenship has already begun in the United States. From the super-rich to the ‘public charges’, this market logic threatens our conceptions of American citizenship and membership as equal and inclusive.

Lawrence Huang

Lawrence Huang is a current MSc. in Migration Studies student at the University of Oxford and the Healy Scholar at St. Cross College, working on applications of critical race theory in migration and development. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Australia, he completed his undergraduate degree in political theory at Georgetown University, where he researched Hannah Arendt's theories of action and rights.

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