Immigration, nationality and citizenship

Any meaningful debate on immigration and citizenship should occur within a context of more than a decade of local policies and reviews on citizenship more generally.

No matter how much time passes, there are always bound to be ethical issues raised by immigration (regular and irregular) to affluent democratic states in Europe, not least Malta. These include access to citizenship, inclusion, residents,temporary workers, irregular migrants, non-discrimination in admissions, family reunification, refugees, open borders. Answers to these questions must flow from a commitment to democratic principles.

What are the ethical issues raised by immigration? How does immigration affect our understanding of democracy and citizenship?

Some people think that it is a mistake even to talk about the ethics of immigration. Immigration and citizenship should be seen as political issues, not moral ones, they say. 

On this view, respect for state sovereignty and democratic self-determination preclude any moral assessments of a state’s immigration and citizenship policies.

Some people think that it is a mistake even to talk about the ethics of immigration.

This sort of attempt to shield immigration and citizenship policies from moral scrutiny is misguided. Consider some examples of past policies that almost everyone today would regard as unjust: the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 19th century that barred people of Chinese descent from naturalisation in the United States; the denaturaliasation policies adopted in the 1930s by many European states (including Germany’s infamous Nuremberg Laws); Canadian and Australian policies of excluding potential immigrants on the basis of race.

To criticise such policies as morally wrong does not entail a rejection of state sovereignty or democratic self-determination. We should distinguish the question of who ought to have the authority to determine a policy from the question of whether a given policy is morally acceptable. 

Let me now comment about child naturalisation and citizenship. The most important circumstances shaping a child’s relationship with the State from the outset are the same for the child of immigrants as they are for the child of resident citizens. So, the child of immigrants has the same sort of fundamental interest in being recognised immediately and permanently as a member of the political community.

Even if immigrants and their descendants have appropriate access to the legal status of citizenship, they can still be marginalised economically, socially, and politically. If citizens of immigrant origin are excluded from the economic and educational opportunities that others enjoy, if they are viewed with suspicion and hostility by their fellow citizens, if their concerns are ignored and their voices not heard in political life, they are not really included in the political community. They may be citizens in a formal sense but they are not really citizens in a fuller, more meaningful sense of the term. They are not likely to see themselves or be seen by others as genuine members of the community. In many important ways, they will not belong.

That is clearly wrong from a democratic perspective. No one thinks that democratic equality requires citizens to be equal in every respect, but the democratic ideal of equal citizenship clearly entails much more than the formal equality of equal legal rights. It requires a commitment to some sort of genuine equality of opportunity in economic life and in education, to freedom from domination in social and political life, to an ethos of mutual respect, compromise and fairness. This is where citizenship education has an important role to play.

An attempt should be made to transform citizens from what was perceived as ‘passive recipients of public services’ to actively engaged participants in public life.

Citizenship education was introduced as a statutory subject in Maltese secondary schools quite some time ago. The Education Act of 1988, which was the prime mover of the national curricula of 1989 and 1990 for Maltese primary, secondary and post-secondary schools, formalised the teaching and learning of citizenship values and civic competencies, mostly through learning experiences in social studies. During the late 90s, Maltese education followed closely the developments in the Education for Democratic Citizenship programmes at the European level, until education in citizenship and democracy reached a maturity stage so as to become one of the 12 fundamental objectives of the 2000 National Minimum Curriculum. Education in citizenship is generally considered as a widely embracing concept to include democracy education, human rights education, education in peace and non-violence, ecological responsibility and action, global and development education, and equity in education within the broader perspective of social justice.

 ‘Active citizenship’ should be strongly emphasised, and an attempt be made to transform citizens from what was perceived as ‘passive recipients of public services’ to actively engaged participants in public life.

Our 2020 legislation granting Malta citizenship by naturalisation for exceptional services and offered to individuals and families worldwide who contribute to the nation’s economic development, had an increased focus on ensuring applicants have a genuine link with the country.

‘Genuine link’ should be rigourously interpreted and applied as meaning someone has resided in Malta for at least 12 months immediately preceding the date of application, that during the 6 years prior to the said period of 12 months, such individual has resided in Malta for periods amounting in aggregate to not less than 4 years, has an adequate knowledge of the English or Maltese language, is a good character and would be considered a suitable citizen of Malta.

Such person would be required to take an oath of allegiance to Malta prior to becoming a citizen of Malta. Now that would truly be an “active citizen” of Malta.

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