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Owners and Others: Proper Citizens and Migrants without Properties

Peter Schneck

Pages 463 - 489



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

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Property rights are central to the concept of citizenship in the liberal state, but in relation to the obvious reality of unequal distribution of resources and material injustice, they also present its most central contradiction. Property rights, as guaranteed by the liberal state, always entail both a right to exclude and to control (the right of dominion), which makes the individual the “sovereign,” and a right to alienate, transfer, and contract property (including certain rights connected to possession, distribution, and further contracts). Of course, these latter social or communal aspects (or potentials) of property rights are dependent on the prior right of dominion, without which full control of the communal dimension of property would be impossible. Yet without the social—contractual—dimension, the right to property would be quite useless in a capitalist system of production, and it is in this regard that property as a legal institution, and not just as a right, attains a crucial status for the critical understanding of the relation between the legal and the cultural formation of the figure of the migrant and the figure of the citizen.

The focus of this article is on the ambiguous nexus—both the inevitable conflict and the inexorable convergence—between central notions of property and citizenship in the United States, on the one hand, and the concept of the migrant, on the other hand. It argues that one of the most essential properties of the migrant in U.S. cultural and legal imagination has been (and still is) the migrant’s defining lack of “properties”; that is, the migrant is defined by being essentially dispossessed and therefore in need of the “property” of others. That makes the migrant a precarious but also threatening dialectical presence vis-à-vis the citizen in the cultural and legal imaginary of the United States. This article will discuss this dialectic in reference to the history of Asian American immigration and citizenship and, more particularly, in relation to the function of literature in the ongoing negotiation of the properties of the migrant.

Keywords: migration United States; immigration United States; property; naturalization; migration law; literary fiction.

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