Gender Centre
23 August 2018

Giving Birth in the US: Value of the US Passport for Well-to-Do Families in the Global South

Interview with Professor Altan-Olcay.

In “Born in the USA: Citizenship Acquisition and Transnational Mothering in Turkey”, an article jointly written with Evren Balta and published in Gender, Place and Culture, Özlem Altan-Olcay investigates the practice of giving birth in the United States for the purpose of obtaining US citizenship for newborn children among mothers from upper- and upper-middle-class families in Turkey. Professor Altan-Olcay is Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the Graduate Institute’s Gender Centre while on sabbatical leave from Koç University in Istanbul. In this interview she provides first-hand knowledge on the article as well as on her research sabbatical.

What motivated you to study Turkish families’ aspirations to acquire US citizenship for their children?

I and my research partner Evren Balta, Associate Professor at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul, began this research from a very personal point. In our conversations we realised that, during our pregnancies, we were both incessantly asked whether we would go back to the United States, where we had lived for close to a decade, to give birth to our children so that they would become US citizens. We didn’t. But this shared experience of interrogation made us curious about why people thought it was a good idea to embark on long-distance travel in the later stages of pregnancy and give birth away from one’s social support networks. We wanted to understand what motivated parental desires for children to have a second citizenship, particularly a US one. Our theoretical purpose was to understand the changing meanings and values attributed to the institution of national citizenship, and to explore what it signifies in a world of transnational identities, mobilities and aspirations.

So, we conducted interviews with parents who actually did give birth in the United States for the sole purpose of obtaining US citizenship for their newborn, and also with travel companies that specialise in organising these trips. Our findings indicate that these mothers engage in this practice because they experience anxieties regarding their countries of birth and see their children’s second citizenship as an insurance policy for the latter. To be clear, these parents were not interested in getting US citizenship for themselves; they wanted it as an insurance policy for their children. They could do this because they had sufficient economic, social and cultural capital. In a way, they used their unequal positions within one citizenship regime to rise in the global hierarchy of citizenship regimes. Thus, we have concluded from our research that these practices tell us how national citizenship regimes have become the organisers of – in addition to domestic inequalities – different kinds of inequalities that transcend borders.

How far can the inferences drawn from your research be extended to other cases or examples?

Well, I can say that this is not an isolated phenomenon. There is very little systematic information on the topic but anecdotal evidence and journalistic reporting suggest that the practice is widespread among middle- to upper-income families in various countries of the Global South. Thus, the narratives our interviewees shared with us are likely to be reflections of a world beyond Turkey. Political and economic risks, and feelings of a loss of control over future trajectories, fuel people’s attempts to strategise with respect to their citizenship status.

There are two ways in which our findings relate to existing literature. First, there is a large literature on transnational citizenship that highlights the diverse ways in which national membership and citizenship have become relatively less important given the wider recognition and appreciation of other forms of belonging and – from an institutional perspective – the acceptance of universal human rights. We concur with this literature’s arguments about transnational identities, aspirations and lives that crisscross borders. However, we also argue that a person’s specific national citizenship is profoundly important in their ability to become transnational.

Secondly, there is new scholarship around dual citizenship, particularly in two cases: citizenship acquisition through ancestry and investment citizenship programmes, both of which emphasise how these second citizenships carry an instrumental value for their holders. Our case reveals how families strategise around citizenship rules to reorganise the bundle of rights and obligations their children have. It also reveals, as I said before, how seamless border crossing and the ability to settle anywhere in the world with relative ease strengthen the transnational values people attach to national citizenship regimes. Yet, while concurring with the strategic motivations and instrumental values attached to citizenship, we argue that these practices are very emotionally laden processes. They involve intense questions of belonging and identity. They are not divorced from feelings of insecurity. These anxious strategies, we believe, reveal the persistent – but changed – power of citizenship in a transnational world to order hierarchies. They also express complex and ambivalent assertions of identity.

How can you proceed to further investigate this phenomenon?

When we finished our research, we came to realise quite quickly that these parents’ stories were about their perceptions of and imaginaries about US citizenship – a status they themselves did not have. Therefore, we have expanded our research to more inclusive questions: How is US citizenship experienced outside US borders by diverse groups of people? What do these experiences signify – again in terms of the meanings and values attached to national citizenship today? What do they tell us about the complex relationship between national citizenship, transnational lives, and inequalities?

To respond to these questions, we interviewed two additional groups of people: citizens of Turkish origin who are also naturalised US citizens and have chosen to return to and settle in Turkey, and US citizens born and raised in the United States but who have decided to settle in Turkey for various reasons. In addition to confirming our initial findings on inequalities between citizenship regimes in terms of opportunities for transnational mobility and individual strategising around political and economic risk, we have discovered with these groups that there are surprising relationships between one’s citizenship status and chances for upward mobility outside the borders of that citizenship regime. We have also seen how US global power operates not only through geopolitical interventions and widespread cultural consumption patterns, but also through very individualised acts, practices and aspirations around US citizenship status. We are currently concluding our book manuscript which combines the experiences of these three distinct groups.

You spent the last academic year at the Graduate Institute’s Gender Centre. How has this contributed to your current research and your professional career?

The Graduate Institute, along with its Gender Centre, has been an amazing host. I cannot say how happy I have been to be here, how welcome I have felt and how stimulated I have been intellectually. I am indebted to Lisa Prügl in particular, but really to every single member of the centre and to colleagues I have met in academic departments and other centres, for making this year a memorable one. It will be hard to leave behind all the wonderful conversations, workshops and events that opened up a wide array of fields of exploration for me.

I was here on an EU Marie Skłodowska-Curie individual fellowship, conducting research on the work of gender expertise inside institutions of governance. I am interested in understanding the different ways in which discourses on cultural norms enter debates on gender and development, in writing and in unwritten encounters. My quest is to see if these interactions give us new vantage points to discuss both the relationship between gender norms and rights and, more generally, the coeval construction of market and development paradigms.

Throughout the year, I have conducted an analysis of flagship reports of multiple institutions of governance and interviews with 40 gender experts. I am pleased to say that the work itself has taken on a life of its own to produce numerous unexpected results. I am currently writing on the diverse debates on the politics of engagement taking place within feminism as well as among gender experts. I want to follow this with a piece on everyday, unwritten interactions around the politics of cultural difference and the possibilities, but also the conundrums, these open up for gender and development. More generally, I am rethinking the everyday work of expertise from the perspective of sociological labour process theories, and also theorising about the political implications of diverse and overlapping notions of time and temporality in development governance.

I believe that this line of research, thanks to the Marie Skłodowska-Curie funding and the Graduate Institute, marks the beginning of a new research area for me, which I want to further investigate through follow-up projects to culminate in a new book.

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Full citation of Professor Altan-Olcay’s cowritten article:
Balta, Evren, and Özlem Altan-Olcay. “Born in the USA: Citizenship Acquisition and Transnational Mothering in Turkey.” Gender, Place and Culture 24, no. 8 (2017): 1204–23. doi:10.1080/0966369X.2017.1372381.

Read also:
Balta, Evren, and Özlem Altan-Olcay. “Strategic Citizens of America: Transnational Inequalities and Transformation of Citizenship.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39, no. 6 (2016): 939–57. doi:10.1080/01419870.2015.1103882.

Interview by Buğra Güngör, PhD candidate in International Relations and Political Science.