| in Community

by Kelly Broder (COM’27) 
Elizabeth Cohen
Elizabeth Cohen

As the child of an immigrant, Elizabeth Cohen was always interested in the idea of citizenship. Cohen’s family was stateless when they arrived in the United States after World War II. And as she grew up, Cohen became more and more aware of the fact that some people did not seem to have full democratic rights as American citizens. 

She read about migrants being deported as well as immigrants whose citizenship was not respected with the rights to which they’re lawfully entitled. She became fascinated with the idea that even in democratic states, some individuals do not hold the same political rights as others. 

This drove Cohen to study political science, and years later, to coin the term “semi-citizenship” as a means to dramatically advance debates about individuals who hold some but not all elements of full democratic citizenship — including newly arrived foreign-born people, those incarcerated for felonies, children, disabled individuals, and people with varying visa statuses. 

“People are not always born into such fortunate circumstances and don’t always acquire citizenship and rights at birth,” said Cohen, the author of four books, including Semi-Citizenship in Democratic Politics (2009). “I had to do something that would ensure that experiences like those my family survived would remain a part of discussion in the future.”

Now, as the new Maxwell Professor of United States Citizenship at Boston University Arts & Sciences, Cohen remains committed to facilitating discussions and promoting education on the topic of citizenship through her research — by using her voice in the public realm, and through her new course, CAS PO390: “Justice in an Unjust World.” 

Cohen’s recent research focuses on those outside the country who search for admittance to the U.S. as refugees. Rather than using the term “illegal,” which many scholars have perceived to be dehumanizing, Cohen refers to immigrants without valid visas as “unlawfully present.” 

“They just want to be able to move freely. The struggle that they endure for status – for basic human rights – is inspiring,” Cohen said. “I’m constantly thinking about those people and the kind of struggle that they endure.”  

No matter their visa or citizenship status, Cohen said she supports efforts to protect every member of the community. “This is our democracy. Even people who do not have a U.S. passport are citizens of this community that we are in,” Cohen said. 

Cohen emphasized that there is a surplus of harmful media surrounding the topic of immigration. She encourages individuals to critically examine the media’s initial intentions and final impact that alters the public’s perceptions toward the immigrant community. Recognizing news media’s influence on attitudes toward migrants is a critical factor in Cohen’s push to develop a wider understanding of citizenship. She said that qualifying and challenging ideas that circulate in the media is a crucial skill in promoting equity-based politics. 

She aims to do that through her new class, “Justice in an Unjust World,” meeting in the fall semester this year. The course discusses the implications of autonomy, liberty, workplace democracy, and what it means to experience freedom or oppression. 

Cohen believes that educational discourse on this topic is imperative to fostering social and political advancement of immigrant people, and, through her course, gives students tools to advance the culture and conversation surrounding citizenship and immigration. 

She said, “I hope that [my students] don’t forget the practice and the skill of questioning what they care about and really thinking critically about those politics,” Cohen said.