The negative value of US citizenship

By Felix Salmon
August 26, 2013

Kirk Semple has a big piece today on a longstanding phenomenon: the millions of people who live in America, who are eligible to become citizens, and yet who never do so. The numbers: there are roughly 8.8 million green card holders who are eligible to naturalize; about 750,000 people naturalized in 2012. Overall, if you’re still in America and you received a green card more than 20 years ago, there’s roughly a 60% chance that you became a citizen somewhere along the way.

This being a NYT story, there’s lots of talk about national identity: the lead anecdote is about a man who worries that he would “feel a little less Italian” if he became a citizen. And there are many people who become citizens, or who don’t, on purely patriotic grounds. But there are lots of other forces at play here, many of which Semple ignores entirely, or barely touches on.

Firstly there’s the fact that in many cases becoming a US citizen is a trade-off: while you acquire certain rights in the US (foremost among them the right to vote), you also lose certain rights — and sometimes your very citizenship — in your country of origin. For instance, consider a landowner with a green card who owns land in both her native country and the US. Often, the minute she becomes a US citizen, she can no longer own land back “home”.

More generally, if your home country requires that you give up your native citizenship when you become an American, then the choice can be a very tough one.

But beyond, that there are numerous much more practical considerations at play. Semple touches on one, which is the sheer cost, both financial and psychic, of going through the naturalization process. Another is jury duty. Being a non-citizen is like having a permanent “get out of jail free” card whenever you get a jury summons; many US citizens would value such a thing very highly.

And then there’s travel. It’s much easier to travel the world on a US passport than it is on a passport from, say, Syria, or Bangladesh — but, that said, there are countries which really don’t like admitting Americans, and if you already have a passport from Canada, or the EU, then you’re going to find it just as easy to travel as you would if you had one from the US. Especially given that green card holders are eligible for line-jumping programs like Pre✓ and Global Entry.

The weirdest omission from Semple’s piece, however, is the whole issue of taxes. A green card holder can leave the US at any time, give up her green card, and thenceforth never have to pay a cent in US taxes, or even file a US tax return, ever again. Again, this is an option which would be valued extremely highly by many Americans. By becoming a US citizen you essentially give up that option, as the likes of Eduardo Saverin have learned to their cost. If there’s even a small probability that you might want to move or retire to a low-tax jurisdiction, then it makes financial sense to keep the green card but not become a citizen.

Finally, it’s worth noting a statistical symmetry: the proportion of green card holders who eventually become US citizens is pretty much the same as the proportion of US citizens who vote. Voting is the top reason to become a citizen — and it’s something which roughly 40% of American citizens don’t bother to do. The NYT comments section is full of angry people who are deeply offended at the idea that people might be living in the US and not becoming citizens at the earliest opportunity. But really, if you have the same attitude towards voting as 40% of the US population, why bother? After all, if you take the option value of remaining a green card holder into account, becoming a US citizen probably has negative value, overall.

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