Tales from the Trail

The strange vogue in dumping U.S. citizenship

By Atossa Abrahamian
May 11, 2012

In 2005, a CUNY political science professor named Stanley Renshon compared citizenship without emotional attachment to “the civic equivalent of a one-night stand.”

Michele Bachmann’s fling with Switzerland lasted just 53 days – barely two of them public – before she came running back to Uncle Sam. That was right before Facebook’s co-founder Eduardo Saverin was found to have called it all off with the U.S, possibly for tax reasons.

Bachmann, who came out as Swiss to Politico on Tuesday, made headlines for deciding to split her allegiances – if only on paper – with a gay-friendly, abortion-happy Western European country. Her temporary Swissness made a farce of her fiery patriotic rhetoric, and added a cosmopolitan edge to her down-home image – an image she was counting on for her constituents to vote her back into office this coming term.

Yesterday, Bachmann declared that she had written to the Swiss government and asked them to withdraw her citizenship, which she’d acquired through her husband, Marcus. “I am and always have been 100% committed to our United States Constitution and the United States of America,” she said in a statement. “I took this action because I want to make it perfectly clear: I was born in America and I am a proud American citizen.”

Bachmann’s decision to become Swiss in the first place was a strange one – not because being a dual national is necessarily a bad thing (full disclosure: I have three passports, including one that is Swiss) but because it raised questions about the image Bachmann cultivated for years. She claimed to be naturalizing for her children’s sake, even though Swiss law does not require her to do so in order for them to acquire their own passports. She also put her eligibility for certain types of security clearance at risk, which isn’t a problem for members of Congress, but could pose complications if she ran for higher office.

That Bachmann reneged upon her decision so quickly also speaks to the troubled relationship Americans have with multiple citizenship. As citizenship scholar Peter Spiro has written, dual citizenship has been a contentious issue throughout U.S. history: In 1849, U.S. diplomat George Bancroft likened dual citizenship to polygamy, and Teddy Roosevelt called it “a self-evident absurdity” in 1915. As recently as 2006, Congress held hearings about the constitutionality of dual and birthright citizenship, during which a number of speakers decried it as unpatriotic.

This isn’t an attitude unique to the U.S, though. Europe’s nationalist movements of the 20th century wreaked havoc on the continent, yet in 1930, the League of Nations upheld the view at the Hague Convention that “it is in the interest of the international community to secure that all members should recognize that every person should have a nationality and should have one nationality only.”

Today, most countries have relaxed such attitudes. But in some places, particularly those with strong conservative or nationalist movements, the sentiment still holds. Despite the global nature of today’s economy, and the prevalence of cross-border cooperation in virtually all aspects of governance, it is still controversial for an individual to hold two passports

New proposed legislation in the Netherlands will require everyone who becomes Dutch to give up their original citizenship and force Dutch nationals who take a second citizenship to automatically lose their Dutch passports. In Egypt, a leading presidential candidate for the Salafi party, Hazem Abu Ismail, was put under immense pressure to withdraw, and was ultimately deemed ineligible to run, because his dead mother was a U.S. citizen. And last week, China Daily reported that lawmakers had spoken publicly about cracking down on dual citizenship by keeping better records. In China, dual citizenship is illegal, even though it’s estimated that over 45 million Chinese citizens live overseas, sometimes acquiring a second passport on the down low.

It’s impossible to know how many people in the world hold multiple citizenship: Roughly 100 countries, including the U.S., recognize dual citizenship in some form, but no one keeps track when citizens become naturalized elsewhere. Many people are eligible for a second passport based on ancestry alone – all Jews, for instance, can claim Israeli citizenship – and some countries even sell citizenship to complete strangers. As Eduardo Saverin shows us, renouncing one’s citizenship is also an option.

This raises questions about what citizenship even means in a globalized world. Does a passport denote a meaningful relationship between a government and an individual anymore? In theory, yes – legally speaking, blood is thicker than fondue. But as we’ve seen this week, the actual strength of Bachmann’s Swiss ties are wobbly at best. And should Michele Bachmann wake up tomorrow and discover a long-lost Iranian grandmother, she’d probably be allowed to take on Iranian citizenship, too, even though the U.S. and the Islamic Republic have been sparring politically for decades.

Recent drone strikes on U.S. citizens in the Middle East further problematize the political meaning of a citizen in an era of transnational crime and war waged by non-state actors. After Anwar al-Awlaki was targeted, civil rights activists pointed out that the U.S.-born al Qaeda member was treated like a common foreign criminal, rather than an American citizen. Did his involvement in un-American activities and his Yemeni nationality somehow dilute his birthright?

To understand the sometimes paradoxical nature of citizenship today, it is helpful to look at the way the concept of citizenship has evolved over time. As Benedict Anderson recounts in his 1983 book Imagined Communities, the entire notion of a nation-state itself is a social construct from a bygone era. Centuries ago, nation-states took over from dynasties, religions and tribes, and in doing so, became the new units with which we measured the world. Citizenship based on blood and locality was a crucial part of building the idea of a country, and it was possible because most people were born, grew up, married, had children and died not too far from where their parents did.

When people did go abroad – as when Marcus Bachmann’s parents left Thurgau for Wisconsin – they typically wouldn’t uproot themselves again a few years later to seek opportunities in Hong Kong or Dubai. They would buy a house, raise their children and assimilate. Our idea of a citizen remains tied to out-of-date lifestyles, even though people move around a lot more than they used to for professional, personal and economic reasons.

Today, people even self-identify as members of communities or countries that they do not technically belong to. Consider lifelong New Yorkers who feel more French than Yankee (Josephine Baker put it best: “j’ai deux amours / mon pays et Paris”) and the large number of undocumented immigrants who have no legal status in the U.S., yet can’t imagine living outside of Arizona.

Bachmann’s transatlantic flip-flop exemplifies how old-fashioned we are in our views about citizenship. Renshon’s analogy about the promiscuous passport holder makes no sense when we can go to sleep in Texas and wake up in Rome. Instead of seeing our countries as spouses or lovers, let us think of them as dear friends – friends with a great number of benefits.

PHOTO: U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann speaks next to Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney during a rally at Crofton Industries in Portsmouth, Virginia, May 3, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Makela

Comments
64 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Actually the US does not claim taxes from citizens living abroad unless you earn over about $95,000. Needless to say this is not a large majority. I still have to report earnings, but I pay nothing.
The US has one of the most laid-back approaches to dual-citizenship of anywhere. My son was born in Europe and was instantly given US citizenship even.
I think if more people actually had the life experience of living elsewhere and earning a second passport, the country would not be populated with such a mind bending density of ignorant retards. Even the word “allegiance” is quite creepy, and drips with overtones of fascism and war making. 2 Things the US has yet to actually experience. Have a big war roll through the country and see how strong that belief is afterwards. This is where Europe has a big step in maturity over the US.

Posted by RyanC | Report as abusive
 

Al-Jazerah — are there now more than 3 cities in the US that can view it? And incidentally, it’s 30% of Americans who HAVE passports! Talk about insular.

Posted by ricotin10 | Report as abusive
 

Clarity over my comment: “US citizens can’t open a bank account” (It’s not that this applies to all banks but many banks today refuse to open an account to US Citizens.
You’ll have to research the official name, but there is an official Organization in Washington DC which represents all foreign US citizens, it works with both the IRS, The Treasury Dept and Congress.
I just read that more and more complaints are coming in from abroad that US citizens living abroad are denied any bank account due to the NEW “Foreign Bank Reporting Requirement” Foreign Banks are finding it easier to deny bank account to US Citizens than to implement these new regulations.

Sorry I don’t have the links to these, but you should find it if you use search. NYTimes, Reuters, and Wall Street Journal should have interesting articles pertaining to this subject. Or Google US Citizens abroad representative in Washington DC.

Posted by DDavid | Report as abusive
 

Maybe the people are taking action. Lets see…. Congress approval rating is 13%, growing government intervention into the daily lives of citizens. Just maybe the U.S. isn’t quite what it used to be.

Posted by niblick3 | Report as abusive
 

Actually the US DOES claim taxes from citizens living abroad as you must file a tax return even if you make a non-taxable level and must report all assets and if not there are draconian penalties far in excess of the asset values. The $95k limit is false in light of the penalties and yes actually many expats make far in excess of this limit and the punitive US taxes make US companies favor foreigners over expats overseas. This has an enormous negative effect on US exports and company image overseas and is costing the US economy hundreds of billions in lost income and jobs in the “homeland”. The Germans are cleaning up at the expense of the US slave state.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive
 

Why is most of this article a political hatchet job on Ms. Bachmann when in fact being married to a Swiss Citizen she has a perfectly normal reason to get dual citizenship and apparently not for tax reasons! Whereas the thrust of the article should be Facebook’s co-founder Eduardo Saverin who RENOUNCED (come on Atossa you can say it in the article) his US citizenship not “possibly” for tax reasons but in fact for tax avoidance under the IRS current law since he has assets more than $500k and under current IRS tax law he should be considered a tax cheat having run off the plantation and if the IRS were even handed would be pursued to the ends of the earth.
I cannot fathom the author’s hypocrisy since she holds 3 passports but seems to think others valuing freedom is a strange thing.
I do note the the article would have gotten a lot less interest without Bachmann, whom I guess the press has a symbiotic relationship with. Talk about two weak sisters, the Press and Bachmann while Saverin skates away.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive
 

Excellent article.Americans Living and Working Abroad are estimated to be around 5 to 7 million people. Yes, they do have to do their IRS Report yearly to the USA, and they do have a Earned Income Exclusion of US$92,000.00 and US Tax Credits for the taxes they pay in their countries of residence. The USA and Eritrea are the only Countries in the world that tax its citizens regardless of where they live. All other countries follow a residency based taxation, that is, people people pay taxes where they live and work. Americans Living and Working Abroad are not the same as Americans Living in the USA who hide investments in foreign banks, yet,for some unknown reason they are being placed in the same boat. Now they have to declare all their bank accounts and investments in the country where they reside and work. The great majority still do not know about this requirement, but the penalties for not sending them (FBARS) are so draconian that even the IRS Tax Adviser has protested against this. This is highly unfair to innocent, middle class people who for one reason or another (not to cheat on taxes) are working in a “foreign” country. Needs to be corrected if we want to call the USA a fair Country.

Posted by DistressedMark | Report as abusive
 

Multiple citizenships give tremendous benefits, and I am not talking about avoiding taxes, as it gives benefits to the multiple states as well.
In the increasingly globalized world, nationalistic single-passport-only states will lose out on the benefits of keeping a connection with families who move abroad, and do business in several countries.

On the personal level, my children have the great fortune of being able to choose where to study/work in the future with no need for a visa in Japan, USA and the EU, since they hold 3 passports(I am a bit jealous of them).

As a US military vet, I have 2 passports, and still file taxes every year for the USA. There is no way that I hide money or dodge taxes in any country. How would that make me or my children any less American?

Posted by forzaazzurri | Report as abusive
 

I don’t see the issue re Saverin. He was not born an American, he took on citizenship as a teenager following moving to the USA from Brazil.

He has subsequently left the USA with no intentions to live there again. Why should he have to pay a $300M tax bill…

I think most people given that reality would do the same.
Renounce your second nationality for $300M.

Posted by Global_Citizen | Report as abusive
 

Americans are treated as property of the US Government, no matter where they live. “Republicans” are as bad as “Democrats” on this.

The USA has a larger number of its citizens in prison than any other Government. And it wants more in prison, mostly for seeking pleasure in unapproved ways that do not directly harm anyone else. It thinks of itself as “moral”.

US citizens are not very free, as anyone who has lived outside of the USA other than under US Government auspices as either a Government employee (including military) or a US Government contractor knows. People who do not know this almost always have not experienced life in another country on their own.

The US Government grants great freedom to the wealthy and to corporations. They have no problem evading “capture” if they desire. It is the bottom 90% who are treated just like runaway slaves. They are the ones who need freedom, not the rich.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive
 

Unless I’ve totally misunderstood every history book that has passed through my hands, dumping citizenship for tax reasons is exactly how America started.

Posted by ewilc773 | Report as abusive
 

As a US citizen who has been paying more taxes in Canada for 40 years I find it very upsetting that now that I am getting older and ready to downsize my home, the IRS wants to tax me on the Capital Gains. As a Canadian you can not write off mortgage interest on your home. In Canada you can not write off interest on your home but you are not taxed on the Capital Gains either. One of the few tax benefits I have as a Canadian, the IRS wants to tax. Yet my home has nothing to do with the US.

I think the US has forgotten what the Boston Tea Party was all about. The US has forgotten that the founders of the country did not think it was fair that King George was finding ways to tax them while they were no longer living in England.

Posted by gwhiteonline | Report as abusive
 

Most cases of dual citizenship result from marriages or immigration, and it is used mostly for convenience when entering a country. As we all have experienced, the lines are much, much longer for non-citizens when going through customs than for citizens. The other convenience is employment – no need for a work permit/visa when you are already a citizen of the country.

What Savarin did was not for any of the above reasons. It was purely for greed and no moral sense that he owes society for many of the benefits he now enjoys. For example, if Harvard was not treated as a non-profit with $100 millions of donations, grants and subsidies, I wonder if Savarin could have afforded the real market price for a Harvard degree. Plus the ability of Facefook to go public is highly reliant on the stability and regulation the US government ‘tries’ to maintain in its financial markets.

However, Savarin’s behavior is the epitome of how the super rich expect a safe, modern and convenient world without having to pay for its upkeep. With over 1/3 of the world’s wealth held off-shore (Singapore being the chief haven in Asia), the rest of the tax paying public must make up the difference. How many countries would be without any fiscal issues today if that off-shore wealth was taxed as the rest of us.

Posted by Acetracy | Report as abusive
 

If savarin wants to leave, dont let the door hit him in the behind. i’m sure he could live a very comfortable and safe life in singapore.

Posted by fromthecenter | Report as abusive
 

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/