The strange vogue in dumping U.S. citizenship
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