Parts of this post are from a piece called Involuntary Citizenship – Here’s How Strange It Can Get that I wrote back in October for the Flophouse blog.
In a sense all of us have been or are “Involuntary Citizens” of our states of origin. Whether you received your citizenship through jus sanguinis (blood) or jus soli (place of birth) these are not things that most of us have any control over. You don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose where you are born. In the modern era states usually use a combination of these two citizenship transmission methods to determine who is and who is not a citizen. In a world where most people stayed in one place all their lives, that worked reasonably well. In a globalized era, however, they are not exactly well-adapted to the realities of international migration. As a result we are being forced to think what citizenship means and the basis upon which people participate in a political community. I think we can all agree, in theory anyway, that citizenship in a modern democratic nation-state must be based on the consent of both sides – the state AND the citizen.
The United States is unique in that it has very generous jus soli laws which come under attack on a regular basis in the U.S. The people who would like to put an end to it use cases of “birth tourism” (women who travel to the U.S. with the express purpose of giving birth there so their children will benefit from automatic citizenship) to rally Americans around their cause.
These stories make great headlines but frankly they are a very silly reaction to a very serious subject. They ignore both the complex contexts that arise when nation-state laws conflict and a much better argument against jus soli which addresses a very fundamental question of whether or not a state can confer citizenship on an individual involuntarily. This is a legitimate question because it has real world consequences for ordinary people.
For every case of “birth tourism” there are many more cases where the birth of a child outside of the home territory was pure chance – a conjunction of events like temporary expatriation for business, studies abroad or tourism. And, unless the parents themselves are stateless, this child already has a nation, a nationality, a citizenship conferred by jus sanguinis (blood). By what right does the United States of America confer citizenship on a child of another nation-state without the consent of the parents, the child himself or the other state?
And the answer is quite simply that all nation-states have the right to make their own citizenship laws and confer citizenship as they wish where they wish. Any one of you reading this blog with the most tenuous link to another country could wake up tomorrow and discover that you are now considered a citizen of state X in addition to whatever citizenship you already have and regardless of where you are living.
It’s just that odd. And it might remain an oddity that merely causes occasional inconvenience if it were not for the concrete duties and responsibilities that are attached to U.S. citizenship. As you have probably ascertained from reading Isaac Brock and other sites, the United States of America is one of of the only countries in the world that taxes its citizens on their worldwide income. Any U.S. citizen (or U.S. Person) living and earning income in any country of the world is required to file a yearly tax return and report bank account and asset information to the American Internal Revenue Service. Even someone who is the citizen of another nation-state and has never lived or worked on U.S. soil.
When I point this out to my compatriots I often get the answer, “Well, if that person doesn’t like it, he should just renounce his or her American citizenship.” OK, fair enough (though I’m sure Americans abroad would not necessarily agree.) But if we do decide together that someone who does not agree to the terms of US citizenship (duties and responsibilities) ought to renounce, then shouldn’t we make it very easy for that person to do so?
Well, it isn’t easy and I personally find that to be a scandal. There is a fee (450 USD), the potential renunciant must go through several interviews and produce years of tax returns. This cumbersome and bureaucratic procedure is painful and expensive for the renouncing citizen, costs money to the U.S. taxpayer, and doesn’t sound like it’s much fun for the Embassy personnel either.
Whether the individual concerned just found out he or she was an “accidental American,” or he or she has been living abroad for years and wants to sever his or her ties with the U.S., the principle and the procedure should be the same: citizenship is based on mutual consent and the procedure to renounce that citizenship should be clear, cheap and fast.
It certainly should not have any connection whatsoever to compliance with U.S. tax law. That’s an entirely different issue. If someone breaks the law in the U.S. and then runs back to his home country, there are procedures for bringing that person to justice whether or not that person is or isn’t a U.S. citizen.
Jus soli is here to stay (I don’t think anyone in the U.S. seriously contemplates revoking the 14th amendment) as is jus sanguinis. But a democratic nation-state in a globalized world is going to have to recognize that these laws need to be adapted to meet modern realities. A state can confer citizenship on anyone it likes but, at the very minimum it must recognize the right to “opt out” and not place unreasonable barriers before someone who wishes to do so. There is no room in a democracy for “citizenship without consent.”