Cross-posted from the Flophouse. Just can’t get over some of the strange results of U.S. citizenship law. The more I think about it neither jus soli or jus sanguinis are good fits in a globalized world. So I had some fun writing this post and pointing out two rather famous Accidental Americans: Boris Johnson and Anne Sinclair. If you have a chance go read Boris Johnson’s 2006 post – as one of the Flophouse readers said, “I didn’t know Mr Johnson’s prose could be so entertaining to read.”
The United States of America allows for two methods for acquiring U.S. citizenship at birth: jus sanguinis (through an American citizen parent) and jus soli (through being born on U.S. soil). For the latter the U.S. has one of the most open-ended and generous terms around – the mere fact of being born on U.S. soil makes someone a U.S. citizen under almost all circumstances. (The only exceptions appear to be children of diplomats.)
Now it’s very rare to see Americans grumbling about the transmission of citizenship via jus sanguinis (blood). And that’s a bit odd when you think about it because it’s a status that is conferred , not because of anything the child did, but because he had a least one parent with that status. Sounds strangely medieval, doesn’t it? A little like saying that just because your father (or mother) was a peasant (or a lord), you get to be one too. How to square that with modern notions of democracy and voluntary participation in a political community? I don’t think you can – this is citizenship as a kind of aristocracy since it has nothing to do with merit and everything to do with inherited status. Not to mention that this form of citizenship transmission leads to some very strange situations. For example, the child of an American citizen born abroad is usually granted U.S. citizenship no questions asked even if that child never sets one foot in the U.S. for his entire life while resident aliens actually living in the U.S. who (one assumes) are delighted to be there have to jump through all sorts of hoops to be naturalized and may still suffer discrimination in the U.S. on the basis of their origins.
The other method of citizenship transmission, jus soli (place of birth), is much more controversial in the U.S. The media is filled with politicians railing against those “anchor babies” whose mothers allegedly slip over the border to give birth just so their children can be U.S. citizens. There is a great deal of righteous indignation about this and a modest amount of energy expended to stop it. However, the problem (and I question whether it really is one) of the “illegals” sneaking over the border to give birth is nothing compared to the millions of tourists, legal immigrants and visa holders who come to the U.S. every year to live and work and who sometimes do a very human thing while they are in the country: have children. Many of them merrily go on their way after a few years (back to the home country or to a third country) either not knowing that their children are American citizens or thinking that this citizenship is a status that goes away if it’s not activated. Not true. U.S. citizenship laws are strictly “opt-out” – one is an American citizen until one goes down in person to the local U.S. Embassy and renounces. This involves filling out forms and paying a 450 USD fee. It may even involve filing 5 years worth of back tax returns and FBAR’s. This is true even if the person in question was born in the U.S., left with his parents as an infant, and has spent the past 30 years thinking he (or she) is exclusively French, German, Chinese, or Indonesian. Contrary to what the citizens of the “greatest nation on earth” might think, not everyone is happy to wake up one day and discover that he or she is a citizen of said nation. Some are even downright angry about it especially when the U.S. attempts to assert its sovereignty over their persons.
Welcome to the world of the “Accidental Americans.” These are people who, through no fault or action of their own (they didn’t choose their parents or where they were born) are considered to be U.S. citizens by the U.S. government and are flabbergasted when agents of said government reach out and hold them to the obligations associated with that citizenship. “But, but, but,” you may sputtering at this point, “They can’t do that! I’m French (or British or Chinese or German).” Oh yes they can, mes amis, and they do. The consequences of this “involuntary citizenship” can range from being refused entry into the U.S. (even just to make a connection to a third country) without a U.S. passport to being chased down by the American “fisc” for tax returns and reports on their local bank accounts. The first can be dealt with rather easily – just don’t travel anywhere near the U.S. The second is a little harder to avoid these days since five governments in Europe (others to follow) have agreed to turn over information about these people to the U.S. government. Yes, this means that European governments will be denouncing their own citizens (duals, mind you, who may not even be aware they are Americans). This is going to be interesting to watch.
A surprising number of people are at risk here including some very high profile Europeans. This brings us to the case of one Boris Johnson, Lord Mayor of London. Up until fairly recently Mr. Johnson was an American citizen because he was born in New York, USA, something he was vaguely aware of but didn’t really pay much attention to until this event in 2006:
“Last Sunday lunchtime we were boarding a flight to Mexico, via Houston, Texas, and we presented six valid British passports. As soon as the Continental Airlines security guy saw my passport, he shook his head. ‘Were you born in New York?’ he asked. ‘Have you ever carried an American passport?’
Yes, I said, but it had long since expired. ‘I am afraid we have a problem,’ he said. ‘The US Immigration say you have to travel on an American passport if you want to enter the United States.’ B-but I’m British, I said, and my children chorused their agreement. Had the guy stuck around a moment longer, I would have told him how jolly British I was — but luckily for him he’d gone off in search of reinforcements.
When the ranking officer arrived, the story was the same. ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have to go to the US Embassy tomorrow morning and get a new American passport.’ But I don’t want an American passport, I said, inspiration striking me. I tell you what: I renounce my American citizenship. I disclaim it. I discard it.
‘That’s not good enough, sir,’ he said. ‘I need some official document saying that you are no longer American…’
You can read the entire story here but the end result of this was, faced with this assertion of U.S. sovereignty over his person, Mr. Johnson decided that it simply wasn’t worth it and he renounced. In his words, “That’s it. Entre nous c’est terminé. After 42 happy years I am getting a divorce from America.”
Is Boris Johnson’s case really that unusual? Not at all. Look, in addition to the millions of tourists and legal residents in the U.S. some of whom will have children there during their stay, there are 6-7 million Americans abroad and many of them have children too (most of their children are also citizens of their country of residence) who are considered to be U.S. citizens by the U.S. and are supposed to be holding U.S. passports and paying U.S. taxes. Failure to do this means that these people are technically lawbreakers and tax evaders in the eyes of the U.S. government. It really is that simple.
Another example close to my heart. Would any French person in the audience like to tell me where Anne Sinclair (famous French celebrity and Dominique Straus-Kahn’s wife) was born? If you answered, “New York, USA,” you win the prize. And that makes Anne Sinclair and her children as American as apple pie and baseball. If events had gone differently and DSK had won the 2012 French presidential election, France would have had its very own Franco-American First Lady.
Alas, it was not to be.