Many of us emigrants here at the Isaac Brock Society have a rather low opinion of U.S. immigration lawyers. Whether it’s mainland China’s one-trick-pony visa consultants who push their wealthy clients into getting utterly unnecessary EB-5 green cards, birth tourism promoters who forget to mention to their decidedly more middle-class clients how much trouble they will have enrolling their American baby in schools in their home countries, clueless Floridians who can’t possibly understand why someone who lived in Canada for four decades wouldn’t want a U.S. passport, or racist San Buenaventura nutters on Yahoo! Answers who go around claiming that oil sheikhs would pay a million dollars for a U.S. passport, this species of attorney often combines greed, jingoism, and complete ignorance of local laws in their clients’ countries of citizenship or U.S. tax laws relating to immigration and citizenship status.
So it’s fortunate to see there are at least some exceptions; let us give credit where credit is due. In an article in India Abroad magazine entitled “Pitfalls of renouncing citizenship”, immigration lawyer Tahmina Watson of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle gives a surprisingly fair and accurate overview of the heated topic of renunciation of citizenship, stemming from a situation that one of her clients faced.
It is not often I meet a person who wants to renounce United States citizenship, at least not within the United States. People generally renounce citizenship outside the US where they can attend an embassy. United States embassies have designated departments handling such matters regularly. Recently, I was sitting at my desk when a call came in. The caller had received US citizenship the day before, but immediately regretted the decision because in doing so, she had lost citizenship in her home country.
Indeed, embassies and consulates are handling such matters far more regularly than the IRS is willing to admit, both from former immigrants who regret their decision to naturalise and native-born Americans who moved abroad to pursue the dream of a better life. Anyway, with the first paragraph of her article, Ms. Watson is already on a better footing than almost every mainstream journalist and even certain tax lawyers, who believe that thoughts of renunciation are a rare phenomenon limited to rich people who wake up one morning deciding to flee the estate tax and then “renounce their citizenship and leave the country without paying their fair share” — a sequence of acts which is not even legally possible.
As a former Indian citizen, my client’s concerns were now rather serious. She cannot own certain property in India, and her dependent children cannot remain Indian citizens because now both she and her husband are US citizens. Although she could apply for an Overseas Citizenship of India Card, the rights under that status are significantly diminished.
“Significantly diminished” … though not as diminished as the rights for former citizens of the United States, even without considering the permanent exile that some corrupt demagogues in Congress keep proposing. India is one of many countries which offer a special “diaspora visa” status to former citizens, allowing them to re-enter the country and reside there for work, education, or simply to care for ageing parents. Simplified permission for former citizens to return to their original countries is a widespread phenomenon; it can be found in countries both rich and poor, countries which espouse an ethnic basis of citizenship and those which define their citizenship in civic terms, and countries which allow dual citizenship and others which forbid it. A cursory internet search reveals that Australia, Denmark, South Korea, and the Philippines all have similar programmes, for example.
The question is now, what can she do? It turns out that the matter is not at all simple. One cannot in fact renounce US citizenship from within the United States, except in certain circumstances.
As we’ve discussed previously on the Isaac Brock Society, the origin of that exception for “certain circumstances” is rather disreputable: it was designed to pressure interned Japanese Americans to renounce their U.S. citizenship during World War II so that they could be deported to Japan. However, seven decades later the courts ruled that attacking and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq indeed constitutes a “state of war” for purposes of that law even if Congress decided to pretend they weren’t exercising their exclusive constitutional privilege to declare war, and so the Department of Justice has become much less enthusiastic about this provision and convinced the “Gang of Eight” to insert provisions in the immigration reform bill to repeal the law entirely.
In addition, while the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service is responsible for the naturalisation process, it does not have jurisdiction to accept renunciations. That responsibility falls within the purview of the US Department of State.
This is something of which even certain USCIS employees seem to be unaware. During the scandal a few years ago over Jamaican politicians illegally holding dual citizenship, among the more colourful revelations was that one audacious lady had claimed to USCIS to be resident in Florida so that she could naturalise as a U.S. citizen … while she was a sitting member of parliament in Jamaica, breaking both countries’ laws at the same time! But it gets better: before the next election in Jamaica, she went to a USCIS office in Florida and handed back her passport, stating she thought this was how you renounced U.S. citizenship — and apparently no one there thought to correct her misconception. Afterwards she flew back to Jamaica on her Jamaican passport, presumably violating the U.S. law requiring all citizens to be in possession of a United States passport when they leave the United States.
There are additional problems. If they were to renounce US citizenship, she does not automatically revert back to being a legal permanent resident, a status she held with great pride for many years. She would have to reapply for legal permanent residence status which may or may not come with some challenges.
As we’ve pointed out previously, there are some examples of people who have managed to get green cards or some sort of U.S. residence visas after renouncing citizenship, though this is presumably not a very common phenomenon. But anyway, I’d better quit before I end up quoting the whole article; go read the rest yourself.
This is quite literally the first American-written article I have seen on renunciation of citizenship which makes no factual errors and does not mention Benedict Arnold, Anwar Al-Awlaqi, or “wealthy people fleeing the estate tax”. So what gives?
Tahmina Watson is an immigration attorney and founder of Watson Immigration Law in Seattle, Washington. She was a practicing barrister in London, United Kingdom before immigrating to the United States herself.
Immigrants: doing the jobs Americans refuse to do, like writing sane and level-headed articles on renunciation of citizenship.