“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.” That’s the end of the story, right?
Not really. U.S. law does not apply in the other 190-odd countries and territories on the planet; other legal systems have no obligation to take notice of an oath to U.S. authorities unless their own laws tell them to. And the U.S. government, in practice, does not care if resident U.S. citizens hold other citizenships. (It cares very much whether non-resident citizens hold other citizenships, and demonises it as a method of evading taxes, but that’s another story entirely.) However, some countries of origin do care: their nationality laws prohibit dual citizenship, and require emigrants to report when they have acquired another citizenship so that the loss of their original citizenship can be formalised and recorded. Up until the 1980s, the U.S. also prohibited emigrants who naturalised elsewhere from retaining U.S. citizenship.
What’s the rate of compliance with these single-citizenship laws? Not very high; perhaps half at most, judging from Japanese and South Korean data. In a minority of cases, failure to report your new citizenship to the government of your country of origin may indeed represent an attempt to game the system. However, in most cases, it’s simply due to benign neglect: you are no longer under the jurisdiction of the “old country”, and have no future intention of exercising any rights there, so you don’t bother with the rules of their system. And of course, civilised countries do not presume guilt in such cases, nor impose life-altering fines on emigrants for failure to comply with obscure paperwork.
In the below table, I compare the number of naturalisations reported by the U.S. for immigrants from two countries which prohibit dual citizenship and which maintain very good statistics on losses of citizenship: South Korea and Japan. Along with Germany (whose government does not seem to publish renunciation statistics, and which has broader exceptions to its general prohibition of dual citizenship), these are the three single-citizenship OECD countries with the largest number of citizens naturalising in the U.S.
“Naturalisations reported by U.S.” are from the Department of Homeland Security’s 2012 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. Sources for “losses of citizenship reported by former country” are given individually in each row; South Korea breaks down loss-of-citizenship statistics by other citizenship, while Japan (at least in the statistics which I could find) does not. The percentages are the second number divided by the first number; roughly speaking, this is the percentage of naturalisations of which the country of origin was notified. Note that in the South Korea Immigration Service yearbooks linked, nationality figures for 2010 and earlier are given in cumulative rather than annual form; I have converted them to annual numbers for the below table.
reported by U.S.
|Losses of citizenship
reported by former country
|South Korea||Japan||South Korea
|2005||19,223||2,154||567||KR: Tbl. 3.3
|2006||17,668||2,192||6,733||506||KR: Tbl. 3.2
|2007||17,628||1,934||8,541||608||KR: Tbl. 4.2
|2008||22,759||2,712||7,671||619||KR: Tbl. 4.2
|2009||17,576||2,192||8,397||628||KR: p. 717
|2010||11,170||1,622||8,971||583||KR: p. 607
|2011||12,664||1,744||9,561||712||KR: p. 603
|2012||13,790||1,663||9,800||711||KR: p. 617
Unlike with the notoriously-incomplete list of U.S. “expatriates” that the IRS publishes in the Federal Register, we have no a priori reason to distrust the DHS figures on naturalisation; among other factors, their statistics on green card abandonments have previously proven to be pretty sensible. Rather, discrepancies between DHS data on naturalisations and other countries’ data on losses of citizenship are probably due to those countries’ inability to enforce their laws against dual citizenship.
Between 2008 and 2010, the South Korean consulates seem to have improved their enforcement procedures somewhat. (Even then, they remains far from perfect; the dual citizenship of someone as high-profile as Chris Nam only came to light because he tried going into politics in South Korea.) You’ll notice that there was no massive spike in the South Korean reports of losses of citizenship as a result; rather, there was a sharp drop of more than 50% in the number of naturalisations reported by DHS, and only minor recovery since then. An effect of similar size can be observed in the opposite direction: in 2008 Belgium began to allow dual citizenship, and the number of U.S. naturalisations by Belgians in the following five years jumped to 2,959, against just 1,332 in the preceding five years.
From this data we can make two tentative forecasts. First, roughly half of recently-naturalised immigrants in the U.S. from rich countries allowing dual citizenship would have been unwilling to naturalise if that involved giving up their former citizenship. Second, absent strong enforcement by countries of origin, at least two-thirds of immigrants from single-citizenship countries who naturalise in the U.S. still end up holding on to their original citizenship.
Reasons for non-compliance
It’s much harder for a country to enforce a prohibition on dual citizenship for emigrants than for immigrants. Bureaucrats can require that an immigrant bring a renunciation certificate from his “old country” to the naturalisation ceremony, or that he submit one within a few months. But when it comes to emigrants, the only thing the consulate can do is to check whether they have valid residence visas in their passport for their country of residence, and these kinds of checks can often be evaded by renewing the passport during a visit to the “old country”. Bored consular officers could also perhaps dig through error-prone naturalisation lists in the public gazette or courthouse records to try to match up names, but who seriously has the motivation for that kind of effort? In the end, these systems rely on emigrants making self-reports of their new citizenship.
In some cases, lack of compliance with country-of-origin single-citizenship laws is indeed due to unwillingness to give up the old citizenship and its attendant benefits; there’s no hard data, only webforum anecdotes about how people transit through third countries during visits back to the “old country” in order to avoid the authorities back there from finding out about their new passport.
In other and perhaps most cases this is simply due to neglect: they never bother reporting their naturalisation to the consulate, but they also honestly avoid exercising any of the rights of their old citizenship, and when they go back home for a visit on their new passport, the authorities don’t match up the data and take official notice that a person they thought was their citizen is now someone else’s citizen. In short, they think of themselves as having lost their old citizenship while the government sees it very differently, but normally this discrepancy causes no problems for anyone.
Many Americans who naturalised in Canada, Australia, and other countries in the 1970s and 1980s took precisely this lackadaisical attitude towards what they thought of as their irrelevant former citizenship; they didn’t bother notifying Washington, but simply stopped voting in U.S. elections and started showing a Canadian driving licence when crossing the lightly-guarded border. This was back in the pre-Vance v. Terrazas days when the State Department interpreted applying for non-U.S. citizenship as nearly-irrefutable evidence of intent to relinquish U.S. citizenship, making the U.S. indeed a single-citizenship country with respect to its emigrants.
Those same emigrants are now scrambling to obtain documentation that they are no longer U.S. tax subjects so that they do not get thrown out of their banks and into the “Offshore Voluntary Disclosure Program” where the IRS will try to confiscate their life’s savings as a penalty for freeloading on all those “great benefits” of U.S. citizenship abroad (like those mythical black helicopters come to rescue you from war zones).
Renunciation is a rare event. Very few people give up the citizenship of any first-world country, unless that country’s laws forbid dual citizenship. (And even then, many emigrants from such countries respond to those laws by holding on to their citizenship of origin and not naturalising in their new country, rather than renouncing their citizenship of origin; I’ll post more detailed statistics on that phenomenon next time.)
It’s also difficult for countries of origin to monitor compliance with their citizenship laws among people overseas. Many emigrants, after acquiring another citizenship, honestly no longer think of themselves as citizens of their countries of origin — even if they have not complied with the formal procedures for renunciation. Of course, civilised countries do not impose life-altering penalties for inadvertent non-fulfillment of obscure procedures, absent cases of outright fraud. The U.S., once again, proves to be “exceptional”.