The FBI is generally quite timely with their monthly reports on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, and this month is no exception: the latest report shows 23,186 people in the “renounced citizenship” category, up by 278 from last month and 2,540 since the beginning of the year; this is roughly 91% higher than the 1,333 recorded in the same period last year. However, the real amusing news comes from the federal denials report: the number of people ever found ineligible to purchase firearms after hits in NICS identified them as renunciants decreased from the 58 reported earlier this year down to 57. My guess is that someone was misidentified and had their denial overturned on appeal.
This serves as a reminder that even the best-maintained systems are only as good as the data that goes into them. The FBI takes its mission of gun control seriously, and due to the oddities of 1960s politics that mission includes maintaining a database of renunciants. The IRS, in contrast, does far sloppier work with their own list of ex-citizens in the Federal Register. But of course, both agencies ultimately rely on CLNs forwarded by the State Department, which has never been very happy with any outsiders getting a view into statistics on loss of U.S. citizenship (as we saw from their denial of Global News‘ FOIA request). The poor coordination between the FBI and State shows up in the statistics: in some months the FBI seems to have received only a trickle of CLNs, or none at all, whereas in others the State Department sends over a huge backlog relating to some unknown period.
Recently, Shadow Raider came across a 1990 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics which sheds some light on the early history of NICS and the role the State Department played in identifying renunciants; the relevant section starts at page 71. This goes some of the way towards answering the question of why twelve thousand renunciants were added to NICS in 2000, though it doesn’t explain other large additions like the three thousand last October.
In NICS’ first year up to 1999, a total of 626 records of renunciants were added to the system. Presumably these were all people who renounced in that year or recent years. For what it’s worth, the Federal Register showed 398 Published Expatriates in 1998 and 434 in 1999. In 2000, however, the FBI added 11,977 renunciants to NICS, ending up with 12,603. This was, of course, a backlog, though it’s not clear for how many years.
Renunciants were first prohibited from purchasing firearms in the Gun Control of 1968; Huey Long’s kid Russell B. Long (D-LA) moved an amendment to add them as an extra category (alongside dishonourably discharged veterans and convicted criminals) in response to ultimately erroneous reports that Lee Harvey Oswald had renounced his citizenship. In reality, Richard Snyder seems to have talked him out of it: he told him to go home and think it over and come back another day, as State does for all would-be renunciants, and Oswald ultimately never came back.
However, in its 1990s efforts at establishing a gun control database the Department of Justice seems to have been looking back not just to 1968 but all the way back to 1941 when the Nationality Act of 1940’s provisions on renunciation of citizenship came into effect. At page 74:
Assuming 200 persons per year have renounced their citizenship since 1941, the year the law establishing the Oath of Renunciation was enacted, the target population of the renunciate disability category is estimated at 9,800, which is the smallest target population of the five disability categories· discussed in this report … Since all renunciates have had their applications processed and approved by the State Department, the known population of renunciates should be equal to the renunciate target population. This would not be the case if persons “informally” renouncing their citizenship were also ineligible to purchase firearms.
According to Consular Services and Passport Services personnel, the passport lookout file contains a “near 100 percent” listing of persons who have renounced their citizenship since 1941, indicating that the renunciate automated and remotely-accessible populations are equal to the renunciate target population.
Renunciation figures from the 1940s to the 1990s
The estimate of 200 renunciants per year was too low, as State does not seem to have made clear to DOJ, and so the effort involved in setting up the database would be greater than DOJ expected. State revealed to the Los Angeles Times for Joan Zyda’s wonderful 1974 article on ex-Americans that there were nearly ten thousand renunciations from 1951 to 1973 (an average of more than 400 per year), that the rate had risen to 500 in the past half-decade and that 1974 itself was expected to be a record year.
(There were even more renunciants in the 1940s, including nearly 5,600 interned Japanese Americans under the Renunciation Act of 1944; however, most of them eventually had their renunciations reversed thanks to the single-minded efforts of Wayne M. Collins & Tex Nakamura, and BATF ultimately decided that they would not be included in NICS, stating in response to comments on the proposed regulations that “a reversal of a renunciation would remove the person’s Federal firearms disabilities. This is consistent with the removal of disabilities resulting from a felony conviction that has been reversed on appeal. Therefore, the definition will include an exception for reversed renunciations.”)
By the 1980s, the rate of renunciations had fallen sharply. This perhaps reflects what we’ve observed we’ve observed before: the late 1980s and early 1990s were the best times there ever were to be an American abroad, probably because the State was too focused on other matters to give voice to the nation’s traditional anti-diaspora sentiment. Over on Wikipedia I keep a list of all the famous renunciants & relinquishers of whom there have been public reports; the 1980s is by far the sparsest period, with just two I’ve been able to find: Sam Pitroda, who took up a position in the Indian government, and Joel Slater, who was so angry about Ronald Reagan’s decision to bomb Libya that he went to Australia and made himself stateless but then got deported back to the U.S. and ultimately ended up asking Bill Clinton’s State Department to give him his citizenship back.
However, according to a 1991 article about Slater, the rate had risen back to about 300 per year by the end of the 1980s. And a 2000 GAO report which Shadow Raider dug up says that there were another 4,633 renunciants from 1991 to 1997. Clearly, 11,977 is too small to be the number of renunciants from 1968–1998, let alone from 1941–1998. Apparently, despite the FBI’s best efforts, they were ultimately unable to get a complete historical list of renunciants from State. This means there could be thousands of America-hating money-laundering tax evader terrorist renunciants running around freely buying up guns!
The Department of Justice was slightly more level-headed than Congress or the public, and noticed the relative pointlessness of adding renunciants to any gun control background check database, stating:
In fact, the target population is probably much smaller, since it can be assumed that a significant fraction of renunciates are not living in the U.S. Renunciates can, of course, apply for visas to enter the U.S., but they are not entitled to special treatment in the processing of their visa applications. … Finally, as noted earlier, the renunciate disability category is the least populous category, with a target population of about 9,800 persons. Of those, a substantial fraction, if not virtually all, are presumably living in foreign countries, unless they are visiting the U.S., or have been granted permanent residence in the U.S., or have been renaturalized as U.S. citizens.
Ratio of renunciants and relinquishers
U.S. citizens abroad can renounce citizenship under 8 USC § 1481(a)(5), or they can relinquish citizenship under any of the four preceding paragraphs. We’ve previously estimated that about 55 to 60% of people giving up U.S. citizenship do so by renunciation, based on my (potentially flawed) analysis of State Department data from 1994 as well as pacifica777’s collected reports from readers. This is the basis for my estimate that about eight thousand people gave up citizenship last year in one way or another (and are thus supposed to be in the Federal Register), given FBI reports that 4,650 people renounced citizenship.
However, early 1980s statistics pointed to a far different ratio of renunciants to relinquishers:
During Fiscal Years 1986 and 1987, the years for which the most recent data is available, 219 and 194 persons renounced their citizenship, respectively. Exhibit 7.1 shows the number of persons renouncing their citizenship by year since 1980. The exhibit also shows the number of persons who have lost their citizenship for any reason, including by formal renunciation; as stated earlier, renunciates typically account for about 20 percent of all persons losing their citizenship.
It’s not clear whether this ratio still holds true today (though if it did, it would mean for example that as many as twenty thousand people might have given up U.S. citizenship last year). The ratio in the 1970s was even more skewed: the State Department told the Los Angeles Times‘ Joan Zyda that against about 10,000 ex-Americans who had renounced their citizenship from 1951 to 1973, another 71,900 had been found to have lost citizenship under 8 USC § 1481(a)(1) (naturalisation in a foreign country). Many of those were likely indifferent or even happy about losing U.S. citizenship, but of course it took only one unhappy person going to the Supreme Court to get the law changed.
The 1980 Supreme Court case Vance v. Terrazas and Congress’ subsequent 1986 amendments to the Immigration & Nationality Act put an end to many of the so-called “involuntary relinquishments”. However, the State Department did not adopt its current administrative presumption that all potentially-relinquishing acts are performed with the intention of keeping U.S. citizenship until the 1990s. Throughout the 1980s, courts still upheld State’s power to make a finding of loss of citizenship against the will of the individual. As the Ninth Circuit put it in Richards v. Secretary of State, 752 F.2d 1413 (1985):
32. As we read Afroyim and Terrazas, a United States citizen effectively renounces his citizenship by performing an act that Congress has designated an expatriating act only if he means the act to constitute a renunciation of his United States citizenship. In the absence of such an intent, he does not lose his citizenship simply by performing an expatriating act, even if he knows that Congress has designated the act an expatriating act. By the same token, we do not think that knowledge of expatriation law on the part of the alleged expatriate is necessary for loss of citizenship to result. Thus, a person who performs an expatriating act with an intent to renounce his United States citizenship loses his United States citizenship whether or not he knew that the act was an expatriating act and, indeed, whether or not he knew that expatriation was possible under United States law …
36. We agree with the district court that the voluntary taking of a formal oath that includes an explicit renunciation of United States citizenship is ordinarily sufficient to establish a specific intent to renounce United States citizenship. We also believe that there are no factors here that would justify a different result. Richards does not contend that he did not mean what he said. Rather, he argues that he lacked the necessary intent because he never had a desire to surrender his United States citizenship …
We’ve previously discussed a similar ruling made in a 1987 State Department Board of Appellate Review decision, which found that a U.S.-born man had given up his U.S. citizenship by renewing his Belgian passport in 1984 and using it to enter United States territory. Of course, the situation a quarter of a century later is totally the opposite: now people are trying to prove they relinquished decades ago, and the State Department is the one telling them that they are still U.S. citizens against their will & intent. So with that, I’d expect there to be a smaller number of successful relinquishers than in the past — though of course this is all sheer speculation, and the State Department has shown itself to be quite unwilling to help us out with any concrete data.