The Corner

Escape from the U.S.A.

In this weekend’s Radio Derb I pass a comment on a New York Times story about Americans renouncing their citizenship. Me:

The numbers aren’t big, but they’re growing: the Federal Register records 502 citizens and permanent residents renouncing their status in the last quarter of 2009. That’s just one quarter, but it was two-thirds of the number for the whole year, and twice the entire number for 2008…

A reader has something to say. He:

Derb:

Regarding the item on U.S. citizens renouncing their citizenship in the latest Radio Derb, I suspect that the statistics cited in the New York Times article (which I’ve read) dramatically understate the number of U.S. citizens who give up their citizenship.

The reason lies in legal and terminological details, which the State Department, I suspect, exploits to minimise the numbers opting out.

The numbers they report are always identified as the number of citizens who “renounce” their citizenship, and I have no reason to doubt that the numbers reported are accurate and very small. But renunciation applies only to dual nationals who acquired their U.S. and other country nationality at birth (or by adoption, marriage, or similar circumstances).

Individuals who leave the United States to live abroad and subsequently obtain citizenship in another country (whether the one in which they now live or a third country) do not “renounce” U.S. citizenship, but rather “relinquish” it by visiting a U.S. embassy, filling out a questionnaire in which they acknowledge having committing an expatriating act (i.e. becoming a naturalised citizen of another country), after which the State Department will issue them a Certificate of Loss of Nationality and return their voided U.S. passport with it.

Since most people who choose to leave the U.S. did not have the luck to have been born dual nationals, they must acquire a second nationality later, and consequently follow the relinquishment path rather than renunciation. By reporting statistics on “renunciation” strictly construed, this covers up the magnitude of the total number departing.

Here is a page with some details of renunciation and relinquishment, with links to additional information.

When I did a relinquishment in 1994 there was no “interview” or “time for reflection” – it was in and out in 15 minutes and three people (including me) did relinquishments while I was there. Given that this was on single day in the U.S. Embassy in a small country (Switzerland), this hardly seems consistent with a small number of hundreds of people giving up U.S. citizenship per year …

Hey, you’re the journalist — why not contact State and ask them to provide quarterly statistics for both renunciation and relinquishment (in other words, the total number of Certificates of Loss of U.S. Nationality issued) for the last ten years? If they stonewall, that’s what the FOIA is for.

If the case, the consistent understating of the number of people getting out of the U.S. for at least 15 years is a pretty interesting story, and one I don’t recall having been covered in any media outlet (although among expatriates it’s pretty much assumed).

I’m pretty sure they’re using the “renunciation” jargon to paper over a much larger number of people getting out, but I have not personally confirmed this. My last in-depth investigation of this dates from the mid 1990s when I was personally involved in the process, so some of the details may have changed.

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