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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Adventures at the U.S. Border

Once upon a time, for those of us with a U.S. connection, crossing the border into the U.S. was pretty straightforward.  I can even report that I have in the past been met with a hearty "Welcome home" in some U.S. airports (though never in Seattle where the weather seems to have made those immigration officials rather grumpy).   The only situation that's been a problem for us is whether or not we go through immigration as a family (one U.S. citizen, two dual nationals and one French citizen) or does my spouse get separated out and forced to go through the non-U.S. citizen line.  Depending on the airport, we've been yelled at for doing both and the policy concerning multi-national families does not seem to be consistent across the U.S.

With increased border control after 911, and now the zeal for catching tax evaders, there are other issues coming to light.  Those "Accidental Americans," for example, who the American government suspects are trying to slip across the border with a non-U.S. passport.  The rule is as follows:  if the U.S. claims you as a citizen, you must identify yourself as one at the border and use a U.S. passport to enter the country - something that greatly inconvenienced the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.  This is true even if you don't consider yourself to be a U.S. citizen just because of an accident of birth (born in the U.S. or born abroad to one U.S. citizen parent.)

Now it looks like there is another hazard to having a U.S. connection.  The Tribune de Geneve is reporting that two adolescents from Switzerland, traveling without their parents to the U.S. to visit their grandparents, were detained and interrogated at the border for 6 hours about the activities of their father, an employee at a Swiss bank.  According to the article, the children were asked to answer questions like:

"Où est votre papa?" (Where is your father?)

"Que fait votre papa?" (What does your father do?)

"Votre papa vient-il parfois travailler aux Etats-Unis? (Does your father often come to work in the U.S.?)

The article also reports that during questioning the children were not allowed to contact their parents, their grandparents in the U.S. or the Swiss authorities.

Welcome to America, kids.

The Swiss are furious and rightfully so.  Whatever your opinion about the efforts to combat tax evasion, and whatever the alleged sins of the fathers (or mothers) in this affair, I think we can all agree that innocent children should be kept out of it.

Stories like these should make Americans in the homeland sit up and take notice.  Is this the face that America wants to show to the rest of the world?   Is the U.S. so desperate for information (and tax revenue) that it must resort to grabbing people's kids at the border for interrogation?  For those of you in the homeland reading this - do you really think this is acceptable "collateral damage" in the war against tax evasion?  

Because the question for those of us outside the U.S. is simply this:  Given that suspicion in the U.S. is rampant and the field of potential suspects is growing ever larger (U.S. citizens and Green Card holders abroad, foreign bank employees, former U.S. citizens, or simply anyone with a U.S. connection), are we now going to be obliged to take precautions to protect our children?

If so, then the easiest way to do that is simply to avoid the U.S. altogether.  Put those passports in a drawer, cancel that vacation, and tell the family living or working in the U.S. that if they want to see the kids, they are going to have to do so outside of U.S. territory.

The United States of America:  Not suitable for children under 18.


CarnetsdeSeattle said...

going through the US customs has always been a terrible experience for me.

I have never had a problem but in the 10+ times I crossed the border in the last 15 years, it always felt awful.

The dumb questionning (Are you a serial rapist), the ambiance, everything makes one feel nervous. It feels like entering sdome kind of dystopian dictatorship, not at all like entering the land of the free.

From what I've heard from other expat of all nationnalities, I am not the only one having this feeling of entering a police state.

Then I step out the airport, and it's good.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Hi Loic, Thanks for giving your impressions. I've heard similar statements from friends here though the younger Frenchling did have a very good impression when we went through customs last year.

I remember one time I saw something that just horrified me. A Frenchwomen had left the customs area and was trying to get back in to find her family. For security reasons that's not allowed and there is a sign that says Do Not Enter. An official dragged her back out with one hand on her neck and the other on her arm. He was very rough about it and she was sobbing. It was very ugly to watch and I was not very proud of my country that day.

Christophe said...

Having your picture and fingerprints taken each time you enter is kind of odd.
And now, I am terrified that I might be arrested on the spot because I didn't file FBARs for past years. Maybe that's being paranoid...

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Christophe, I think a lot of people are worried about that right now. And they feel stuck because they aren't sure how to fix it. Should they simply file the back tax returns or FBAR's or should they just start filing this year? Steve Mopsick calls this the "Compliance Dilemma"

I know a lot of people in this situation and some are taking the chance of crossing the border into the US and others aren't. Given that none of these people make enough money to owe taxes to the US and they have only local (foreign to the US) bank accounts to report, it all seems so unnecessary.