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Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Exile the American Way

Definition of exile:
Noun-The state of being barred from one’s native country, typically for political or punitive reasons.  A person who lives away from their native country, either from choice or compulsion
Verb- Expel and bar (someone) from their native country, typically for political or punitive reasons
Origin - Middle English: the noun partly from Old French exil 'banishment' and partly from Old French exile 'banished person'; the verb from Old French exiler; all based on Latin exilium 'banishment', from exul 'banished person'

Oxford On-line English Dictionary
In the debate over citizenship-based taxation there are two benefits or services that are often cited by homeland Americans as justification for imposing taxes on the American diaspora:  Protection and the right to return.  They argue that a U.S. citizen wherever he or she lives benefits from the protection of the American government and has the right to return to the U.S. to live and work anytime he or she wishes.  Surely, they say, a contribution to the national treasury is due from those who stand to benefit from these things even if they aren't using them right this very minute.

That's a very powerful argument but it's worth a closer look to see if it corresponds to reality. Is it really true that Americans circulating outside the U.S. are under the full protection of the U.S. government?  Do Americans who go abroad always have the right to return to the U.S. provided they have not renounced or relinquished their citizenship?

Most Americans would say "yes" and that these are two of the most important benefits of American citizenship:  the protection of a powerful state with a Leviathan military force (over 1 million people serving) and a presence (bases and embassies) all over the world; and the right to come home, something enshrined in international law that says a person always has the right to return to a state of which he or she is a citizen.

However between the theory (and how Americans in the homeland think it works) and the reality on the ground that Americans abroad live every day, the picture is much more complex.

Protection is a very vague term.  What does it really mean?  It can mean "consular protection."  There is an international convention that the U.S. and most other countries have signed called the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.   Like citizens of other countries living in the U.S., Americans have the right to contact the local U.S. Embassy if they get into trouble outside the U.S.  If the American is in jail, embassy personnel can come visit and make sure that person is being treated properly.

That's about it.  An American passport does not give an American a "Get out of jail free card."  If an American is accused of a crime in another country (even unjustly) there isn't a lot the U.S. can do about it and for the most part they don't.  The case has to go through local law enforcement and local courts.  The U.S. Embassy can help with English-speaking lawyers and moral support but in most cases their power is pretty limited.  That is not anyone's fault, it's just the way it works.  Yes, in some extreme circumstances like the hikers who were jailed in Iran, the U.S. can pressure the country through diplomatic channels.  Please note that it still took quite a while for those hikers to be released - they languished in jail for many months before they were finally freed.

The situation is even more bleak for a dual citizen.  If that American citizen is in another state of nationality then the U.S. doesn't really have the right to intervene - the situation is strictly between that citizen and that state.   But remember that citizenship status is not up to the individual, it is something decided by each state.  It is entirely conceivable that a U.S. citizen traveling to another country may be pronounced a citizen of that country against his will and treated as such.  That person can protest all he likes but again there is not much the U.S. can do about it.

Another form of protection is evacuation services in the event there is a natural disaster or a political problem in a country outside the U.S.  This is something the U.S. will indeed do but many Americans are very surprised to learn that it's not free.  It's a service the evacuees must pay for - it's not included in the U.S. citizenship "package."  Here is how the U.S. State Department views this service:
Departure assistance is expensive. U.S. law 22 U.S.C. 2671(b) (2) (A) requires that any departure assistance be provided “on a reimbursable basis to the maximum extent practicable.” This means that evacuation costs are ultimately your responsibility; you will be asked to sign a form promising to repay the U.S. government. We charge you the equivalent of a full coach fare on commercial air at the time that commercial options cease to be a viable option. You will be taken to a nearby safe location, where the traveler will need to make his or her own onward travel arrangements. If you are destitute, and private resources are not available to cover the cost of onward travel, you may be eligible for emergency financial assistance. 
What about other services that might fall under "protection" or perhaps we could call it "general assistance"?  I spoke to a friend of mine from Morocco and he said that his embassy has a wide variety of services for Moroccans in France which included help living in France (navigating the French social security and legal systems, for example).  I could not verify this information but I was struck by what I did find on their embassy website:
Dans le cadre de la Politique de Proximité voulue par Sa Majesté le Roi, et de l'attention particulière portée par le Maroc à ses ressortissants établis à l'étranger, les Consulats marocains veillent à répondre aux besoins et aspirations des 3 millions de MRE de par le monde.
(In the framework of the Proximity Policy desired by His Majesty the King, and of the particular attention Morocco has for its citizens abroad, the Moroccan Consulates are there to respond to the needs and the aspirations of the 3 million MRE in the world.)
I don't know how that works in practice (though my friend seemed very pleased by what he has experienced as a Moroccan citizen here) but this goes above and beyond consular protection or other basic services.  It is a statement that Morocco is keenly interested in the well-being of its citizen living in other countries and will invest time and energy into making sure their current needs, wishes and aspirations are being met in the host country.  

No such commitment is forthcoming (to my knowledge and please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) from the American government or the American embassies to Americans living outside the U.S.  There are what are called "Citizen Services" and they are pretty basic: passports, emergency services, travel information, reporting the birth of an American citizen abroad, some limited help with taxes and so on.  Most of these are not free - there are fees for these services and they are not cheap.  The Paris Embassy website also has PDF's that can be downloaded answering some basic question about life in France.  

To be fair, is that really the whole story?  Is that really all they will do for you if you need something non-standard?  Not necessarily.  I had an email exchange with a former State Department employee about this and he told me that assistance and protection to Americans abroad really depends on the country that U.S. citizen lives in and who he or she talks to when consulting the local embassy.  The defined services may be basic but embassy personnel can and do go beyond their strict duty to help Americans abroad.  I can also attest to the fact that embassy personnel in Paris and Tokyo are really nice people and I've never had a bad experience in either place.  But it all depends on who you talk to and where you are, said my informant.  There is no explicit commitment anywhere that says that U.S. government is concerned about its citizens abroad and is watching over us and our interests and aspirations in our host countries.

On the contrary many American abroad right now have the sense that the U.S. government is actively working against the interests of her citizens abroad.  There are the unintended consequences of FATCA which is turning us into banking pariahs all over the world.  There is the enforcement of citizenship-based taxation, the application of old reporting rules and the IRS amnesty programs where even those who have lived and worked outside the U.S. for years and were unknowingly non-compliant and who want to make it right are treated in the same manner as those who willfully slipped their money out of the U.S. and parked it in Switzerland to evade taxation.  

And for the cerise sur le gâteau (cherry on the cake) there is the Obama administration's relentless insistence on its right to execute Americans abroad without due process if they decide that an American is a threat to the US.   To be really clear about this, it means that the American president gets to decide whether I or any other American abroad can be killed at will.  The counter-argument, of course, is that this only applies to terrorists who are an imminent threat to the U.S.  I'm 99% sure that this is true but there is 1% of me that says, "Well, how does the decision-making process work here?" and "What if they make a mistake?"  Fundamentally the life of an American abroad hinges on the American government getting it right.  Mistakes will be made.  These people aren't God - they are fallible human beings who are going to screw up. And that's really frightening.

All this is leading to something that feels a lot like exile to many of us - a sense that we are being hunted down, forced to make terrible choices (between family and citizenship, for example) and that our own country sees us as nothing more than a source of tax revenue (best case) or suspected criminals and terrorists to be fined, jailed or annihilated (worst case).

That is what American "protection" looks like to those of us who live outside the United States.  It is vitally important for homeland Americans to understand this perspective because when they say that we should pay for the protection of the United States of America, they are asking us to pay for something we can't see and don't feel.

As for the right of return, that has become more qualified in a post-911 era.  In Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) it says,  "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. "  When is that not true for American citizens?  When that American citizen is put on one of those infamous No-Fly lists.  Al-Jazeera has an article about this with a rather provocative title:   Exile the Obama Way.  (Hat tip to Jordan who passed along the link.)  The article has this shocker:  "over the past decade there have been countless documented cases of individuals who have suddenly found themselves permanently stranded abroad after being banned from the United States despite holding legal residency and/or citizenship in the country."

They go on to say that last year alone the number of people on the No-Fly list has doubled to around 10,000 of whom 500 have been clearly identified as U.S. citizens.  The main target is mostly people from Moslem countries or those whose parent or grand-parents came from these countries.  That alone is really disturbing.  It is not however confined to that population and anyone could conceivably end up on one of these lists.  Al Jazeera cites the case of Steve Washburn, U.S. military veteran born and raised in New Mexico who was stranded in Dublin.   Some others who were banned from returning  home to the U.S. and are being represented by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union):   Ayman Latif, a U.S. citizen, former Marine and disabled veteran who was stuck in Egypt;  and Raymond Earl Knaeble, a U.S. citizen  and veteran of the U.S. Army who was stuck in Colombia.  What an outstanding way to say, "Thank you for your service" to the nation.  

The ACLU lawsuit is still winding its way through the U.S. courts (update here).  In some cases the U.S. government said "Oops!" and let them come home.  In others, people are still stranded.  

How did these people get put on these lists?  No one really knows because how it works is a secret. "The names of those on these lists are not disclosed and neither is the reasoning or evidence as to why any particular individual may be flagged." A U.S. citizen abroad will only find out that he or she is on such a list when he shows up at the airport and is told that he can't fly and has been barred from entry into the U.S.  Bad enough if these happens to a citizen on U.S. soil, just imagine trying to fight this  from abroad.   

In addition to the No-Fly lists there have been other avenues the U.S. government has explored to negate that right to return -  tying the issuance of a U.S. passport (required for re-entry into the U.S.) to payment of taxes, for example.  This site says that an American citizen can also be denied a passport anytime anywhere for the following reasons: "owing more than $2,500 in back child support, for being under investigation, for having been found to be a drug trafficker, or considered a threat to national security."  

So the U.S. government can and does make decisions about whether or not a citizen abroad has the right to return to the U.S.   Granted they don't deny it often or to large numbers of people but the possibility is there.  It happens.  That means that for all those citizens abroad who are holding on to their U.S. passports just in case they would like to go home one day, the reality is that maybe they can and maybe they can't.  And I just have to ask:  If a citizen is effectively exiled (prevented from returning to the U.S.)  does he still have to file a 1040 and report his foreign bank accounts?

So the argument that Americans abroad should pay taxes in order to maintain their right to return to the U.S. gets weak when faced with these facts.  An American citizen abroad could faithfully file and pay her taxes for years and still not get to come home.  It's no guarantee.  It is worth repeating:  the U.S. citizenship "package" does not include an unconditional right to return to the U.S. to live and work.   It is contingent on "good behaviour" (whatever the hell that means and there is a very broad spectrum of activities that will get you in trouble) and, sadly enough, pure dumb blind luck.

That's my answer to those who use the "benefits" argument and say that American citizens should pay taxes above and beyond what they already pay in their countries of residence outside the U.S.  

It is why we who are considering renouncing smile sadly at the homelanders when we hear the words "protection" and "right of return."


French boy now NYer said...

deception via omission is still deception. m washburn in the al-jazeera article was plainly stated to be a convert to islam, portraying him as not like the rest is being deceptive. remember adam gadahn was also born in the united states, and was an upstanding american citizen that was until he decided to join al-qaeda.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

French Boy: That's true. He did convert. But he is not from a Moslem country and is not descended from parents or grand-parents who came from any of those countries. These are the people who seem to be the primary targets of the No Fly lists. That alone really disturbs me. It looks a lot like discrimination on the basis of ethnicity or national origin. But for anyone who thinks, well, I don't fall into that category and so I'm not going to get into any trouble, think again. Washburn and some others cited by the ACLU were born in the US and look to be of European stock - that's the group I was referring to. So I'd say nobody's safe here including the smug majority of Americans of European origin. You probably have a better chance of ending up on these lists of you are someone from North Africa or the Middle East (and isn't that sad?) but if you are counting on your ethnic origins to save you, then you may be in for a very rude shock.

Here's another article about it.

French Girl in Seattle said...

As a French native carrying a French and an American passport, I find this information so very interesting, Victoria. I am planning to move back to my homeland eventually, and I will obviously have some serious thinking to do then... Thank you for doing all the research and ground work on this topic! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

Shadow Raider said...

An American couple living in Haiti posted on their website what the US government charged for evacuation assistance after an earthquake in 2010. The assistance consisted of a 45-minute flight to the Dominican Republic and cost about $840 for each person. The couple shows that an equivalent commercial flight costs about $60.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Veronique, Good to see you here and thanks for the comment. I'm really pleased that the info is useful.

@Shadow Raider, That is just amazing. Did you read the comment where one person said that he didn't think that evacuating Americans willy-nilly all around the globe was the job of the US government?

Fair enough. But since other countries do offer it as a service to their citizens, it just means that the US citizenship "package" looks even less like a good deal.

I also noted that the couple really appreciated the help they got from the embassy personnel. That's been my experience too - good folks.

Anonymous said...

As ever, green card holders fare even worse. Stay outside the US for a year or so and your right to return is reduced significantly or eliminated entirely, but the US tax liability remains. From IRS pub 4588 "Basic Tax for Green Card Holders":

"... even if the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) no longer recognizes the validity of your green card because you have been absent from the United States for a certain period of time or the green card is more than ten years old, you must continue to file tax returns until there has been a final determination that is not subject to appeal that your green card has been revoked or abandoned."

Because green card holders are by definition citizens of another country, anyone in this situation really is paying US tax for nothing whatsoever, not even a vague future "option" on moving to the US. The policy says a lot about the US attitude towards legal immigrants, never mind the illegal ones.

Anonymous said...

The Dollar Vigilante (blog): “Citizen-Based Taxation: Thank War for It”

From the article:

“Eritrea imposes a 2% tax on citizens who live abroad. It has come under intense criticism not only for the “diaspora tax” but also for its aggressive pursuit of collection.”

“America imposes higher penalties and is more vicious in its collections. Nevertheless, the American Goliath has largely escaped criticism. Without approving any other form of taxation, a particularly bright light should be shone on the citizenship-based version.”

“Citizenship-based taxation is simply too lucrative for the government to reconsider. As long as the government can paint Americans who live abroad as tax evaders, dodgers or somehow unpatriotic, then there will be little public sympathy. Government will be able to raise more money for the periodic slaughters called war as well as for the other public ‘services’ it performs.”

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous - Excellent point. Yep the Green Card holders get even less for their money. Zero protection and zero benefits outside the US. It's really hard to understand how that can be justified under any grounds. They can't even vote. Taxing them when they live outside the US is a scandal.

@Dollar vigilante, Really great post. Thanks for the link. Yep, that's where citizenship-based taxation came from and it still true. Bush promised homeland Americans that the recent wars wouldn't cost them anything. Looks like the current administration doesn't want to make the previous one out to be a liar. Just get those evil US citizens and Green Card holder outside the country to pay for it instead.

Anonymous said...

Salon: “DoJ memo: It’s legal to kill Americans with drones”

From the article:

“The ACLU’s Jaffer called the limits to U.S. killing authority set out in the memo ‘so vague and elastic that they will be easily manipulated.’ Jaffer goes on to detail the specific reasons why, as he told Isikoff, he finds the content of the document ‘chilling,’ including his belief that its key legal arguments ‘don’t stand up to even cursory review.’”

Anonymous said...

Wired: "More Than 50 Countries Helped the CIA Outsource Torture"

From the article:

"A new report from the Open Society Foundation details the CIA’s effort to outsource torture since 9/11 in excruciating detail. Known as “extraordinary rendition,” the practice concerns taking detainees to and from U.S. custody without a legal process — think of it like an off-the-books extradition — and often entailed handing detainees over to countries that practiced torture. The Open Society Foundation found that 136 people went through the post-9/11 extraordinary rendition, and 54 countries were complicit in it."

"The full 54 countries that aided in post-9/11 renditions: Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, Ethiopia, Finland, Gambia, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Iceland, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, Libya, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malawi, Malaysia, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, Uzbekistan, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. The Open Society Foundation doesn’t rule out additional ones being involved that it has yet to discover."

SwissTechie said...

These days, Americans abroad must file taxes so that they can finance their possible murder without a fair trial by the US government. That's the "benefit" of being a US citizen. Thanks but no thanks.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Anonymous, Good links. Thank you. I was surprised that France wasn't on the lists of countries that have cooperated. I thought they did but perhaps I'm wrong.

@SwissTechie "These days, Americans abroad must file taxes so that they can finance their possible murder without a fair trial by the US government." That sums it up perfectly. Yes, that's exactly what it looks like.