A Sixpence in your Shoe.
Old English rhyme
A few short years ago I could sit and chat with fellow Americans in almost any part of the world and we would all agree that "Americans never give up their citizenship."
It was a statement so obviously true, so self-evident, that it was never questioned. Sure, there might have been one or two American citizens who did, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule. And almost no one who actually did it ever talked about it.
Today, renunciations of American citizenship have hit the headlines all over the world. It's a big story because it was so rare in times past. And right now what everyone wants to know is:
"What the hell is going on here?"
A lot more than you might think.
That renunciations of U.S. citizenship are rising is a fact. In 2013 nearly 3000 Americans abroad navigated the rather byzantine, costly and cumbersome process to cast off their formal ties to the United States of America.
But here's what many haven't cast aside: An American identity. Just listen to these words from a series of articles on CNN:
"I still feel American -- it's where I grew up. If someone asks me what I am, well, hey, I'm an American! I can't say I'm a Kiwi, a New Zealander. I sound like an American, and I really am one. I just don't have the passport anymore." Laurie Lautmann, 58 - Gisborne, New Zealand.
"Ultimately, I don't know what I'm going to do as time goes on, but I do know that I will always feel and be American, regardless of my passport." Ezra Goldman, 28 - Dongguan, China.
"I've been in Switzerland since 1990, and became a citizen in 2005, because I wanted the right to vote where I was living. The Swiss can tell I have an American accent, and I'm often explaining that I grew up in the U.S. and have a daughter who still lives in the Boston area." Donna-Lane Nelson, 71 - Geneva, Switzerland.
And here is what I wrote back in 2013 On Being an American:
In the past, U.S. citizenship (and the accoutrements that go along with it, like the flag the passport and other visible symbols) were practically synonymous with an American identity. To be an American meant being a citizen. End of story.
What we are seeing right now (and it is becoming more and more prevalent) is a decoupling of American identity and citizenship.
Americans abroad are literally redefining what it means to be an American in a global world. They are making a distinction between ties to the country, the nation, the people, and a relationship to the U.S. government and political community. Being an American abroad today is no longer completely contigent on having a formal tie to the U.S. Those renunciants may have lost the blue but many are maintaining important ties to the nation and continuing to think of themselves as Americans.
At this point I can almost hear the roars of outrage from the American homeland: "They can't do that! They aren't Americans any more! They renounced and good riddance!"
Well, guess what? It's not up to them. The homeland government and people only control American citizenship.
American identity is personal. If someone still feels American, self-identifies as American, is treated by the people in the host country as an American, and is accepted as an American in the American communities on and off-line all over the world, then, frankly, that person is an American.
And let's face it, homelanders, if you come across a fellow American in your travels abroad, how exactly are you going to tell if that person is a U.S. citizen or not? Citizenship is invisible and no child is born with a tattoo on his forehead that says, "Made in the USA." No, you are going to identify that person as a compatriot based on shared language, customs, inclinations, and experiences. "Where are you from?" "Chicago." Now, are you really going to ask the person to prove that he still has a connection to the US? As in, "Show me your papers, please!"
These American renunciants are changing the way people view American citizenship outside the United States, and it is inevitable that those changes will have repercussions for Americans living in the U.S. as well.
For that reason, Americans in the homeland must start talking to their diaspora.