I’m one of over five million American citizens living outside of the United States. I’ve been an ex-pat now for well over twenty years, and have no particular plans to ever return to the country of my birth. This does not make me any less of an American, I love my country and I am probably more politically active as well as conscientious about voting than a good many of my fellow countrymen living in the States. So what would it really take for me to renounce my American citizenship?
Seven hundred and forty-three expatriate Americans gave up their citizenship in 2009, according to the Federal Register, three times the total for 2008. The number of Americans leaving the country to live somewhere else has also grown, rising sharply during the Bush administration, from a million and a half in 1990, to 5.2 million today. While some of that has been fueled by an antipathy toward the Republican dominated government over the previous decade, much of it now is a consequence of the major disastrous fall-out of the Bush administration – draconian security measures and economic frustration.
The United States is the only industrialized country that taxes its citizens on income earned abroad, even if they are allowed the first $91,400 tax free for foreign income. For many, like myself, that’s not too much of a problem as I don’t earn that much in either the US or the country where I currently reside, New Zealand – I’m still a classically poverty stricken doctoral student. Someday, it might, however. But as well as being Constitutionally questionable, as it is, in effect, taxation without representation, it is a major concerns for many expat Americans, particularly those trying to secure their children’s futures in such uncertain times.
What has affected me are stringent regulations which banks are increasingly willing to impose, citing the Patriot Act as justification, to make it a lot more difficult for expats with American bank accounts to take money out of the States. I’ve had to make Our Kid a joint account holder for my American bank account, as it requires that I have a U.S. address… which as an American expat, I obviously don’t. Some banks have closed expat’s accounts unilaterally if the account holder can’t certify a US address. If I move more than $10,000 at a time out of my American account into New Zealand, the Patriot Act requires the bank to notify Homeland Security, which can hang up the transfer of funds for days, even weeks. Recently, my aunt sent money to help me pay for tuition, as I’m doing my degree at a New Zealand university. My Kiwi bank sent specific instructions tailored for the American banks, as the process for a US to a foreign bank is far more complicated than for any other country. While the bank in the US showed the funds had left her account, it took far longer for the money to arrive in my Kiwi bank account via an electronic transfer than it took for an ordinary New Zealand paper cheque I’d deposited the same day, causing both my aunt and myself needless worry.
I agree with Kathleen Rittenhouse, in Canada, who had her bank account in the US closed, her funds frozen. The Patriot Act has now placed any expat American into the same category as terrorists, arms dealers and money launderers.
The Americans Abroad Caucus, headed by Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (D – New York) and Representative Joe Wilson (R- South Carolina) has repeatedly appealed these regulations to the Treasury Department. ‘That Americans living overseas are being denied banking services in U.S. banks, and increasingly in foreign banks, is unacceptable,’ Ms. Maloney said in a letter Friday to leaders of the House Financial Services Committee, requesting a hearing on the question. Mr. Wilson added that pleas from expats for relief ‘continue to come in at a startling rate.’
‘It seems the new anti-terrorist rules are having unintended effects,’ Daniel Flynn, who lives in Belgium, wrote in a letter quoted by the Americans Abroad Caucus in the U.S. Congress in correspondence with the Treasury Department.
But in response to the AAC’s complaint, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner responded that ‘nothing in U.S. financial law and regulation should make it impossible for Americans living abroad to access financial services here in the United States.’ Banks however, Treasury officials note, are free to ignore that advice. Which they are doing, in droves.
American citizens abroad – more than five million of us and rising, and most of us active voters of both parties – are being treated like hostile agents by our own government and our banks, as well as being doubly taxed on income. Many of us have had enough of being treated like cash cows on the one hand and second class citizens on the other. Relinquishing citizenship is relatively simple. All you have to do is appear before a U.S. consular or diplomatic official in a foreign country and sign a renunciation oath.
That’s it. A hell of a lot simpler than dealing with absurd banking regulations and being double taxed on income, innit?
Some of our brightest, best educated and highly talented, productive citizens work outside the States, many have served in our military and are as patriotic as any Congressman from Arizona or San Diego. But they’ve had enough, and the numbers of those waiting to meet with consular officers to formalize renunciations are growing.
‘It is a sad outcome,’ Ms. Bugnion said, ‘but I personally feel that we are now seeing only the tip of the iceberg.’
What would it take for me to renounce my American citizenship? I don’t know. But that it would even occur to me that this could ever be an acceptable thing is a depressing indictment at how difficult it’s become to be an American abroad.