Marshall Breger: U.S. Citizenship: Priceless or Merely Convenient?

By | Mar 31, 2012

By Marshall Breger

In 2011, Sen. Joseph Lieberman suggested that U.S. nationals, “homegrown” or otherwise, be stripped of their citizenship if they are “engaging in or purposefully and materially supporting hostilities against the United States.” More recently, in Israel, right-wing Knesset members pushed for legislation taking away Israeli citizenship of convicted terrorists. Taking away citizenship is not something we do lightly. But these and many similar proposals force us to think about the meaning of citizenship—and whether we in America are striking the right balance between its privileges and its responsibilities.

The Supreme Court has for years recognized the “priceless benefits” of citizenship, stating that it would be “difficult to exaggerate its value and importance.” In 1967, the court overturned a law revoking the U.S. citizenship of a person who had voted in a foreign (in that case Israeli) election. It is now practically impossible to lose your U.S. citizenship unless you go to a U.S. embassy and fill out a revocation form in front of an embassy official.

Despite this robust protection, as Americans we do not really expect much of our citizens. Other than jury duty, registration for a nonexistent draft and increased tax liability, it is not clear what duties obtain.

The benefits, on the other hand, are clear. The most obvious is the right to participate in the political process and vote. Another is approval for select “policy laden” public sector jobs. A third is protection from deportation (unless you were naturalized fraudulently). Citizens may also request U.S. consular protection abroad—and sometimes much more. In the early 1900s, a Greek émigré to America, Ion Pedricardis, was kidnapped in Morocco by Sherif Ahmad er Rasuli, the “last of the Barbary Pirates.” After determining that he was an American citizen, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to send the Marines, famously declaring, “Pedricardis alive or Rasuli dead.” And even today, Navy Seals are deployed to rescue Americans captured by pirates or by terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yale law professor Peter Schuck has observed that as citizenship has become harder to lose, it has become easier to gain, and the differential between citizens and lawful aliens has decreased. When citizenship carries no significant duties, it can become devalued, and multiple identity or dual citizenship becomes the new normal. Indeed, if your goal is to be a citizen of the world, as in the Enlightenment project, whether you have one citizenship or two or even three is not of much relevance. More may be better.
Viewed this way, citizenship can become a matter of convenience, not of identity or community. Take Becky Hammon, a runner-up for Most Valuable Player in the American Women’s National Basketball Association in 2007 who failed to make the U.S. Olympic Team. Still passionate about the Olympics, she became a Russian citizen and earned a place on the Russian Olympic team. Such “passport swapping” has become common in international sports. Or consider the more than 100,000 Israelis who have obtained German citizenship so as to have a European Union “safety net.” (Similar numbers have signed up for Polish citizenship for the same reason.)

American citizens often choose to add another country to their nationality “belt,” as when American-born Jews make aliyah and add Israeli citizenship to their U.S. citizenship. In other cases, a new U.S. citizen has no choice but to retain multiple citizenships: The country he leaves still views him as a national whether he wants to keep that affiliation or not. Thus, Iranians who leave Iran and become American citizens do not (according to Iran) lose their “legal” identity. They can be prosecuted in Iran for activities undertaken elswewhere that are considered treasonable in Iran.

In the past, multiple citizenships were clearly disfavored. As the prominent American diplomat George Bancroft wrote to Lord Palmerston in 1849, a nation “will as soon tolerate a man with two wives as a man with two countries; as soon bear polygamy as that of double allegiance.” This attitude still lingers. Perhaps that is why former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg created such a controversy when he took French citizenship (through his wife) and voted in the French presidential election. When asked if he recommended that all Israelis acquire a second passport, Burg replied, “Whoever can.”

It strikes me as strange that high military and government officials in the Baltic countries remain U.S. citizens; that U.S. citizens join the Mexican cabinet; that children of illegal immigrants born in the United States are granted automatic “birthright citizenship” status in the U.S. and when they get older sponsor members of their families for legal status. Or that pregnant Chinese women of means travel on tourist visas to California to “spa-hospitals” where they give birth to obtain U.S. citizenship for the newborn—and then return directly to China.

I do not pretend to know the answer to this problem. Post-nationalism and multiculturalism have made the nation-state problematic to some. Certainly economic globalization has led to young people with jobs and careers that cause them to feel at home in the four corners of the planet. But to most Americans, citizenship and patriotism go hand in hand. And while we have responsibilities to all members of humanity, we have greater responsibilities to members of our own community—our fellow citizens. If we are to think seriously about changing the criteria for revoking citizenship, that discussion must be accompanied by a conversation about the meaning of citizenship and whether the present easy road to multiple citizenships is the proper way to sustain a concept for which so many have given so much.

Marshall Breger is a law professor at Catholic University.

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