First News
Volume:7, Number:32
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Around The World 1
THIS WEEK

Disowning the Dream

| Muhtasim Billah |

A potentially historic number of people are giving up their U.S. citizenship not for political but economic reasons, particularly since the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act was enacted in 2010

While millions around the world may be coveting it, for some people the U.S. citizenship proves to be a burden. And people seem to be shaking off this burden in increasing numbers lately. This week, the Treasury Department of the United States released its quarterly list of individuals who had chosen to “expatriate” — i.e., renounced their U.S. citizenship or gave up their rights to permanent residence.

The list is notable for a couple of reasons. First, Britain's foreign secretary Boris Johnson is on it. This means that Johnson, a dual-national who was born in New York City, has finally renounced his citizenship (as he had long promised he would). Secondly — and far more importantly in the grand scheme of things — the list shows that Johnson is just one of a total 5,411 individuals to expatriate in 2016. As law firm Andrew Mitchel LLC noted on its blog, this was a 26 percent increase over 2015, when there were 4,279 names on the list. And it is a 58 percent increase over 2014, when there were 3,415 names on the list. As data collected by the firm showed, while the number of individuals who expatriated from the United States had stayed pretty flat from the 1960s, and actually dipped for a while in the 1990s and early 2000s, over the past five years it has dramatically surged upward.

The number of people giving up their U.S. citizenship may in fact be higher. Ryan Dunn, a lawyer with Andrew Mitchel LLC, explained via email that his firm has suspicions that the lists released by Treasury are incomplete. However, this would not change the trend. America is seeing what is likely to be a historically high level of expatriation. And it seems only likely to rise further. But why would anyone renounce their citizenship to the United States? Dunn said that in his firm's experience, it was not usually political. “We have not been contacted by anyone saying that they wanted to give up their citizenship because Trump won the election,” he said. Instead the motivation was simpler: money.

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that requires its citizens and permanent residents to file taxes even when they live abroad. Eritrea is the only other country to have a similar policy. This unusual policy a relic of the Civil War and the Revenue Act of 1862, which called for the taxing of U.S. citizens abroad — in part to punish men who fled the country to avoid joining the Union army. This is no new policy. Americans abroad have always been covered by federal tax laws. However, things changed in 2010, when the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) was enacted. This law essentially requires foreign financial institutions to check whether an account holder is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. In some cases, Dunn said, they would ask for proof that the account holder is not a U.S. citizen.

The end result here is that whereas in the past a U.S. citizen abroad might be able to get away with not filing their U.S. taxes, it has become vastly less likely under these new circumstances. In some cases, this can be extremely costly: Johnson was known to have racked up a large U.S. tax bill for the sale of his home in London, even though he had not lived in Britain since he was a small child. Giving up the US citizenship is not necessarily cheap either. It can take a long time to get an appointment in some places, and the processing fee is around USD2,350. More important, Dunn said, was the “exit tax” that some high-earning or high-net-worth individuals have to pay — and also some people who forget to file their forms correctly too. But evidently, for some people it is worth it. Green-card holders have a simpler and cheaper process.

This is not necessarily a huge problem, of course. The number of people who choose to become U.S. citizens each year is far over the number who renounce their citizenship or green card. There were 729,995 naturalized citizens in fiscal 2015, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But it does send an unfortunate message. Some Americans abroad had hoped that the incoming Trump administration would be sympathetic to their arguments about FATCA, but it does not appear to be high on the agenda for the new White House. Instead, experts wonder whether the Trump administration could ultimately add further to the growing wave of expatriation.

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