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Stuck with two passports

New citizenship and immigration laws in the US and Europe don’t make sense

January 19, 2016 2:00AM ET

As it is wont to every few years, dual citizenship has become a contentious issue in contemporary politics.

In the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, French President François Hollande is pressing for a constitutional amendment that would allow convicted terrorists with dual nationality to be stripped of their French citizenship. Political elites on the French left have attacked the proposal as violating principles of equality, as it does not apply to citizens of only France; the move, they argue, would signify that dual nationals are somehow less French and that their French identity is more expendable than those who don’t have another citizenship.

In December the U.S. Congress barred dual nationals of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Sudan from visa exemptions that they would otherwise enjoy as citizens of European Union nations and certain other countries. The measure — which a group of senators is now proposing to alter — also restricts the visa-free movement of individuals who have recently traveled to these countries, on the theory that it would prevent potential jihadists from re-entering the West. Before the change, British citizens who also had Iranian citizenship were able to travel to the U.S. as tourists or businesspeople with only minimal advance formalities. Now they will have to go through a sometimes bureaucratically arduous visa application process, and the EU is threatening to adopt a reciprocal stance. Americans with dual citizenship in these countries could, then, end up having to secure visas for travel to Europe.

The visa proposal sailed through a Congress otherwise crippled by gridlock. Like the French law, the visa waiver limitation assumes that dual nationals are somehow suspect, in this case requiring extra security vetting. In neither case does the premise work. Dual nationality tells us very little about a person’s loyalty, trustworthiness or belief system. In fact, many people have dual nationality not by choice but because they’re stuck with it: Some countries simply won’t let you go.

This new allegiance paradigm is, admittedly, quite old. Medieval, in fact. In the feudal world, your place of birth determined your nationality for life. Individuals were born to the protection of their sovereign, in return for which they owed him perpetual allegiance. It was thought to be part of the natural order of things. Transferring nationality was therefore unthinkable. The mentality was “Once a subject, always a subject.”

Migration to the U.S. in the 18th century challenged that construct as greater mobility led to transferred national identities on the ground. Nevertheless, European nations, including Britain and the German states from which many immigrants hailedrejected the validity of U.S. naturalization, claiming their native-born subjects even after they permanently relocated to America. As Foreign Secretary William Grenville wrote to the American minister in London in 1797, “A declaration of renunciation made by any of the king’s subjects would, instead of operating as a protection to them, be considered an act highly criminal on their part.”

U.S. and European authorities repeatedly clashed when naturalized U.S. citizens returned to their homeland, only to find themselves dragooned into military service obligations. For example, President James Buchanan muscled the king of Hannover to pardon naturalized U.S. citizen Christian Ernst, who was arrested for avoiding conscription upon his return to the principality in 1859, eight years after emigrating.

The issue was an existential one for the U.S. The U.K.’s refusal to accept the naturalization of a group of Irish subjects in 1867 in the context of treason trials created a political furor in the U.S., as Secretary of State William Seward put it, “throughout the whole country, from Portland to San Francisco and from St. Paul to Pensacola.” Congress responded with an 1868 law declaring that “the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people.” In 1870, the U.K. backed down, automatically terminating the nationality of subjects who naturalized in another country.

It’s one thing to single out dual nationals where they hold the status by choice. It’s another thing when the status is unalterable.

Spats persisted into the early 20th century. France, for instance, continued to insist that male French citizens satisfy military service obligations — even if they were born in the U.S. But by the mid–20th century, most European states had followed the U.K.’s lead. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights directed that no one should be arbitrarily denied the right to change nationality.

Today most states permit renunciation as a matter of routine. A record number of Americans are renouncing U.S. citizenship in the face of growing tax headaches. (The U.S. is the only country to tax its citizens abroad.) Renunciation requires a couple of trips to a U.S. embassy, a $2,350 fee and jumping some other bureaucratic hurdles. But if you want to stop being an American, you can. 

It’s not quite so easy, however, if you were born in Iran. In theory, you can renounce your citizenship under Iranian law, but in practice, it never happens. For starters, you can undertake renunciation only in Iran — hardly an inviting prospect to the exile community. Even for those willing to take the trip, the Council of Ministers has complete discretion over renunciation requests. In other words, if you were born Iranian, you will die Iranian, and that goes for the children of Iranian fathers, even if they were born outside Iran. They have citizenship at birth too, with no practical way to shed it.

There aren’t many Iranians in France, maybe 20,000. But the country is home to more than a half million Tunisians, and like Iranian citizenship, renunciation of Tunisian citizenship is subject to the discretion of the Tunisian government. There are more than a million Moroccans in France, many of whom also have French citizenship, and Moroccan citizenship can’t be renounced, period. It’s one thing to single out dual nationals when they hold the status by choice. It’s another thing when the status is unalterable.

Many of those subject to the new U.S. visa waiver restrictions, meanwhile, are also unwilling or unwitting dual nationals. Like Iranians, those with Sudanese nationality have to secure presidential approval of renunciation requests. In Syria, it’s up to the minister of the interior, who probably has other things keeping him busy these days. Of the four affected nationalities, only Iraqis seem to be able to avoid the new restrictions by terminating their other nationality.

In both the French citizenship stripping and U.S. visa situations, there are large numbers of citizens whose dual nationality shouldn’t count against them. Just because they have the citizenship doesn’t mean they have an allegiance or plan to travel to Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan to conspire with terrorists. In fact, one could even posit the opposite in many cases. Most Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians and Sudanese who also have citizenship in an EU nation are unlikely to sympathize with illiberal regimes back home.

Given the incapacity to cancel their citizenship if they even wanted to, why should so many dual nationals suffer guilt by association? Losing the visa waiver impedes international business and travel. While the French move would not have direct everyday consequences, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls suggested it would be “highly symbolic” in a way that will further compound the alienation of French Muslims, who account for many of the country’s more than 3 million dual citizens.

Countries such as Iran that refuse to release their citizens should adopt regularized renunciation procedures. Individuals who have transferred their social identity to another state should be allowed a citizenship to match. In the meantime, U.S. and European policymakers should adjust their travel and security regimes to recognize that dual nationality can be more of a ball and chain than an expression of opposing loyalties.  

Peter Spiro teaches at Temple University Law School. His book “At Home in Two Countries: The Past and Future of Dual Citizenship,” will be published by NYU Press this spring.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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