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How my citizenship hit me in the gut

This entry is part 3 of 23 in the series US citizenship

One day last month, when I was walking through Oakland on my way to meet a friend in Berkeley, I passed the old Paramount Theater. This is a gorgeous restored Art Deco theater that I had paused to admire every time I’d walked past that week.

daytime view of the Paramount

daytime view of the Paramount Theater in Oakland, CA

That day, though, the theater was open at 8:30 in the morning, and people were streaming in. Instead of continuing by, as I’d done every day before, I stopped and asked what was going on. Apparently, it was a citizenship ceremony: immigrants taking on American citizenship would take part in a ceremony to welcome them to their adopted country.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay to witness the ceremony itself without letting my friend down. I did go inside though, and was able to admire the lobby of the building and soak in the happy atmosphere for a few moments. I snapped a few quick photos.

People were standing around, talking in groups, or slowly making their way into the theater.

An usher pointed and called, “New citizens in the theater, families upstairs!”

lobby of the Paramount

The beautiful art deco lobby of the Paramount Theater in Oakland, CA

Suddenly, I found myself choking up, overwhelmed by a rush of sadness. I nearly burst into tears in the middle of that lobby, and hurried for the door into the cooler morning air, trying to suppress the tears threatening to flow. Composing myself, I continued my walk, trying to figure out why I’d had such an upwelling of emotions.

I thought of a conversation I had had with an American in Amsterdam a couple of weeks before. He is the son of immigrants from Peru, and, in this conversation, I had brought up the possibility that I would renounce citizenship (see “Giving Up US Citizenship?” and “Republicans, Expatriates and FATCA” to read why I’m considering giving up citizenship). He pointed out that what he’d learned from his parents was how incredibly fortunate we were to have US citizenship at all.

At the time, I dismissed his comment as sentimental, over-patriotic Americanism, telling myself that my Dutch citizenship was just as fortunate, if not more so.

But now, standing in that lobby, the importance of US citizenship had hit me in the gut. Those people around me were absolutely joyous at receiving it, and had undoubtedly worked hard to get it, and here I was, contemplating giving it up.

nighttime view of the Paramount

a nighttime view of the Paramount Theater

It made me realize that I don’t really want to renounce my citizenship. It would be the most practical—and perhaps the most sensible—thing to do. It would appease my husband, who’s so unhappy about how our personal financial information has to be handed over to the US government under the FATCA regime. Once I finish withdrawing my money from US accounts, it would save me from having to file those onerous and privacy-invasive forms that are now required of expatriates. It would save me the money I’ve been spending to pay an accountant to fill in the forms for me. I could be treated for taxation purposes like everyone else in the world (other than Americans and Eritreans), who pay taxes where they live.

Nevertheless, this emotional attachment I feel to the US goes deeper than I thought. I love the US, despite everything that’s wrong with it, and despite my simultaneous emotional attachment to the Netherlands.

So what should I do? Go with the practical and renounce my citizenship? Or go with the emotional and keep it?

Series Navigation<< Republicans, Expatriates and FATCAMy Renunciation Day >>

48 Comments

  • Tricia Moon

    January 8, 2015 at 10:28 pm

    Rachel,

    You ask the question of whether you should go with the practical and renounce or go with the emotional and keep your US citizenship.
    It is a very difficult decision to make. I renounced almost 3 years ago. I had exactly the same situation you describe; a spouse who did not particularly appreciate having his personal financial information reported to the IRS. I was livid that this was required given the fact I contributed virtually no money since I was a stay-at-home Mom and it was simply for the protection of myself and my son that my name was on the accounts in the first place. At the time, the OVDI program had just closed; I knew for sure there was NO way I was willing to enter that monstrosity and let them have a set % iof our money due to lack of filing a piece of paper (FBAR). OTOH, there were NO assurances that we would not face the larger penalty of $10k per acct per year penalty. No question that I owed no tax. The general tone of the entire situation at the time was severe threats, penalties and “we’re going to find you, there’s no way out.” So in addition to the seemingly very real-possible practical consideration of watching our retirement be confiscated, the emotional reaction of fear, anger, anxiety and rage was stronger than the tears of remembering fantastic family renunions in the summers, days of childhool with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles all under the umbrella of how great it was to be an American. There was also the unpredictability of what my son would do as he is a chemist and I had registered him at birth, etc.Jobs in chemistry in Canada right now are very hard to find and the US is just teeming with them All I could imagine was my husband gone, my son moved to California with me stuck in Canada (though technically my son could sponsor me for a green card LOL). Nonetheless, I felt absolutely forced by the policies of the US government to give up my birthrght and something I still cherished after 30 years abroad.
    I am not sure the situation is quite as terrifying now; there have been concessions like Streamlined; it is relatively clear the IRS simply will not be able to come after those of relatively meagre means compared to true “tax cheats, etc.
    You have to weigh the financial risk, whether you would ever return there to live. And I don’t know about you but what does it do to your emotions to realize that the reality of what America is- not our growing-up associations with fond memories but rather, a government that would knowingly allow us to be terrified, to sit back and allow many, many minnows be penalized horribly, particularly in OVDP 2009. There s a whole history not spoken of so much now, but the bait-and-switch issue of FAQ 35 and how the IRS cannot be trusted to follow it’s own stated policies and procedures. As one compliance condor put it at a recent meeting here in Toronto, “you can kiss Streamlined goodbye once FATCA reporting really kicks in.”
    There is so much we don’t know but the expats who have been around the last few years fighting this, generally have expected things to get worse and become harder (such as raising the renunciation fee from $450-$2350 in a single move). Gauging other actions of the government-their absolute fixation on collecting all our info via the NSA, their lack of democratic process-flying over Pakistani airspace without notice, assassination of American citizens without charge or trial, etc etc. I don’t know about you but there is no way I trust them anymore.
    I still cry at times but the fact is, I am still “American” inside. That doesn’t go away when you renounce. And as sad as it makes me then/now, I do not regret renouncing, I did what I had to do to protect my family. What other choice does one have?

    Reply
    • rachel75

      January 8, 2015 at 11:52 pm

      Thank you so much for your comments. You explain really well why I’m leaning toward renouncing, despite my emotional attachment to the US. Even with the newly-raised fee, I’d save in the long run in terms of frustration and accountant fees. My son and husband feel no attachment at all (and my son will have to renounce eventually too). My daughter is now studying in the US, so at least for a few years her filing requirement is much less intrusive than mine! The unfairness of it is so infuriating!

      Reply
  • JC Double Taxed

    January 9, 2015 at 6:00 am

    Hello Rachel-

    Thanks for sharing your story. From what is sounds like you may be in denial or not yet fully aware of the extent the US tax and compliance laws are out to punish US persons living overseas.

    For instance, you did not mention denial of financial planning, estate planning, tax deferred accounts in Holland, nor the double taxation that you face, & potentially bankrupting penalties for not complying right, all not faced by your next door neighbors.

    May I suggest to you that you consider a new hobby and become an active member of The Isaac Brock Society (go ahead, Google it) and fight the US government injustices on US persons living overseas.

    Also, you may consider your children. If they go and live in the US and spend the rest of their lives there then US citizenship is to be kept. However, if they end up living in Holland/EU for the rest of their lives then they would be disadvantaged harshly by US citizenship, if current trends continue.

    These organisations are taking donations to fight the injustices, in the courts:

    The Alliance for the Defence of Canadian Sovereignty
    fatcalegalaction dot com

    Reply
    • rachel75

      January 9, 2015 at 7:19 am

      Yes, I am aware of all of this. I just wanted to focus this particular post on the emotional impact rather than on the money issues. I did go into that to some extent in my previous two posts on the issue (see links above). I guess I’m feeling less combative than you are about it. At the moment I’m gradually moving my money out of the US, with the plan to renounce in a couple of years, and in the meantime I’m hoping the laws get changed so I don’t have to.

      Reply
  • Donna Hanton

    January 9, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Hi Rachel, I feel for you in this position. I am British-born, living in Canada and did not have to make the difficult decision as I can have dual citizenship (obviously it is a more complicated matter in the US – the financial/tax implications would be hard to ignore or discount). If I had had to choose, I’m not sure I could have done it, as much as I love Canada (been here 30 years).

    Reply
    • rachel75

      January 9, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      Thanks for the supportive message, Donna! I thought I wouldn’t have to make the decision either: I also have double citizenship, and I am allowed to keep both. It’s just that the US government is making it so difficult…

      Reply
  • LZ

    January 9, 2015 at 9:54 pm

    Very fitting that new Americans are sworn-in in a theater. A church of 1930’s dream world escapism. Beautiful euro Art Deco from a world between the wars.

    Is that the same USA that exists today? Nope, not by a 100 miles.

    Are you ready to sacrifice yourself for your country?

    Ask anyone that has served the country, lost their health, wealth, sanity, or colleagues in the process of serving it- I guess most would say they would do it again because it was the right thing to do at the time. Is this the right time for you?

    They would also probably say that the USA is a machine that has no feelings. If you love it you shouldn’t expect to get anything back.

    And that America only tolerates winners.

    So, if you are going to sulk and wait for a love letter you might as well check out and move on.

    But if you do decide to stay, it is your show, lead the way and expect some competition. Freddie said it best: ‘No time for losers…’

    Are you ready to do anything about it?

    http://www.collegehumor.com/video/7004217/how-america-is-like-a-bad-boyfriend

    Reply
  • Kimber

    January 9, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    I wish I had some good advice for you – I don’t. I just love my country with all of my heart, and I can’t imagine giving up my citizenship. But whatever is best for your family is going to work out great. No matter what you choose, the U.S. will always be in your heart.

    Reply
  • Bekah @ re•solve

    January 10, 2015 at 12:39 am

    Wow, I just found you through the blogger challenge (Happy Blogger Plaza) and I am intrigued. I’ve often felt frustrated at the US and now you’ve piqued my curiosity. I guess I’ll have to go read those other posts to see the bigger picture!

    Reply
  • Kirsten

    January 11, 2015 at 1:08 am

    Wow, Rachel, such a difficult decision, and I have not a bit of advice to offer as I have never walked in your shoes and don’t know what I would do in this situation. It sounds like you have done a ton of research, and I think like Delia said, you have to go with your gut on this one. Good luck with whatever you decide. Glad I found you on Happy Blogger Plaza. Look forward to reading the rest of your posts!

    Reply
  • Christy@SweetandSavoring

    January 11, 2015 at 1:55 am

    Citizenship is something I’ve thought a lot about, since my husband is English and the road to legal residency is a lot longer than most people realize, even when you marry an American. I’ve always liked the idea of ‘world citizens’ as opposed to being tied to one country, but of course I can’t really know unless I was in your position and had to decide how important being American really is. Thank you for sharing this! You’ve given us all food for thought 🙂

    Reply
    • rachel75

      January 11, 2015 at 7:52 am

      Christy, you’re in the US? We went through that green card process many years ago when we lived in the US. What a pain! Do you realize that if you move to England and he still has his green card he’ll fall under the same FATCA rules you do?

      Reply
  • Eva Synnergren

    January 11, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    Thank you for sharing Rachel. I am swede and live in Sweden so I don’t have to make any such decisions. I can see that it is very difficult for you and hope you will come up with a satisfying solution for yourself so you can leave this behind you.

    Reply
  • Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel)

    November 16, 2015 at 3:36 pm

    Wow, what a tough and heart-wrenching decision. I’m in Canada so can only imagine how difficult this is for you but wish you good luck with the process.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 16, 2015 at 7:01 pm

      Lots of Canadians are dealing with this as well, though I don’t think it’s particularly heart-wrenching for them. They are “accidental Americans” who don’t feel at all attached to America: they were just born there.For them it’s just an expensive, offensive, privacy-invasive hassle.

      Reply
  • The GypsyNesters

    November 17, 2015 at 1:15 am

    Interesting post, something we have thought about from time to time as well when considering moving out of the country. We encountered similar problems a few years ago without even moving when we moved most of our money to Switzerland to avoid the bank meltdown in 2008. The US government was very intrusive and we finally gave up and brought it all back. Not quite the same, I know, but it does give us some insight into what you are going through. Hope it all works out for the best.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 17, 2015 at 10:57 am

      Situations like yours were what the law was intended for: to stop you moving money out of the country, assuming (wrongly in most cases) that you’re doing it to avoid paying taxes on it. I live here though. It’s my local bank, not “foreign” to me. When the law was first passed, the IRS specifically targeted Switzerland and brought in a lot at first in taxes and fines. That will slow to a trickle, I expect, and enforcement will cost more than the revenues taken in, even if you count the fee we pay to renounce.

      Reply
  • Carol Colborn

    November 18, 2015 at 1:59 am

    I am a dual citizen. Have you investigated whether that is a better solution? I believe we only have to report income earned in the US and income earned in the Philippines is reported and taxed there.I couldn’t live with not being a Philippine citizen as much as I lvoe America, too!

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 18, 2015 at 6:19 am

      Yes, I’m a dual citizen too. I wouldn’t do this if I wasn’t because then I’d be choosing statelessness.

      Are you sure what you say is correct? I think you may be mistaken unless the Philippines has some special agreement with the US. My understanding (and if you look at the Isaac Brock society website you can read all about it: http://isaacbrocksociety.ca/ ) is that we Americans abroad have to report worldwide income to the US, and on the FBAR form we have to list all ‘foreign’ accounts with our name on them. Then we also file taxes where we live because other countries do residence-based taxation, unlike the US (and Eritrea).

      Reply
  • Karen Warren

    November 18, 2015 at 6:03 pm

    I quite understand why you are giving up your citizenship – I have heard similar stories from other US expats. But it is very sad that you should have to – I know how I would feel if I had to renounce the country of my birth.

    Reply
  • Ruth

    November 19, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Rachel,

    I wasn’t able to comment on this article though I have done on the latest one. I will correct one thing. Many Americans in Canada are here because they married a Canadian and their decision is extremely gut wrenching.

    Yes, there are accidentals here, like our children, my son and perhaps more of them since there are over 1 million Americans living here but, for those of us who were born and grew up in the U.S. this decision is exactly like going through a bad divorce, though, I’d still rather have to divorce a person than my country.

    Reply
  • Jackie Smith

    November 20, 2015 at 6:30 am

    When we purchased our home in Greece we also had to report to both country’s governments the amount of money taken into this country and out of the US. (Yes, one does have to file income tax forms in Greece and pay property taxes here annually). Our experiences are nothing as significant as yours but people should be reminded (and your post does it very well) that moving to a new country whether full- or part-time isn’t just a matter of packing a suitcase and setting up a new life. Strings are attached. Good luck, let us know the outcome.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      November 20, 2015 at 7:48 am

      You’re right. Even if you have no savings, no assets, a low income, etc., if you’re a US citizen you still have to file the forms every year including the FBAR, which is such an invasion of privacy. The ‘strings attached’ that you mentioned are much worse for US citizens (and Eritreans) than for citizens of other countries because the US does citizenship-based taxation while the rest do residence-based.

      Reply
  • Kristin Henning

    November 20, 2015 at 2:16 pm

    We think of this issue often, and our nephew is facing the decision now. It’s sad that these tax and privacy issues force so many to renounce, and infuriating that the individuals suffer and the corporations carry on unscathed.

    Reply
  • Fred

    January 12, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    You very nicely translate into words some of the emotions we all feel when we are in this absurd situation that is being a US citizen abroad. And in another post you describe being a Democrat in this situation — my case exactly. I must say it’s quite a stretch for me to realize that on this subject I’m more with Rubio & Cruz (not that I would really trust them to come through but at least the language is there).
    For now I think I can live with feeding plausible data to the US govt’s information machine (after 13 years of “non compliance” I now strive for “compliance” – quotation marks needed because how can one possibly be truly compliant). Partly because I cannot bring myself to do what you did… yet.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      January 12, 2016 at 6:16 pm

      Yes, even my Republican brother-in-law remarked, “For once we agree on something!” Weird feeling, isn’t it? I know quite a few people who are doing what you are: just trying to stay compliant. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive, but I felt really stressed doing that. I had this constant anger and feeling of being unfairly persecuted, and my husband’s resentment that he had to give me so much of his information (joint accounts) for the FBAR forms didn’t help. I resented handing over the information as much as he did. And the forms were just too complicated in my case for me to fill in by myself, so there went about a thousand euros per year to an accountant just to prove that I didn’t owe income taxes to the US. And that’s on top of what we pay an accountant here to do our (quite high) Dutch taxes — my husband is self-employed so those are complicated too. I was afraid the situation would get even worse if I didn’t get out soon: what if they raise the fee? Or really start comparing FBAR forms with the bank reports? Or what if the banks here in NL start rejecting Americans like they have in some other countries? Too much worry for me!

      Reply
  • Rebecca Hall (Bex)

    February 1, 2016 at 8:26 am

    That sounds really, really harsh. It also sounds illegal to me: is there not a double taxation rule? Why should you be charged twice on your earnings?
    I can understand your allegiance to your home country and loving it – it’s natural.
    I would hold onto your anger and turn it into something positive though. It sounds to me there is bullying and punishment of Americans who have chosen a life abroad. How dare they leave the ‘land of the Great’!
    When your own country punishes you for the lifestyle you’ve chosen to live, don’t bow down to them…you’re not doing anything illegal and in fact, you love your country – but won’t if it continues the way it’s going.
    Thanks for sharing this post Rachel. I shall take it up with my American expat friends and see what they have to say. I’m intrigued.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      February 1, 2016 at 10:02 am

      Some people end up getting double taxed–usually to do with pensions being seen by the US as UNearned income, so it doesn’t fall under the exemption, or with capital gains taxes. I did renounce, and I’m trying to keep it positive by speaking out (writing out?) about it. Thanks for the encouragement.

      Reply

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