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Open Letter to President Obama in response to The State of the Union Address

This entry is part 11 of 23 in the series US citizenship

Dear Mr. President,

Thank you for your sincere and uplifting State of the Union Address. Your skills in speechmaking are truly impressive.

Your speech was addressed to your fellow Americans. I would like to respond to some of your remarks from my point of view: that of an overseas American who has felt the heartbreak of having to renounce my American citizenship.

By U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O'Brien [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

President Obama, by U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O’Brien [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Changing World

One of the things you emphasized in the first part of your speech was the changing world we live in:

We live in a time of extraordinary change—change that’s reshaping the way we live, the way we work, our planet, our place in the world.

Undoubtedly, this is true, and the pace of that change keeps increasing. What you didn’t mention next to “the way we work” was “where we work.” In other words, in this fast-changing world, more and more Americans are working overseas. Estimates vary, but the number of Americans living in other countries is probably somewhere between 7 and 9 million.

Diplomacy

You posed a series of questions in the State of the Union Address, one of which struck me as relevant to overseas Americans:

Third, how do we keep America safe and lead the world without becoming its policeman?

Seven to nine million Americans is a lot of people, and they—we—are representing America every day in a way that your diplomats and politicians cannot. We live among local people all over the world, and the many people we work with, study with, compete with, trade with, and so on, may very well be basing their assessment of Americans on these personal interactions. You should not discount the effects of these countless overseas contacts.

You touched on this potential when you said the following, proposing that, instead of taking over and rebuilding every country that is in crisis, we should take a “smarter approach”:

… on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.

We—the 7-9 million ordinary Americans already living overseas—could help with that mobilization.

"Blue Marble" photo of the earth's eastern hemisphere by NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Spirit of Discovery

We overseas Americans represent the good things about America that you wish the rest of the world to understand. In the State of the Union Address, you mentioned the “spirit of discovery.”

America is Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers and George Washington Carver. America is Grace Hopper and Katherine Johnson and Sally Ride. America is every immigrant and entrepreneur from Boston to Austin to Silicon Valley, racing to shape a better world. That’s who we are.

Yes, I agree, that’s who we are. And you mention immigrants, but not emigrants: those who have left the US. Please don’t assume that Americans who leave the country are abandoning being American or rejecting what is good about the American spirit.

Americans leave the US for work—a job in an American or foreign-owned company—or for adventure—the spirit of discovery that you praise—or for love: like me, many met and fell in love with a foreigner and settled in their partner’s country.

In your speech, you praised “daily acts of citizenship” carried out by Americans. Back in the 1980’s, I joined the Peace Corps and spent two years teaching in Malawi. Doesn’t that count as a praiseworthy act of citizenship? Or does it lose its value now that I’ve moved overseas? I know another overseas American who fought in the US military. Doesn’t that count? Yet he has also had to renounce his citizenship.

US Treatment of Overseas Americans

Despite the fact that we overseas Americans are a ready pool of representatives of America who can further American goals overseas, and despite our “daily acts of citizenship,” we are treated as if we are criminals and traitors to our country.

In your speech, Mr. President, you briefly mentioned the target of the FATCA law:

It’s sure not the average family watching tonight that avoids paying taxes through offshore accounts.

Your audience applauded this line. Are you, or any of your congressional audience for the State of the Union Address, aware of the unintended consequences that have resulted from FATCA? Did any of you actually read it? Or did you all just buy into the rhetoric that it would catch “fat cats” who were hiding money overseas?

FATCA was intended to stop Americans living in the US from hiding their money in overseas bank accounts in order to avoid paying taxes on it.

However, the unintended consequences are far-reaching. All overseas Americans have money in “foreign” accounts—that should be obvious given that people bank where they live—but that does not make us criminals. Many—and I’d venture to say most—of us do not actually owe taxes in the US. We don’t, however, avoid paying taxes: in many countries, including the Netherlands, where I live, we have to pay much higher taxes than if we lived in America. We don’t mind, since we receive services where we live, not in the US.

Nevertheless, we have to file lengthy, ridiculously complicated forms to prove our innocence, often leading us to take on the cost of paying accountants to ensure accuracy. We also, in order to prove we are not criminals, have to report information that homeland Americans are not required to reveal. That’s the part that is most offensive to me: that invasion of privacy based on an assumption of wrongdoing.

If we do not comply with FATCA and the complicated reporting requirements, we are threatened with far higher penalties than homeland Americans would get for the same level of offense.

So, Mr. President, instead of listening to us and fixing what is wrong with the FATCA system, you, along with the whole of the Congress and Senate, ignore the vast majority of overseas Americans and continue spouting the rhetoric of criminals hiding money in offshore accounts.

Instead of using us as unofficial ambassadors to further American aims overseas, you’re pushing us further away: to the extent that many are renouncing citizenship.

Instead of encouraging our leadership in foreign-owned companies, you’re taking away our competitive edge because foreign companies don’t want to deal with Americans and the complications FATCA brings.

Instead of rewarding that “spirit of discovery” that you praise, you’re treating us as suspected criminals.

Do you really think this is wise?

This post is the sixth in a series on American values that I’ve written since my renunciation day. Here are the others:

  1. Fatca, the Tea Party and Me
  2. Individual Freedom, Self-Reliance and Renunciation
  3. Equality? Competition? Not Overseas!
  4. The American Dream
  5. The Irony of Renouncing Under Duress
Series Navigation<< The Irony of Renouncing Under Duress7 Reasons NOT to Renounce >>

21 Comments

  • laura

    January 15, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    This is one of the best pieces I’ve read since the introduction of the heavy handed FATCA. I am grateful to see this letter going public. A lot of damages have already been done to many Americans living abroad. Mr. Obama’s administration sees us as criminals until proven innocent. Even when we don’t owe any US tax, we have to pay lawyers and accountants at huge sums to prove our innocence. Mr. President, we have profound regret that we’d voted for you. All my friends and I, who are living abroad, do not trust you or your administration. Eventually FATCA will destroy America’s relations with the world and lead to the dying of the US dollars. American people (including US politicians) who don’t know what FATCA is, please read. So many articles published online concerning this subject.

    Reply
    • Rachel

      January 15, 2016 at 10:49 pm

      I agree with most of what you say here except that I don’t blame Obama solely. Congress writes the laws. Obama signed it when he should have vetoed it. I do not regret voting for him at all. I am NOT a one-issue voter and I support Obama on most issues. And Obama isn’t the one who can fix this: Congress can. I agree that FATCA will damage US business relations with other countries.

      Reply
      • Scribbleheart

        January 16, 2016 at 2:27 pm

        Thank you for talking about your support for Obama. Too many Americans who are suffering from the unintended consequences of FATCA (I’m talking, of course, about “regular” expats, as opposed to those who really DO hide enormous assets in offshore accounts) assume that Obama – and the entire Democratic party – actually set out to make us victims. We need a solution and I don’t know what it is, but it certainly will not come from one of the current crop of Republican candidates…

        Reply
        • Rachel

          January 16, 2016 at 3:49 pm

          Yes, I just don’t believe that this was intentional victimization; I think it was just a mistake, but the Democrats can’t afford to admit such a mistake after trumpeting FATCA as being a way to catch tax cheats.

          Some of the current Republican candidates do support ending or rewriting FATCA, but I’m very skeptical it’ll happen, either with a Republican or a Democratic majority. The problem is that it’s the kind of thing that a politician will bargain away because it doesn’t affect them if we overseas Americans are angry at them. Not enough of us vote, or vote in one particular state, to affect an election. They’ll trade it for something else that matters more to their local constituents. Also, it’ll be too easy for politicians to accuse other politicians of being soft on tax cheats.

          I think the best chance that overseas Americans have to change this will be the court cases that are starting. Eventually, if it’s shown that how we are treated is unconstitutional, FATCA will end. I’m not holding my breath.

          Reply
      • laura

        January 18, 2016 at 8:22 am

        Obama Administration had bypassed Congress to impose the new tax law called FATCA. No. Congress did not write this law. And there was no debate in Congress before the implementation of FATCA.

        Reply
        • Rachel

          January 18, 2016 at 11:29 am

          I don’t really want to get in this argument with you. As far as I know, this was not an executive order; it was a law, and laws are passed by Congress and signed by the President. It doesn’t surprise me, though, if there wasn’t a debate. Who would vote against something intended to “catch tax cheats”? That would be political suicide.

          Reply
    • Rachel

      January 16, 2016 at 10:05 am

      I’m not an activist; I just like writing down my thoughts. If someone else would like to do so it’d be fine with me, as long as I get mentioned as the writer, preferably with a link back here. Or if you know a newspaper that would be willing to publish it?

      Reply
  • David Lohrmann

    January 16, 2016 at 11:33 am

    Awesome Rachel! I have read a couple of excellent open letters to the president on this issue, but yours was definitely the finest.

    Reply
  • Benson M

    January 17, 2016 at 10:45 am

    Great letter- yes, send it to the White House – why is it so difficult to rectify such mistakes? We DO represent American ideals overseas, and I’d hate to renounce those ideals because someone wrote a badly-thought-out law

    Reply
  • Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    January 19, 2016 at 6:20 pm

    A heartfelt and beautifully written letter, Rachel. We’ll be interested in seeing how FATCA impacts us as retirees residing overseas although we transfer in money to use only for our living expenses. I loved your point of how we who reside outside the US act as representatives and unofficial ambassadors of our country. As guests in other countries we love meeting new people and hope never to be judged by someone looking for “The Ugly American.”

    Reply
    • Rachel

      January 19, 2016 at 11:20 pm

      I spend a lot of time both in my job as an American Studies teacher and in informal situations trying to explain Americans and present a more nuanced view than that typical “ugly American.”

      Reply

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