Why Dual Citizenship Can Be a Double-Edged Sword

Monday, December 2, 2002
by Marc J. Lane

Reprint permission from the December 2, 2002 issue of Crain's Chicago Business.

Anti-American combatants John Walker Lindh, the notorious "American Taliban," and Yaser Esam Hamdi, a citizen of both the United States and Saudi Arabia, were captured by U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But neither Mr. Lindh nor Mr. Hamdi will be stripped of his U.S. citizenship, because in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizenship is an inalienable right that can only be lost if it's voluntarily renounced.

The number of Americans who are also citizens of other countries is soaring. And the growing prospect of U.S. citizens serving in foreign, even antagonistic, armies and governments, and foreign citizens serving in our own army and government and voting in our elections, raises disturbing questions about loyalty and national identity.

Dual citizenship is often an inadvertent consequence of birth: A child of foreigners is born on U.S. soil or a child of a U.S. citizen is born in another country. But, increasingly, citizens of other countries become U.S. citizens by choice. And many immigrants opt to remain nationals of their home countries even as they gain U.S. citizenship, along with the political rights and public benefits it affords them.

Immigration advocates don't fret about U.S. citizens' ties to other countries. American identity, they argue, isn't based on ethnicity or culture, but on the twin principles of liberty and self-determination. And they insist that all of us benefit when permanent residents of the U.S. pursue citizenship and deepen their commitment to those American values.

Many proponents of dual citizenship seem to buy into the logic. American Jews who want to move freely between the U.S. and Israel, and even vote in both countries, are among them.

It was a Jewish naturalized U.S. citizen who moved to Israel and voted in an election there whose case established the constitutional right to retain U.S. citizenship. And since the Supreme Court so ruled, thousands of Americans have served in foreign armies, most of them in the Israeli army, and voted in foreign elections.

The globalization movement has also spurred interest in dual citizenship. Beneficiaries of the North American Free Trade Agreement and the European Union are happy to see executives move without effort from one country to another and harvest the rewards of multinational corporate trade.

Then there are foreign countries that seek to benefit from the financial and political clout enjoyed by their nationals abroad. They seem unstoppable in their encouragement of expatriates to claim dual citizenship.

Mexico, the native land of more foreign-born U.S. residents than any other, is the most blatant example. The Mexican Nationality Law invites former Mexican citizens who have been naturalized in the U.S. --; or elsewhere, for that matter --; to have their Mexican citizenship restored without losing their naturalized citizenship. The Mexican government treats these new American citizens as "bi-nationals" and wants them to vote in both the U.S. and Mexico, while Mexican politicians campaign for their votes and their allegiance.

There's no question that dual citizenship can make it easier to travel, work and own property in other countries. But passports aren't credit cards to be collected and used interchangeably whenever it's convenient.

Immigrants may sincerely profess their love for both their native and adopted countries, but dual citizenship can't help but water down patriotism. And shared national loyalties, sooner or later, may come into conflict.

Congress shouldn't be winking and nodding to new citizens who swear allegiance without meaning it. Instead, it should empower the State Department to revoke one's citizenship when his loyalty to another country can be proved. To do less undermines our nationhood.

Marc J. Lane ( is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law.


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Copyright © 2002 by Crain Communications Inc.

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