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Op-Ed: US Election


Did I ever really have a say?


By Christina Warren in Bern


Giving up her citizenship was a painful process for Christina Warren (Reuters)

Giving up her citizenship was a painful process for Christina Warren

(Reuters)

In 2014, Christina Warren made the difficult decision to renounce her US citizenship. The process, she says, was preceded by angst, anger and grief, followed by a period of working through those emotions. In many ways it was like a divorce. And this divorce left her with no say in the 2016 Presidential elections for the first time in her adult life. 

By Christina Warren

If the United States were a man, I could say I fell in love with him because of the values I felt he stood for. I believed the United States was a democratic nation with a government by the people and for the people. A government which gave its citizens a voice and listened to what they had to say. Although not perfect, this “man” made an effort to “do the right thing” in the best interest of its citizens.

Why divorce such a man? The Foreign Accounts Tax Compliancy Act (FATCA) was certainly a catalyst in my decision. It became law in 2010 and not only requires foreign financial institutions to report all accounts held by US citizens, but also requires US citizens abroad to report all their foreign financial and offshore assets. In other words, if a US citizen lives in Switzerland and has a local bank account, the US government considers the bank to be a foreign financial institution and these assets must be reported to the “Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.” 

I am not a criminal. Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’? Could I trust a government that required my non-resident alien spouse to release his financial data just because we had a joint account? It obviously didn’t trust me. How far would these laws go in the future? And whatever happened to ‘no taxation without representation’? US citizens abroad do not have their own representative in Congress, and getting a congressperson’s attention is nearly impossible if you are a US citizen overseas.

This was not the ‘man I had married’.

The grieving process

I became a former US citizen on June 12, 2014. Some families stay connected after a divorce. Some don’t. I am occasionally asked if I still feel American. Other times, I am simply told that I am, despite no longer having the papers. I can’t say I particularly like either the question or the statement.

FATCA fallout

Four times a year, the names of United States citizens who have rescinded their citizenship are published in the Federal Register. In September 2013, BBC News reported that the number of expatriates who renounced their citizenship had risen from 189 in the second quarter of 2012 to 1,131 in the second quarter of 2013. On February 8, 2016, the list was 16 pages long, with roughly 75 names per page. If the quarterly figures are calculated on the basis of a year, around 5,800 US citizens can be expected to become former citizens in 2016. 

In the weeks leading up to my renunciation, I spent hours listening to blues and jazz. Often I would begin sobbing before a song had ended. I flipped through novels and short story collections by Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, worried that I would be giving up my cultural heritage.

With time, though, I realized that the piece of paper that defined my United States citizenship did not define me. Nor did the lack of that paper take away my connection to the things I loved most about the area I had grown up in.

I realized that I am who I am, regardless.

Am I a US American? Not anymore, and I no longer wish to be referred to as one. Perhaps this will mellow in years to come.

Falling on deaf ears

FATCA has caused problems for many US citizens abroad. Banks are often hesitant to take on US citizens as customers, some people have had difficulty maintaining their banking relationships, and many find the accounting fees necessary to sort out the tax paperwork too high to bear. Much like an ex-wife trying to get her former spouse’s attention, I, along with an international group of dedicated volunteers, have sent out tweets, made phone calls and written to various organisations about these side effects.

The responses have been varied. By some we were hailed as brave, true Americans, living by the example set by our founding fathers. Others call us traitors.

Replies from Congressional representatives have been few and oftentimes disappointing. Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote the following in response to a letter explaining the banking difficulties created by FATCA:

“…I recognize that FATCA implementation has not been perfect, and it troubles me that financial institutions overseas would deny services to Americans out of concern over FATCA compliance. However, according to the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, the U.S. Treasury may be losing more than $100 billion in tax revenues every year as a result of offshore tax havens. I believe measures like FATCA clamp down on overseas tax evasion and help make sure that everyone pays their fair share of taxes. …”

Really? Does Senator Warren not realize that according to a list published by the IRS, most citizens caught hiding money in foreign bank accounts are wealthy citizens living in the USA? The dental hygienists, IT professionals, English teachers, artists, and others living abroad are hardly the guilty parties. They pay their fair share of taxes where they live and many end up owing nothing to the US government.

If an intelligent, forward-thinking senator could not give a less generic response than that, what hope is there? Moreover, if all laws are passed based on what a committee says may be happening, how solid could that lawmaking process be?

Disenfranchised

It has been two years since I divorced the USA and for the first time since I turned 18, I cannot vote in a presidential election. It is tempting to shrug the whole thing off with “Not my circus, not my monkeys”, but that would deny the fact that I still care. Whether I like it or not, US policies have a global impact.

The RAND Corporation recently conducted a survey to determine which demographic supports which candidate. It seems Donald Trump does very well among people who feel as if they have no voice in the process. As the primaries have shown us, this is no small number.

Did I ever have a say? Based on government responses to complaints concerning the problems created by FATCA, I am not sure I ever did.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

Opinion series

swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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