Saturday 27 August 2016

Born in the USA

Imagine that your parents are having a last holiday in a foreign country, before impending parenthood makes travelling complicated. Imagine that you happen to decide to turn up early. Imagine that nine weeks later you and your parents leave the country where you revealed yourself sooner than expected and you all return to your homeland, never visiting the country where your birth took place again. Imagine that almost six decades later you arrive in Brussels and go to set up a bank account and are told that you cannot because there is an international alert in force, preventing the banking authorities in Belgium from providing you with any services until you have paid the taxes you owe in the country that all those years before you chose - recklessly, as it turns out - to be born.

Believe it or not, if you were born in the United States of America, however limited the contact you have since had with that nation, this is now the fate that you are liable to face. Yesterday I met a woman who had just encountered this exact dilemma. Having lived and worked for all her life, apart from that first nine weeks, in Australia - the country whose passport she travels under, the country that she, plus her parents, her siblings, her entire extended family are all citizens of - having dutifully paid her taxes to the government there, year after year, decade after decade, she decided to move to a job in Brussels. Shortly after arrival, she went to the local bank to see about setting up an account for herself. She was told it was impossible, as the United States tax authorities have some kind of warrant out for non-payment of taxes on her behalf. To add insult to injury, if she doesn't want to continue being liable for annual US taxation, she is going to have to renounce the US citizenship she wasn't even aware she had - and the US government will charge her a mere 3000 Euros for that, on top of her current tax bill! (This may be the first exclamation mark I have ever used in this blog, but, in the circumstances, really nothing else will do).

Apparently the US government enacted a change in their laws in 2014, which makes these extortionary actions legal in their eyes. But what are they thinking? What do they think taxes are for, why do they think most of us pay them without much fuss? In my naive imagining, taxes are a fee that we pay to the government of the country that is our home - and in exchange that government, (our own government, not some government in another country), provides services that when seen as a whole create - or at least attempt to create - the kind of society in which we feel happy to live and able to call home.

Taxes are not just some form of extortion or robbery that you arbitrarily exact from people who happen to have been, no matter how fleetingly, on your territory at the time of their birth.  Taxes are not something anyone should be required to pay to the government of a country that they do not live in, that they have never voted in, whose services they have never called upon. How can the United States of America defend this shameful policy?

As someone commented, on hearing my new acquaintance's sorry tale, "Surely the United States already has quite a few enemies; does it really want to make a whole lot more?"


  1. The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established the rule that native birth conferred citizenship. Those enacting it had in mind rights rather than duties, and certainly not the federal income tax, which had to wait for the 16th Amendment, ratified about forty-five years later. Certainly the IRS is overreaching in this matter.

    Having said that, nations on their uppers will sometimes do that. It was British doctrine at one time that no foreign citizenship could affect one's status as a subject. This led to a degree of hard feelings in the early 19th Century, for the Royal Navy would impress seamen undoubtedly natives of the United Kingdom but naturalized in the US. The War of 1812 was settled on the status quo ante bellum, but by then the Napoleonic Wars we over, and the demand for sailors had fallen off.

    1. You are quite right, George - the US authorities obligingly pointed out that since the Civil War they could have been doing this, but only enacted legislation that really got things going in 2014. As to what the UK authorities may or may not have once done, if you are Australian, you cannot be held accountable for that

    2. I hold nobody accountable for the interpretation of rules that held two hundred years ago.

    3. Oh that's good - I thought I was being press-ganged (see what I did there?) into partial blame for the errors of the Royal Navy (which actually might not be entirely unreasonable, given I come from a naval family, but I'll keep that under my hat, oh, whoops).