It Hurts My Heart: On Renouncing American Citizenship

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IT HURTS MY HEART: On Renouncing American Citizenship

Essay by Christina Warren with Photographs by Lars Deutschlaender

Kleineschanze2_sm
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Bern, Switzerland is built on a horseshoe bend of the river Aare. Its old town is in the center of this horseshoe and is designated a UNESCO World-Heritage site. Bridges lead to the ‘younger’ neighborhoods. Mine, the Monbijou, is only a ten-minute walk from the Bundeshaus or Parliament building. My favorite route to the old town is through Flora Park, past the gated compound of the American Embassy

FloraPark_sm Dreifaltigkeitskirche_sm

and through the Kleine
Schanze, a park bordering
the Bundeshaus and offering
and offering views of the Alps.
I have taken this walk countless times, passing
the embassy, sometimes stopping to light a candle at the
Dreifaltigkeitskirche, a catholic
church located just outside the Kleine Schanze.

 
On June 12th, 2014, on our third hot day of what had been so far a cool, rainy summer, I am taking this walk with my Swiss husband. He is dressed in a weather-appropriate ‘Move Ya Body’ t-shirt and floppy shorts. Heeding my mother’s advice to dress nicely, I have elected to wear a weather-defiant conservative suit and simple blouse. This time we will not pass the embassy, but instead, will stop to enter it for the very first time. I have a 2:30 p.m. appointment to renounce my citizenship.
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We had left early, expecting the normal long line of people waiting for visas. There is no one. My husband walks me to the labyrinth of barriers set up to keep the lines organized. For security reasons, he will not be allowed in and for security reasons I only have the appropriate documents with me: my American passport, my Swiss passport, a copy of the pre-appointment questionnaire, my renunciation fee of $450 (which would be raised to $2350 in September 2014), and just in case—the other information documents the embassy sent informing me that this step, when taken, is irrevocable. Unseen, but certainly there, is an enormous pressure in my chest. My breathing is shallow.

I check the door. It is locked. As I turn to my husband, a security guard opens it. I fumble with my passport, look back at my husband and go to him for one last kiss. He will meet me after 3:00 p.m. when this is over.
The guard speaks African-accented English. He walks me through the security process. “Put your documents in this box, please.” He seems friendly and kind. I put my things in a plastic box like those used at airport security.
“Do I need to put my jacket in it, too?” I am shaking. Not hearing what he says, I take it off and put it in. He asks me to take off my watch and put it in the box. I can keep my wedding ring and my shoes on.
Before I walk through a metal detector, he asks me to take off my belt. I fumble again.
“You can leave it on.” His voice is soft.
I swallow tears as I walk through the metal detector. He then scans me with a wand—front and back—with my arms open and out by my sides. Nothing beeps.
In Dutch-accented English, his colleague takes me through the inventory of things in my box. She asks me if I want to leave my sunglasses at this station. Confused, I look at the documents and sunglasses I am holding in my hand. “No, thank you. I can manage.”
The next step takes me through a door and back outside. I go down a small ramp and find a door. There is a lone security guard there.
“I have a two-thirty appointment.” My throat feels dry.
“Take a seat there,” he says, pointing to a row of chairs and then adds, “Don’t put your sunglasses on.” They are still in my hand.
I am surprised to see someone else sitting there. I take a seat next to a woman dressed more in keeping with the summer season, a thin folder of documents in her hand. She doesn’t look at me; her focus is straight ahead. I blink hard and swallow.
There is a man at the window talking to a white-haired official. He raises his hand, takes an oath, turns and leaves. He is smiling. I wonder if he is an “accidental American,” one of those citizens who are born in the USA to alien parents, but raised elsewhere. Their only tie to the US is their place of birth; but whether they know it or not, their obligations, for example, to file annual income tax forms, are the same as non-accidentals.
The white-haired embassy official calls a name. The woman stands and goes to the window. She is asked to sign documents, and raise her hand to “swear or affirm” that the information given is true to the best of her knowledge. From what I can hear of her accent, I can tell she is a native Swiss. In less than five minutes it is over. She isn’t smiling as she leaves. The white-haired man disappears. I realize I have just witnessed a renunciation. Two, in fact.
Except for the security guard, who discreetly looks up every now and then, I am alone in a sterile narrow room that looks much like a bank. In front of me are four “bank-teller” windows. On the wall to my right are two framed posters that I won’t remember when this is over. To the left of the windows are simple A-4 signs, one reminding citizens to “Remember the past, think of the future and vote.” I notice little brass plaques next to each of the “teller” windows. They seem to say, “Smile you are not a criminal.” Puzzled I get up to examine them more closely. They actually say, “Smile you are on camera.”
I check the time. My appointment won’t be for another 10 minutes. The pressure in my chest is uncomfortable. I breathe consciously in an attempt to ease it away. A lady in a wheelchair appears on the embassy employee side of a window and calls my name. She asks for my passports and gives me a “Certificate of Loss of Nationality Information Sheet” and says I can read it later. Her accent is American. It is time to pay, but I don’t pay her. Instead I am instructed to go around the corner to booth four and ring the bell. The cashier will come and take my money along with a second document the lady gives me. I do as I am told.
Booth four is dark. There is a blind drawn on the other side of the window. I have trouble finding the bell, but then realize that it is the flat thing much like the doorbell that had been on our front door back in Mississippi. I press it. Nothing happens. I notice a sign saying they don’t accept notes printed before 2006. Surprised, I look at my bills; one of them is from 2003. I check the documentation I had been sent. It says that no bills printed before 2000 will be accepted. I am relieved. I’ll just have to show them my papers and stand my ground. I press the button again. Nothing happens. I ask the security guard if the bell works. He smiles and says yes. Finally, the blinds are raised, and I am reminded of “The Wizard of Oz.” I point out the differences in information and that I have a bill from 2003. She apologizes and explains that they had just changed the rules. She sounds British. I pay and she tells me I will get my receipt after my interview. I go back to the chairs and wait.
The woman in the wheelchair brings a file to the farthest window at the right. The white-haired man reappears and calls my name. I approach the window. He greets me with a polite, “How are you today?” and I give the standard response—fully aware that our exchange is bizarrely out of place. He asks me to sign two sets of two documents each. I sign the first set and realize I haven’t read what I signed. I glance through them and then sign the second set. Eye contact is minimal.
“Raise your right hand.”
I do as I am told.
“Do you swear or affirm that all the information presented here is correct to the best of your knowledge?”
I repeat, using “affirm” rather than “swear.” He explains that my documents along with my passport will be sent to the State Department for approval. Once that is done I will receive a Certificate of Renunciation along with my canceled passport. He gives me my Swiss passport and my receipt. It is marked 2:37:01 PM “Renunciation of,” “Customer Copy” and “All Transactions are Final – No Refunds.” As I prepare to leave he says, “Thank you.”
Words catch in my throat, “I don’t know how to say ‘you’re welcome’ under these circumstances.”
“That’s OK, I understand.”
As I am leaving, the security guard wishes me a nice day. I put on my sunglasses. I walk up the ramp and to the second door. The other two security guards are still there. They too wish me a nice day. I don’t remember how I answer.
Outside the building, I look at my watch; it is 2:45p.m. My renunciation had taken all of 15 minutes. My husband is not there yet, but I know where to find him. After standing at the edge of the street waiting for cars to go by, I finally cross into Flora Park. It is the same as it had been less than 20 minutes before. In the soundtrack of my mind, I hear Peggy Lee singing, Is that all there is, my friend… The pressure in my chest is gone. I am breathing easily.
The questionnaire I had filled in prior to renunciation had asked if I would like to make a written statement as to why I was choosing to renounce. I had declined that opportunity, but I had given it a lot of thought. Why had I chosen to do this? Why had I taken a step that is absolutely final?
Most statesiders don’t know that non-resident US citizens have always been required to file income tax returns with the IRS. There is a Foreign Earned Income Exclusion, which may vary depending on how much time the non-resident spends in the States, and it is possible to make deductions. One normally only has to pay taxes on the difference if there is less tax paid in the host country. It can be pretty straightforward, but becomes more complicated as one acquires property or has investments. Double taxation is still possible—especially when it comes to retirement savings and pension funds.
In 2008 Swiss banks came under increasing pressure after a scandal involving the Swiss bank, UBS. It wasn’t long before all non-resident US citizens living in Switzerland began feeling the side-effects. It had become a burden for Swiss banks to have American clients. Mortgages were canceled and accounts closed. Swiss citizens living in the USA also began feeling the squeeze. Swiss banks wrote letters to these expat Swiss requesting that accounts be closed and safety deposit boxes emptied. Ties with the USA had become a liability for account holders.
The Foreign Account Compliance Act or FATCA became law in 2010. FATCA not only requires foreign financial institutions to report all accounts held by US citizens, it also targets US citizens about foreign financial assets and offshore assets. By law all US citizens must report all foreign accounts to the US government regardless of where they live. For me, this is not a simple process. There is form 8939 in addition to the Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts or FBAR (formerly known as TD F 90), both of which are sent to the “Department of the Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.”
I am not a criminal.
I work hard and I pay taxes. My bank is not a Foreign Financial Institution. It is a Swiss bank and, since I live here, I consider it a Domestic Financial Institution.
I am one of those US citizens who had not been regularly filing my income tax forms. I knew that I earned under the foreign earned income exclusion, so I wasn’t too worried about it. But with FATCA this changed. By the end of 2012, I knew I had to do something, so I began gathering five years of paperwork. It sat in the corner of my office for a year before I finally organized it into logical units that could be scanned and sent to an accountant specializing in US tax returns. In the meantime my bank had asked me to sign a form giving them permission to send my bank data to the US authorities—including information about my husband’s and my joint accounts. My husband is a non-resident alien spouse; he is a Swiss citizen, living in Switzerland. Despite the fact that he had signed papers declaring he did not have a green card and was not a US citizen, he had to sign the same documents releasing his bank data to the US—just in case we were hiding my money in his bank accounts.
I had my paperwork ready and scanned by early February 2014. After sending them to the accountant, I asked for an estimate so that I could plan my budget. She quoted roughly CHF 2,000 per year (about $2,240)—slightly higher than a “normal” private person because I am also self-employed and unbeknownst to me my little “entirely Swiss” company has to report to the US government as well.
I am a Swiss citizen because my mother is Swiss – from the Emmental. People from the Emmental are practical. We are taught to save money, buy only the things we can afford and if we want something we can’t yet afford, we save for it. I am not good with numbers but I can multiply both CHF2,000 and $2,240 by five, the number of years I was being billed for. CHF10,000 ($11,200) is a lot of money. I tend to be quite frugal, and after having seen the amount of money I would have to pay an accountant to be compliant, I had to call a friend to talk me off the ledge.
Fortunately, the final bill was just over half the estimated amount—still a healthy sum to prove that I don’t owe anything. Ironically, according to the tax returns, the US government owes me money—$123. I later received letters from the IRS disallowing this “refund.”
But are these laws fair? I have read the history behind them and I have read about Delaware, which seems to proudly boast that it is the nation’s tax haven. I have read about Irish Inversions—a legal, tax-avoiding maneuver saved for corporations, which are considered people except when it is more advantageous to be a corporation. And I’ve talked to the mother of a mentally disabled adult son, who having been born in the USA is an “accidental American.” Being typically Swiss they had worked and saved and put money aside for him in a trust fund, so that he could be taken care of when they were no longer here. When I talked to her, she was at a loss as to what to do because the IRS was interested in her son’s bank account. I have read about other, similar cases.
Switzerland is not a tax haven if you live and work here. We pay a lot in taxes, but we get a lot. Great public transportation. Excellent infrastructure. Excellent services. As a Swiss citizen, I can vote and if I were so inclined, I could gather signatures for a referendum. I have never done that, but I have certainly signed many petitions, and I vote.
When I began considering renunciation, some of my friends thought I was crazy. Talk to your representative they said. I didn’t have one. Should I have contacted someone in Mississippi, a state I haven’t lived in since 1985, the year I moved to Switzerland? Or perhaps someone in Indiana, a state I had never lived in but had had a contact address in? Would anyone care? How fair is the law, when you have no representative?
While reading about FATCA, I came across a quote from a senate staffer who preferred to remain anonymous, “…nobody in Congress represents overseas Americans. And government officials think this law is succeeding at catching the tax cheats. That may be worth the side effect of losing a few thousand American citizens every year. …”
What happened to “Taxation without representation is tyranny?” I am not a tax cheat, I am not a criminal, and apparently I am not worth the effort to change legislation.
For most of March and April, I alternated between anger and depression as I waited for my returns to come back. I talked to friends who had renounced and those who hadn’t. Most importantly I read and did some heavy duty soul-searching.
In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail”, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote:

…an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.

How does one show passive resistance or civil disobedience towards a law that carries consequences not just for the citizen, but also for the citizen’s non-resident alien family and for their bank? A law that some consider to be unconstitutional in that it violates the fourth amendment (unreasonable search and seizure) and the eighth amendment which prevents cruel and unusual punishment (in this case heavy fines).
Civil disobedience didn’t seem to be an option here. So I offered my resistance the only way I could, by renouncing my citizenship.
But never think that this was an easy choice.
William Faulkner wrote a short story called “Two Soldiers.” In it, the older of two brothers, Pete, decides to join the army after hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The younger brother, who is only nine years old, doesn’t really understand that the war is far away and is determined to go with his big brother to “chop firewood and tote water” for the troops. The day after Pete leaves the Mississippi farm to go to Memphis and join, the younger brother sneaks off and heads to Memphis as well. Despite the distance the young boy manages to find the city, get to the army recruitment center and ask for his brother. The officers realize that they need to get the older brother to talk to the young boy. When Pete firmly insists that his younger brother has to go home, the child says, “It hurts my heart, Pete.”
And that is exactly how I feel. This hurts my heart, but I could not continue to comply with a law that I feel is short-sighted, imperialistic and unjust.

Christina Warren is a former Mississippian, living in Bern, Switzerland, where she works as an English teacher and translator.

[copyright 2015, Christina Warren]

20 thoughts on “It Hurts My Heart: On Renouncing American Citizenship

  1. OutragedCanadian

    This is a very touching story as are the resulting comments. I can only hope that it’s being read widely, and hope that it actually touches the politicians and bureaucrats stone hearts. While I don’t have any angst, having never felt like a US citizen, I can empathize, a trait which seems to be sorely lacking in our collective governments, most especially the US government bureaucrats.

    @gailie, hang in there. Please do use this site, and Isaac Brock to talk about things and get the support you need. Being caught in this situation, hurts financially but most of all, it hurts emotionally – fear, anger, disappointment, sense of betrayal. There are so many people who are going through the same things, and these sites are a wonderful support.  It’s awful and it’s sad, but sometimes just being able to share with someone can be a help.

    Reply
    1. gailie

      Thank you both for your nice comments and I apologize for not mentioning and being sympathetic to Christina’s situation. I’ve never been on one of these forums before and am just trying to absorb everything on here.
      I just learned yesterday that I owe $41K to the US for two taxation years!! Something to do with dividends and capital gains being charged at a lower rate in Canada than the US.
      I’m just outraged and sick that the US feels they can just stick their greedy hands out to innocent people like me. I pay my taxes here and my late husband worked very hard to ensure his family would be comfortable – we’re not rich, but comfortable and now that is in jeopardy going forward.

  2. Lynne Swanson

    @Gailie: Like EmBee, my heart breaks for you and I am outraged that this is happening to you and to so many of us by a foreign government.

    More importantly, I am outraged our own Canadian government considers us second class Canadian citizens and surrendered our rights to a foreign bully.

    Please know you are among friends here. We all have different circumstances, different stories, different lives and different outlooks. But, we support each other through this travesty.

    Reply
  3. EmBee

    @ gailie
    It hurts my heart that you are going through all this. Since you are so far into the process and have invested so much, you really seem to have no choice but to gut it out to the end, symbolized by a precious CLN. A friend of the Maple Sandbox and the Isaac Brock Society, Just Me, calls the investment of time and money you are making to obtain the freedom you should have had in the first place, LCUs (Life Credit Units). As you grind your way through the paperwork and watch the depletion of your savings you might, in a misery loves company manner, want to read about his journey …
    http://isaacbrocksociety.ca/2012/02/04/letters-to-shulman-or-a-case-study-of-ovdp-communication-attempts-with-the-irs/

    Reply
  4. gailie

    I was born in Canada and when my late husband was transferred to the US, the lawyers working on getting his green card discovered my mother was born in the US and therefore it was determined I qualified to apply for US citizenship. I received as passport and I was quite happy that I had dual citizenship. We lived in the US for 12 really great years and during that time, I did not work. Because our tax filing was complicated between the two countries, we had accountants file our returns. When we moved back to Canada in 1999, after that final 1999 US return, my husband was able to do the tax returns each year. At no time, were we ever informed by accountants that I was required to file US taxes back on home soil. I only just discovered this last year and as you all know, it completely disrupts your life. I’m 56 years old, born in Canada, lived only 12 years in the US, yet it looks like I may have to pay taxes to the US. It is costing me $5000.00 just to file for 3 years. It has cost me nearly $1000.00 in fees from my bank to get 5 years of statements from various accounts. I don’t know how much I owe, as they are not completely finished, but they did tell me it looks like I will have to pay for two of those three years! I’m sick about this as I have no idea how much this is going to set me back. I can’t plan anything, and I’m tightening the purse strings. How much are they going to take, money we’ve worked hard for, and already paid taxes on? It incenses me that I have to give one penny to that country that since I’ve been back in Canada provides me with nothing, other than the “privilege” of being a US citizen. I will be in line, along with many other people to hand back my US passport, in fact, I’d like to throw it in someone’s face.

    Reply
    1. Portland PLC

      gailie, Is it too late for you to say “I’m not going to do it”? You were born in Canada. It would be a relatively simple matter to say no.

  5. diharv

    I relinquished a year ago. I agonized about it for quite awhile beforehand but felt I had no choice. The neverending stress and ridiculous accounting fees and threats and fear of opening the mailbox was too much to bear for myself and for what it was doing to me , my family. My father may he RIP was a very patriotic American and for many years I wore my USC proudly as a badge of honor. That all ended in 2011 . My main fear about giving up USC was about how it would make me feel afterward. To tell the truth , I felt sad for a few minutes I think. Maybe I felt nothing . I was numb. I was at a conference in Vancouver at the time so I shook it off and then partied my guts out the rest of the day and night with my friends! I feel no remorse or guilt. I didn’t betray my birthcountry. It betrayed me and I will never forgive that gov’t for that.

    Reply
    1. Christina Warren

      Diharv, I know hat you mean about the mixed emotions before renouncing. I spent a lot of time processing those emotions. I absolutely did not want to cry during the process and I didn’t – thankfully. But I was very somber. Afterwards my husband and I went for a walk and stopped for a drink at a restaurant on the Aare. I am mostly angry now – like after a very bad divorce. I don’t like being asked if I am American. I always answer, “No, I am Swiss, but I grew up in the States.” Betrayal is a good word.

    2. Lynne Swanson

      We have been betrayed by two countries.  The country of our birth and the country of our choice–whether that is Canada, Switzerland, Austrailia, Sweden, India or other for sacrificing their loyal citizens and residents to the U.S. bully with the FATCA IGA.

      Thank you Christine for sharing your sad but all to familiar story with us.

  6. PatCanadian

    Hi Christina,
    Thanks for sharing your touching story on renouncing US citizenship. As a Canadian citizen who recently renounced US citizenship I can really appreciate this. And yes, we are fortunate to have a second citizenship as Frank has commented.

    When I first realized that I would need to become a non US person, it was very disturbing. My relatives in the States had no idea what FATCA was. After some time spent processing FATCA and the IGA business, I began to feel differently. My US relatives have even begun to understand what is happening.

    I realized that I felt badly about giving up my birthright to US citizenship. However, the United States that I admired had long since ceased to exist. The founding principles of my beloved country were no longer honored by its politicians. The US has changed very dramatically and it’s citizens loosing their fundamental freedoms. We still need to stand up for those rights and freedoms but we may need to do this from a different perspective now.

    I have found a sense of peace, freedom and happiness in becoming simply Canadian. It is great that there are enough brave souls in Canada to support our lawsuit against FATCA.

    Best wishes on your journey as a Swiss citizen and non US person.

    Reply
  7. Frank

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    You were, in a sense, lucky to have had already acquired the local citizenship. Since it can take 10 years or more to even be able to apply for it, renouncing the US citizenship is, for most people, not even an option.

    They have to keep suffering and live in fear each time they open their mailbox. They may just be told that, for example, their bank accounts, necessary for any kind of normal life, are being canceled for no other reason than their owners having US citizenship! And, of course, no other bank willing to take them on as new customers for the same reasons, or, more aptly said, being considered (too) ‘hot potatoes’ and customers-non-grata.
    Even US banks are barring an increasing number of services to Americans living abroad, ever more increasing the bizarre reality of being between a rock and a hard place, all the while being taxed twice with all the financial and logistical difficulties going along with it.

    As sad as it is, but the assessment, that a US passport has become a severe liability, is entirely correct. One wonders, how driving away the very every-day ambassadors of American Life in other countries could possibly be in the interest of the country at large.

    Reply
    1. Christina Warren

      My thoughts go out to those who are caught in Limbo. Surely that is not what the lawmakers intended when they wrote FATCA. How could they have not thought this through?

    1. Christina Warren

      Thanks. I have been touched by the comments I have read at the Isaac Brock Society. There must be a way to inform Statesiders of the injustice. But how??? You guys are doing an amazing job. Is it the cold Canadian winters that give you guys so much spunk?

  8. Mark Still

    I read all of this slowly. Her words could be mine. I can not believe that this is being done to Americans Living and Working Abroad. Unbelievable! This is not the USA. I am sure that President Obama is not aware that this is going on. He seem to be a fair man that is being mislead by his helpers who are after money from people without representation. Even Nina Olson from the IRS’ has reported to the Congress that Americans Abroad are being trapped to pay exorbitant fines.

    Reply
  9. Hannah Swain

    I really appreciated getting to read this, as I am on the cusp of making the same decision – for exactly the same reasons.

    Reply
  10. John Doe of Mississippi

    This letter should get to Senator Wicker of Mississippi, who was a cosponsor for Rand Paul’s repeal FATCA bill and has recently had a global conference call discussion about FATCA and FBAR.

    Reply
    1. Christina Warren

      If you can get it to him, please do. I looked at his Website and a US address is needed to contact him there. I am a neanderthal when it comes to social media and have opened a twitter account, but using it is a different matter all together. My sister is stateside, but not in Mississippi. She sent a tweet in his direction – but will his staff read it?

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