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U.S. News
Number of dual citizens in U.S. soaring

John Walker Lindh defense says nothing illegal in actions

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

By Jack Kelly, Post-Gazette National Security Writer

John Walker Lindh is a U.S. citizen captured in Afghanistan fighting for the Taliban. So is Baton Rouge-born Yasser Assam Hamdi, a dual citizen of both the United States and Saudi Arabia.

On Monday, Lindh's defense attorneys asked a U.S. district judge in Alexandria, Va., to dismiss charges against Lindh because it is not a crime for a U.S. citizen to serve in a foreign army and because, they claimed, Lindh fought against the Taliban's internal enemies, the Northern Alliance, not the United States.

Meanwhile, Brooklyn-born Michael Cohen, a citizen of the United States and Israel, is fighting for Israel and just took part in the battle of Jenin as a captain in the Israel Defense Forces.

If someone fights for another country, can his citizenship be revoked? If someone is a citizen of more than one country, where does his allegiance lie?

U.S. policy makers are wondering in the wake of the "U.S. Taliban" incidents and as the number of dual citizens soars due to record levels of immigration and a change in Mexican law.

No one knows for sure how many Americans are also citizens of other lands, because neither the U.S. nor other governments keep track. Estimates range from the equivalent of the population of Wyoming (494,000) to that of Tennessee (5.7 million).

International attitudes toward dual citizenship vary. Some nations forbid it. Some encourage it. Most -- like the United States -- officially deplore it, but tolerate it. In all, 93 nations permit dual citizenship in one form or another.


Becoming a dual citizen

Dual citizenship is a worldwide phenomenon, but it is overwhelmingly an American issue, because most of the world's immigrants come here.

There are three ways for someone to become a citizen of the United States:

If you are born here, you are an American, no matter what the nationality of your parents.

If you are born abroad, but at least one of your parents is an American, you'll be considered an American, too (there are some exceptions).

Immigrants who have been granted permanent resident status may become naturalized citizens. Ordinarily, immigrants have to wait five years after receiving their green card to apply for citizenship. Spouses of U.S. citizens only have to wait three years.

The oath that naturalized citizens take requires them to "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty." Old passports must be turned in. But nothing prevents a new citizen from going back to his or her country of origin and getting another. Americans who acquired multiple citizenship at birth are under no legal obligation to put America first.

The country in which a dual citizen resides is generally considered to have the greater claim on allegiance, but no international treaties govern dual citizenship. Each country decides how to treat dual citizens.


Dual citizens as officials

Many Americans have become prominent citizens of other countries. Lithuania's president, Valdas Adamkus, is a former EPA official who has formally renounced his U.S. citizenship. The commander of the Lithuanian armed forces is a retired U.S. Army colonel. His inspector general is a retired Marine colonel. Mohamed Sacirbey, who grew up in the United States, didn't set foot in Bosnia until he went there in 1995 to become its foreign minister.

Most American dual citizens are Mexican-Americans. The most prominent is Juan Hernandez, born in Dallas, who is a member of the Cabinet of Mexican President Vicente Fox.

In 1998, Mexico, which had previously discouraged dual citizenship, passed a law declaring that any persons born in Mexico, or born to Mexican nationals wherever they reside, can claim Mexican citizenship even if they are citizens of another country.

A more recent law permits absentee voting in Mexican elections. The upshot of these changes is that millions of Hispanics could be eligible to vote in Mexico's elections, as well as U.S. elections.


Losing citizenship

Voting in a foreign election, serving in a foreign army, or swearing allegiance to a foreign government used to be automatic grounds for losing U.S. citizenship. But a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 made it all but impossible for someone to lose U.S. citizenship unless he or she wants to give it up.

The case involved a naturalized American citizen originally from Poland, who moved to Israel in 1950. Beys Afroyim tried to get his U.S. passport renewed in 1960, but the State Department turned him down. Afroyim had voted in Israeli elections, which meant he had automatically lost his U.S. citizenship, the department said.

The Supreme Court said the 14th Amendment effectively elevated citizenship to a constitutional right and ruled that it can be lost only if renounced.

Serving in foreign military

Since the Afroyim decision, thousands of Americans have served in foreign militaries -- chiefly the Israel Defense Forces -- and voted in foreign elections.

Americans who serve in the Israel Defense Forces see no conflict between their U.S. and Israeli loyalties.

Michael Cohen has spent roughly half his 37 years in the United States, half in Israel.

"I ran in the Jerusalem marathon this past week," said Cohen, who is an explosive ordnance disposal officer in the IDF reserves. "I carried both an Israeli flag and an American flag. I don't see a conflict between the two. They both stand for democracy, freedom and human rights."

Brian Eglath, 36, who works for the United Jewish Federation in Oakland, is of similar mind. A native of Milwaukee, where his parents still live, Eglath moved to Israel in 1990, and promptly was drafted. He served in the IDF during the Gulf War and said he was both protecting Israel and helping the United States.

"I love America," Eglath said. "When you live abroad, you gain more appreciation for your country of origin."

There is a long tradition of Americans serving in foreign militaries. More than 200 Americans served in the Lafayette Escadrille, a French fighter squadron, in World War I. Hundreds served in the "Eagle" squadrons of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force before U.S. entry into World War II, or in the "Flying Tigers," which was part of the Chinese military. About 4,500 Americans fought in the Spanish Civil War, mostly in the famed Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Americans who served in the Lafayette Escadrille, the Eagle Squadrons and the Flying Tigers had their citizenship restored by acts of Congress. Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were threatened with loss of citizenship, but the threats were not carried out.

Dual citizenship is hard to police because many nations refuse to relinquish their claim to a dual citizen even if he or she wants to be only American. Britain is one of many nations which considers citizenship irrevocable. The War of 1812 was fought in large part because of a controversy over dual citizenship. British warships were stopping American merchant ships and "impressing" sailors into the Royal Navy. The British still considered them British subjects, even though they had taken an oath of allegiance to the United States.

Those who seek dual citizenship do so chiefly for reasons of convenience or patriotism, said Larry Lebowitz of Cohen & Grigsby, a Pittsburgh law firm that specializes in immigration and trade issues. About half of those who get green cards go on to become U.S. citizens, he said.

Permanent residents who have sought his help in becoming citizens do so chiefly because it is easier to travel with a U.S. passport, and because a U.S. passport provides greater protection in most underdeveloped countries, said Lebowitz, who also teaches immigration law at Pitt.

Lebowitz thinks dual citizenship is, on balance, a good thing. "I think it is in our interest. People who have permanent residence here already have demonstrated a commitment to the United States. Becoming a U.S. citizen deepens that commitment."

The dual citizens least likely to put America first are those who come from Muslim countries and Mexican-Americans.

In response to a survey of newly naturalized citizens in Los Angeles, 90 percent of Muslim immigrants said that if there were a conflict between the United States and their country of origin, they would be inclined to support their country of origin, said John Fonte of the Hudson Institute.

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