Global Policy Forum

As Rules Ease, More Citizens Choose to Fly 2 Flags


By Amy Cortese

New York Times
July 15, 2001

Orazio Gigli was a teenager in 1972, when he and his family left behind the orange-scented hills of his native Capaci, outside Palermo, Sicily, in search of greater economic opportunity in the United States. When he became an American citizen five years later, he had to renounce his Italian citizenship, but he never let go of his memories of playing street soccer with a ball made of rags or of the close-knit community of family and neighbors that shared his life.

"In my heart, I will always be an Italian," said Mr. Gigli, 45, a labor union executive who now lives in White Plains with his wife, Marina, 48, and his grown daughters, Michelle and Felicia. And now, because of a change in the laws in Italy, he will always be an Italian. In 1992, the government there began allowing dual citizenship, enabling Mr. Gigli to reclaim his Italian nationality.

The United States has long been a beacon of welcome for immigrants. In the last five years alone, nearly four million foreigners became American citizens, but an inverse trend is taking hold. A growing number of Americans, either born in this country or naturalized citizens like Mr. Gigli, are taking advantage of more liberal policies in other countries and in the United States to become dual citizens.

The reasons for doing so are as diverse as the people seeking the dual status. But several factors are fueling the trend, including a growing interest in genealogy and a desire to connect with family roots, the changing meaning of national boundaries, as in the European Union and the former Soviet Union, and the forging of trade alliances like the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Of course, it can also be a status symbol for the upwardly mobile businessman or businesswoman.) "E.U. citizenship is a big deal," said Matthew Shultz, an immigration lawyer at the law firm Baker & McKenzie. Someone who is a citizen of one European Union country, he added, can live or work in any of the others.

Many foreign countries are putting out the welcome mat for various reasons -- to stem a talent brain drain, for example, or to attract the tax revenue of cash-flush retirees looking for places to spend their golden years. Under its Economic Citizenship Program, intended to reward individuals who contribute to its economy, the tiny Caribbean nation of Belize allows anyone willing to pay $50,000 in fees to become a citizen. The new Belizeans are allowed to retain their native citizenship and may take advantage of Belize's lenient tax laws, which include no capital gains or estate taxes and no tax on income earned outside Belize.

Dozens of countries have smoothed the way for people, with or without ancestral ties, to have their feet firmly planted in two or more lands. And in many of those countries, citizenship can be passed on to children. The United States has also steadily relaxed its policies over the last two decades, thanks in part to the end of the cold war and a 1967 Supreme Court ruling that the United States could not strip away American citizenship because of a person's attachments to another nation.

T. Alexander Aleinikoff, a law professor at Georgetown University and director of the Comparative Citizenship Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sees the dual-citizenship trend continuing because of the more liberal laws and policies and the fact that 10 percent of the American population is foreign-born.

While some critics call dual citizenship "political polygamy," contending that multiple allegiances cheapen the notion of citizenship, others see many benefits in an emerging global economy. For starters, dual citizenship allows someone to live and work more freely in another country or, in the case of the European Union, any of the 15 member nations. In some countries, like Mexico, dual citizens living abroad can even vote in elections. Citizenship can also make it easier to own property and businesses.

Many dual citizens born in the United States also cite the benefits of traveling without a United States passport, which can mean shorter lines at overseas customs and avoiding anti-American sentiment in some parts of the world.

There can be pitfalls, too. Unless they research the rules in advance, dual citizens may be surprised to learn that they may have to serve in the second country's military, or be subject to its taxes. Foreign consulates in the United States can answer most questions about citizenship requirements and eligibility. Although the rules and procedures vary by country, getting dual citizenship can be a long, complicated process. And the processing fees can total $200 or so.

Generally, Americans become eligible for citizenship in another country in one of two ways: by a direct bloodline (called ius sanguinis in Latin, or right of blood), for those with a parent or grandparent who was born in the second country, or through naturalization for others, including those who marry nationals.

Many American citizens whose parents or grandparents were immigrants are finding that they may be eligible for citizenship in their ancestral homelands. In some countries, like Ireland, simply having a parent or grandparent who was born in the country may be enough. But elsewhere the rules are often much more complicated: In Italy, for example, you may be eligible if at least one of your parents was an Italian citizen at the time of your birth, even if he or she lived in the United States. But that applies only if you were born after 1948, and if neither you nor, in certain cases, your parent renounced Italian citizenship.

In most cases, you will have to produce some proof -- birth, death, marriage and immigration documents of family and ancestors -- and fill out plenty of paperwork. Finding those documents may require a visit to the ancestral homeland. Many dual citizens say they were helped in their searches by their friends or family overseas. The Internet can ease the process, too., for example, can help track down information on the more than 22 million immigrants who passed through New York's Ellis Island from 1892 to 1924. Once all the paperwork is in, the wait for citizenship can be anywhere from a year to up to 10 years -- as in more restrictive countries like Japan and Germany.

Daniel Kealy, 33, a furniture maker in New York, figures that he spent 15 to 20 hours to apply for Irish citizenship, which was granted within a year. Mr. Kealy was eligible because his maternal grandfather, Daniel O'Keefe, was born in Ireland. Growing up, he was part of the Irish-American community in New York City, where that grandfather was a police officer and his paternal grandfather, William Kealy, a second-generation Irish immigrant, was a firefighter. Mr. Kealy and his mother, Ellen Mary Kealy, 58, both applied for Irish citizenship in 1995 after Mr. Kealy's aunt, Nancy O'Keefe, had successfully done so. Mr. Kealy said he did not have the same identification with his Irish heritage as his grandparents did, but that he and his wife, Alexandra, 35, a pet-store owner, might someday like to live in Ireland or elsewhere in the European Union. Mr. Kealy also figures that it may become harder to get an Irish passport as the country's economic situation improves.

Mr. Gigli, meanwhile, has done his best to keep Italian traditions alive in his family. For the younger generation, he said, the Italian way of life "is slipping away." So Mr. Gigli sings in an Italian-American dinner band and serves as vice president of the local Italian-American soccer league. And he has taken his daughters to Italy several times over the last few years. The next time they visit, they, too, will go as Italian citizens, because Mr. Gigli's dual citizenship extended to his children.

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