A Brief History of Expatriation Law

The US was founded by the act of expatriation of citizens from England, but ironically did not include the right to do so itself in any of its founding documents. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution both interestingly omit such a possibility. This is a large reason behind the anti-expatriation sentiment that can be felt in certain areas of the press and mainstream media to this day. Let’s take a closer look to understand how the law took on its current shape and form.

Renunciation Not Allowed By the Founding Fathers

When the US was founded it didn’t include the right for its citizens to renounce US citizen. This was at odds with the notion that the US was open to anyone wishing to leave their own country and start a new life in the new world. In fact, the US was following the English common-law tradition that every citizen was born with a debt of obligation to their country of birth. This irony was not lost on Congress, who changed the law in 1868.

1868: Renunciation Becomes a Burning Issue

In 1868 Congress declared that any act of the government which “denies, restricts, impairs, or questions the right of expatriation” is “inconsistent with the fundamental principles of this government.” Whilst this clearly recognized the right to renunciation, Congress reserved the right to revoke this right at any time.

The 20th Century and the Role of the Supreme Court

Throughout the 20th Century there were a number of high profile cases in which it was determined that involuntary loss of citizenship was unconstitutional. This therefore meant that a US citizen could only lose their US citizenship when they expressly and explicitly asked to do so. Actions such as voting in a foreign election, or deserting a military post, would not be sufficient because they would not offer proof that the individual willfully did so with the aim of renouncing their citizenship.

Today’s Outlook

Since 1990 it has only been possible for the Department of State to revoke a person’s citizenship if they appear in person at a US consulate or embassy and explicitly ask to renounce their citizenship.