Published May 2002
This month, U.S. officials are still at wit’s end trying to figure out what to do with Citizen Hamdi. Yasser Esam Hamdi is the twenty-two-year-old who arrived at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba with the one item that no “battlefield detainee” should leave home without: a U.S. birth certificate. This has led to Hamdi’s transfer to Norfolk, Virginia, and what seems chronic indecision within the Bush Administration in how to handle his case. Despite the fact that Hamdi was only in Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a brief time, it was long enough to be born and to claim to be a “dual citizen.”
As the government decides what to do with Hamdi, his case should focus attention on a long neglected question of the legitimacy of “dual citizenship” or dual nationality” in the United States. Hamdi shares this status with millions of Americans and the number of dual citizens is exploding. The United States currently “shares” citizens with countries that cover the spectrum from the most enlightened democracies to most oppressive regimes. One recent study showed that of the 22 million legal immigrants to the United States between 1961 and 1997, roughly seventy-five per
cent could claim dual citizenship. Almost 100 countries currently allow for dual citizenship, including Mexico which only recently joined this list. The United States is the most common denominator in dual citizenships as the alternative nationality of choice. While the public has never debated the merits and meaning of such shared nationality cases, the government has allowed the practice to flourish through inaction.
Ironically, in Hamdi’s case, any claim to dual citizenship may be undone by his Saudi citizenship. The Saudis do not recognize dual citizenship and require citizens to renounce other allegiances – an express renunciation that severs U.S. citizenship. Thus, the only barrier to dual citizenship for Hamdi is Saudi law, despite the fact that this is a country that is diametrically opposed to principles contained in U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is possible to take an oath to the U.S. Constitution while also taking an oath to a system that treats women like chattel, elevates one religion above all others, engages in rampant abuse of individual rights, and maintains a near absolute monarchy.
Nationality seems to have become something of an afterthought in the global economy. Given the contradictions between the two countries of some dual citizens, this trend appears motivated often by simple convenience. In the new global market, holding multiple nationalities is a distinct advantage. For example, a Danish citizen can hold a European passport that will allow him to avoid any employment restrictions in the European Union (EU). By adding U.S. citizenship, he becomes a world citizen able to claim the protection and benefits of the world’s largest markets. As a result, a new global elite is emerging in which nationality is little more than a cost of doing business. The Danish citizen holding both an EU and a US passport is part of a special group of U.S. citizens who enjoy a status barred to other Americans. While the EU citizen can freely move about Europe in employment and residences, other U.S. citizens face barriers and limitations.
Nationality once represented something more. At one time, citizenship was viewed as an obligation of “perpetual allegiance,” a citizen could not sever citizenship or pledge allegiance to another country without the express consent of his original nation. As a nation of immigrants, the United States was always antagonistic to this concept and the issue came to a head in the War of 1812. The English insisted that naturalized Americans found on U.S. ships could be pressed into involuntary service because, despite their oath as U.S. citizens, they had never been released by their King.
Eventually, the concept of perpetual allegiance was replaced with a concept of voluntary allegiance under which the individual may freely elect to become a citizen of another nation. However, there remained a belief that, if citizenship was not perpetual, it was exclusive. This exclusivity principle was the basis of U.S. policy through the 1950s when a gradual trend toward dual citizenship began around the world.
The United States was formed largely by people with little in common but our beliefs in a unique form of government. While we are a nation composed of rich ethnic neighborhoods, our immigrant ancestors often emphasized to their children that terms like Italian-American or Irish-American referred to their heritage, and not to their nationality. Being an American represented something more than a passport, it represented a type of re-definition of the self. We came from different nations and took a leap of faith in joining a nation of immigrants. Like the arrival of Cortez to the “New World,” the act of naturalization was like burning one’s ships at the shore as a commitment to the future and to each other. It was the exclusivity of the contract that defined the quality of the act of naturalization – as monogamy defines marriage.
There may be good reasons to formally allow this practice as a matter of law. These arguments are particularly compelling in cases of countries that share our same democratic values. Moreover, there is no question that most dual citizens are loyal Americans who contribute greatly to our economy and culture.
However, whatever the merits of dual citizenship, it is not a practice that should be adopted by sheer inaction. If the U.S. government is to allow the gradual diminishment of national identity and allegiance, it should put the question to its citizens. It should not be presented as a simple reality, a fait accompli, after years of tolerance by the State Department. There is no better time to consider the meaning of citizenship than when we are fighting against those who would make any U.S. citizen a de facto target. Clearly, U.S. citizenship carries great meaning for our adversaries. The question is its current meaning for own government.