Sunday, May 3, 2015

Lost Potential

I started this post almost a month ago and then got sidetracked because I reread Phyllis's book then traveled a bit.
 Many, many years ago, back in 1961, Phyllis Michaux and a group of friends founded the A.A.W.E. At the time, US citizenship was hard to come by. By marrying a foreigner and living in the foreign country, and subsequently giving birth abroad, meant that the children might not be American if they, themselves, did not live for a prescribed time in the US. These American Wives of Europeans (The group is much less restrictive in reality -- unmarried women, men with non-European partners are welcome. It is Paris-based.) were unhappy about that. They would lose their citizenship if they took the foreign nationality, and they did not wish to do that, and they were raising their children to love the American side of their families. They worked hard to change the citizenship rules.
Phyllis wrote a book, The Unknown Ambassadors, in which she discussed all the ways we contribute to the United States. At the time, of course, Americans were a rare curiosity. Even in the 70s, when I arrived, we were called upon to explain what the US was doing in Vietnam. Why were we bombing Cambodia? What was this shooting at Kent State? What kind of system is this electoral college? It didn't matter what our own political leanings were, we explained. We still do. What was the fuss over Watergate? What was the fuss over Clinton's sex life? What's the fuss over health care? We are, whether we want to be, or not, a window to our country.
In the 60s, many US companies sent executives abroad to expand their businesses. Those expats brought American goods to foreign countries. So did we permanent Americans abroad. Our little celebrations of Halloween, Thanksgiving, even the way we celebrated childrens' birthday parties seeped into the local culture, as did our breakfast cereals, cookies, and other home delicacies. On return trips, we no longer pack our suitcases full of things we can't find, because we can find almost everything, now. Ordering a turkey for the end of November is no longer a jaw-dropping request. There are chocolate Easter bunnies with the chocolate fish and chickens. Is this a good or bad thing? I'm not going to judge. All I know is that by doing some things the way I grew up influenced my neighbors who liked what they saw and started doing it, too.
In the 70s, a washing machine that could also dry came onto the market, here, in France. It was expensive, but we bought one, because dryers simply were not available. Later, in the early 80s, we got a separate washer and dryer. My neighbor couldn't see the need for a dryer. (Well, she did have a yard, and I was in an apartment and had four young children!) After her first trip abroad, to Canada, she came home and ordered a dryer. Of course, by this time, the US was no longer exporting appliances, so it was just the concept we were importing.
Back to the children. Back in the 1960s and 70s, when Phyllis and some others created AARO the battles were to have our children become American citizens and to be able to vote: "Totally ignorant of the actual workings of the legislative process, we really believed that if Congress could be made to recognize that these young people would grow up able to work and live with ease on both sides of the Atlantic, changes in the law would inevitably follow. Our government would recognize their potential value and, ceasing to reject them, welcome them as valuable elements of the postwar generation." (Phyllis Michaux, The Unknown Ambassadors: A Saga of Citizenship, Aletheia Publications, 1996)
We learned how Congress works. Today, a child born to an American parent abroad is an American. In order to get the child a US passport, one has to report the birth of a US citizen abroad at the embassy or consulate, but even if one neglects to register the birth, never gets the passport, never travels to the US, the child is still an American. Most of us, though, were quite happy to go to the Embassy and get that first passport. We were happy and even anxious to speak English and feeling very guilty if we didn't. We took the kids to AAWE parties for American-style festivities. Many of the children went on to college in the US. They took their other language and other culture to the States, thus enriching life, there. Some fell in love and or got a job in the US; they stayed on. One could almost see a cycle of coming and going.
What is happening, now? The United States has a most unique tax system: citizenship-based taxation. That means that even if you don't live there, you must file your US tax return every year and include your worldwide income and report all foreign (non-US) accounts to the Treasury. Many non-US residents misunderstood or didn't even know about it. Some in the US conjectured that the US was missing out on a lot of income tax from overseas income, so they came up with FATCA, the foreign account tax compliance act, even though most who do file from abroad owe no tax. This requires financial institutions to ferret out all their US customers and report on them. The banks are doing it and either shutting the accounts held by the US customers or requesting them to fill out forms and such. This has alerted many who were unaware of their obligations that they do have such obligations. The penalties for non-filing are very severe, whether tax is due, or not. For many, the solution is to not be an American, to renounce. Renunciation comes at a price (a $2300 renunciation fee plus the cost of doing several years back tax returns and account reports if one hadn't done them plus a lawyer or qualified C.P.A. to help out). The ones most likely to renounce are the American children born abroad and the accidental Americans, the ones born in the US to foreign parents and who never really lived in the US. The US only sees their potential as taxpayers, none other, so the country will lose them as potential ambassadors. In addition, the country will lose those of us who followed our hearts and chose to live and work almost our entire adult lives elsewhere.


  1. As a renounced American I find this so sad.

  2. Outstanding post, Ellen. Thank you. I wish Phyllis' book would be read by every American abroad - it is a great story.


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