Renouncing U.S. citizenship is about to get a lot more expensive

(AP/Yahoo News)

The record numbers of Americans who have renounced their U.S. citizenship since January 2009 did so at the bargain-basement cost of $450, a subsidized fee that the State Department plans to raise sharply this week as more and more people sever their ties with the United States.

Officials say the new pricetag of $2,350 will “capture the real, unsubsidized cost of providing this service” at a time when escalating demand has put new strain on consular resources.

The government does not make public any reasons citizens may have given for renouncing U.S. citizenship, making it impossible to say for certain what has driven the sharp rise in demand. But the most likely cause appears to be the Obama-era crackdown on U.S. citizens hiding wealth overseas.

From 2001 to 2008, 3,937 people who had lived on U.S. soil for at least eight years either renounced their citizenship or gave up lawful permanent resident status, according to Andrew Mitchel, an international tax attorney in Centerbrook, Connecticut, who tracks the figures closely.

From January 2009 to the quarter ending June 30, 2014, the number rose to 9,566, according to a Yahoo News analysis of the figures published on a quarterly basis by the Internal Revenue Service.

The rise has coincided with a campaign that has scooped up about $6 billion in taxes, interest and penalties from more than 40,000 U.S. taxpayers since 2009.

A State Department official who requested anonymity linked the fee hike directly to the escalating numbers of people casting off their citizenship  technically known as “expatriations.” The new fee goes into effect on September 12.

The amount certainly doesn’t seem likely to be a deterrent for some people who might be inclined to give up citizenship or permanent resident status. Highly affluent people shedding their U.S. citizenship to avoid taxes can afford to pay more. And families going home after a long stint working in the United States on a green card may not view the additional cost as much of an obstacle, particularly if they are hoping to stop paying their U.S. taxes.

But Mitchel told Yahoo News by telephone that the State Department's intent in increasing the fee might make some people think twice before taking an irrevocable step.

“They want to impress upon those individuals that there’s no going back,” he said. “They’re making sure that you really, really want to renounce your citizenship.”

Those who still want to go ahead with the process will continue to face hurdles. They have to appear in person, overseas, before an American consular or diplomatic officer to sign an oath of renunciation.

The official website of the U.S. embassy in London details the documentation required, including a “Renunciation Questionnaire” that asks applicants to say when, if ever, they have lived in the United States, how they obtained foreign citizenship, and to list “all previous names used since birth.” However, it never asks them to specify their reason for renouncing their citizenship.

Even going to fight for the extremist militant group the Islamic State (or IS, also known as ISIL or ISIL) will not automatically put an end to an American’s rights to citizenship, although the group has beheaded some of its captives, including two American freelance journalists. To renounce U.S. citizenship, a person must still fill out the questionnaire, according to a State Department official.

This may end up making it easier for Americans fighting for a terrorist group to be killed in a drone strike by their own government than to lose their U.S. citizenship against their will.

In addition to committing what the State Department calls “potentially expatriating acts,” an individual must do so both “voluntarily and with the intention of relinquishing U.S. nationality.”

“The Department has a uniform administrative standard of evidence based on the premise that U.S. nationals intend to retain United States nationality when they perform potentially expatriating acts,” one official told Yahoo News on condition of anonymity.

This assumption is due to the fact that the U.S. government and Americans in general have historically placed a high value on the rights of citizenship. The rationale is that it’s a good thing that it should be extremely difficult for the government to strip someone of their citizenship.

But that could change, if some lawmakers get their way. Some, including Republican Senator Ted Cruz, have called for Americans who fight for IS to forfeit their citizenship  in part out of fear that such extremists could return to the United States and carry out attacks.

“Americans who choose to go to Syria or Iraq to fight with vicious ISIS terrorists are party to a terrorist organization committing horrific acts of violence, including beheading innocent American journalists who they have captured,” Cruz said in a statement Friday. “There can be no clearer renunciation of their citizenship in the United States.”

Precise legislative language for Cruz’s proposal was not available, but a summary provided by his office included the caveat that the measure would only apply to an American who “undertakes these acts with the intent of supplanting his U.S. Citizenship with loyalty to a terrorist organization.”

The State Department signaled resistance to the proposal that such people be stripped of their rights.

"We have the authority now to revoke their passports under U.S. law if the secretary makes a determination about their threat to U.S. national security.  We already have that power," Marie Harf, a deputy spokesperson for the department, said. "We also have the power if there’s a law enforcement request to revoke their passport if there’s an outstanding warrant, or something like that."

Previous efforts to modify U.S. law along these lines have failed. In 2010, lawmakers including independent Sen. Joe Lieberman tried to empower the State Department to strip citizenship from Americans who provide material support or resources to groups that Washington labels as terrorists, or who have joined or supported attacks on the United States and its allies.

Hillary Clinton, then secretary of state, did not shut the door to the proposal, which alarmed some civil liberties groups and ultimately went nowhere. She promised to “take a hard look” at the measure.

"Clearly, United States citizenship is a privilege,” she said at the time. “It is not a right.”