When Dual Citizenship Means Divided Loyalties


In December the U.S. Congress ended another dysfunctional year with a rare bi-partisan vote that immediately brought protests from the European Union. The U.S. vote is intended to tighten up the Visa Waver Program (VWP) in the wake of the Paris attacks and the San Bernardino, California, shootings. The discovery that the Paris attackers had European passports and could potentially have entered the United States on the Visa Waiver Program had stirred the chronically flaccid U.S. lawmakers into fast action that – among other measures – denies the VWP to foreign visitors with dual citizenship in which Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Sudan is one of the two nations.

In a world disoriented by the threat of terrorism and the challenge of massive population displacements the Washington vote heralds one of those segments in time – of which history has several – when the concept of dual citizenship becomes especially problematic both symbolically and practically.

« Dual citizenship, » declared an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, voicing that concern, « undermines the common bond that unites U.S. citizens regardless of their ethnicity, religion, or place of birth. » The missing word at the beginning of that statement is « potentially. » When the interests of the two nations involved diverge we have seen it lead to conflicting loyalties that impact on history – the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia in 1939, or for that matter, the German Bund in the U.S. in the run-up to the Second World War.

No one example is exactly comparable to the other, but investigators maintain that many young European immigrants who turn Jihadists and joined ISIS have used their dual nationality to destructive ends. Dual citizenship means being able to obtain passports from two different states, making it possible for a traveler to leave a country as the citizen of one nation and return as the citizen of another, or arrive at one’s destination as the citizen of another, making him or her harder to keep track of.

The European Union has challenged the new American attack on the principle of dual citizenship as too sweeping, arguing that the VWP already has sufficient built-in safe guards – and at the same time warning that European governments could retaliate, making travel more difficult for Americans. But in France there have been calls that echo American concerns.

And no wonder: In 2014, it was estimated that 3.3 million men and women residing in France held dual citizenship, or 5 percent of the population. Following the November attacks this segment of the nation has inevitably come under sharper scrutiny, with Marine le Pen’s anti-Europe, anti-immigration extreme right National Front (FN) urging that members of Islamist movements with dual citizenship should have their French citizenship withdrawn and be expelled from France.

Critics accused le Pen of pandering to people’s fears. But surprisingly President François Hollande also zeroed in on French citizens with dual citizenship suspected of being Jihadists. Included in the socialist president’s anti-terrorist package was the proposal to give authorities « the power to stop bi-nationals from re-entering our country if they (are judged to) represent a terrorist risk, unless they agree to submit to draconian controls. » This was later elaborated to include amending the constitution to strip the French citizenship of bi-nationals convicted of terrorism.

The proposal has support of over 90 percent of French people, according to recent polls, but caused a political controversy. By year’s end, the measure seemed close to being shelved amid criticism from historians and commentators (one called it « doubly useless and triply irresponsible ») and dissent within the president’s own Socialist party that, aside from doing little to halt terrorism it was a political gift to the right. The mainstream conservative opposition, with the National Front nibbling at its constituency, is equally critical. Rachida Dati, President Sarkozy’s minister of justice, was quoted as saying that the measure would « only amplify the divisions in French society, which are themselves one of the roots of radicalization. »

Under current French law only dual-nationals who acquired French citizenship through naturalization can be stripped of their French citizenship. Hollande’s government proposed to extend it to French-born dual nationals guilty of terrorism, thus undermining the sacred principle that all citizens should be equal regardless of race, class or religion – and making it a sensitive issue in France.

Even at the best of times, the concept of dual nationality and/or dual citizenship, which are not exactly interchangeable but very closely related, tends to be fuzzy and ambivalent. For example, the oath of allegiance taken by would-be U.S. citizens states in part: « I hereby absolutely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have hithertofore been a subject or citizen. »

Yet all this ringing declaration means in practice, however, is that the United States does not formally recognize dual citizenship; but the U.S. takes no stand against it, politically or legally, and imposes no conditions, such as not serving in a foreign army or not voting in the elections of other countries. Italian-Americans who hold dual citizenship vote to elect their own representatives to the Italian parliament and senate.

With every crisis that in some way implicates dual nationals the list grows of countries that prohibit their citizens from being in that category. The current number includes some 60 countries around the world, but – and the French take note – and some of them strange bedfellows. Would you believe China, India and Iran, but also Norway and Denmark?