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I'm thinking of renouncing my U.S. citizenship as a political protest. Where do I go to do this? What are the legal ramifications?

--Doug, Auburn, Massachusetts

You're going to protest by renouncing your citizenship? You disappoint me. Whatever happened to going to the U.S. embassy and setting yourself on fire?

OK, I understand, it's the 90s. And you've probably been reading in the papers about this guy Terry Nichols, Timothy McVeigh's alleged coconspirator in the Oklahoma City bombing, who supposedly renounced his citizenship in 1992. You're thinking, "Wow, hanging around with future mass murderers while working as a farmhand and selling army surplus. What a cool lifestyle."

Whatever butters your bagel, pal. But you have to do it right. You probably have the idea that renouncing U.S. citizenship consists of going down to the town square, post office (the "all services" window, maybe?), or some other public place and announcing, "The U.S. sucks. I quit."

Wrongo, Benedict Arnold breath. The process is actually pretty complicated, and for good reason. Renouncing your citizenship is irrevocable, the political equivalent of a sex-change operation. While the powers that be are willing to make the big slice if that's what you really want, they don't want you waking up the next morning and going, "Oh, @#$%!!"

Here's the procedure:

(1) Leave the country. There's no procedure for renouncing your citizenship while still physically present in the U.S. The government has the idea that if you're mad enough to renounce your citizenship you probably don't want to keep living here (though most militia types seem to want to stick around, presumably to keep their disgust fresh). Also, most of the 800 or so people who renounce their U.S. citizenship each year are not protesters but cases of "dual citizenship," people who haven't lived in the U.S. for a long time. Typically these people are born in the U.S. to non-U.S. parents, and the family members later return to their native land. The child is automatically a U.S. citizen but also has a claim to his parents' nationality. While dual citizenship is usually not illegal--the U.S. "tolerates" it--it can complicate your life, notably at tax time. So many people choose one or the other when they reach adulthood.

(2) Apply for citizenship somewhere else. Strictly speaking, this is optional, in the sense that it's optional to put on a parachute before you jump out of a plane. But if you're a stateless person living abroad and you get into a jam with the local authorities, or you want to get a passport to travel to yet another country (or back to this one), you're up fecal matter creek.

(3) Go to a U.S. embassy or consulate and tell them you want to renounce your citizenship. Often they'll try to talk you out of it, tell you to come back after you've slept it off, etc. Persist. Eventually they'll have you sign an oath of renunciation, an affidavit affirming the oath, and a "statement of understanding," which basically asks you if you're sure you know what you're doing. You also have to supply certain tax-related info and turn in your passport. The consular officer overseeing the process must sign an attestation saying that in his opinion you're not off your nut. The papers will then be forwarded to the U.S. State Department, which in the fullness of time will issue you a Certificate of Loss of Nationality. You're officially un-American. Lotsa luck.

One of many things to consider before you take this rash step is the kind of company you'll be keeping. Setting aside cases of dual nationality, emigrants, etc, people who renounce their citizenship typically are war criminals (who do it under the baleful eye of a judge to avoid the expense of a deportation hearing), the aforementioned militia members, and billionaire fat cats who want to avoid U.S. taxes (though the feds are tightening up on this--that's why they ask renunciants for tax info). My guess is you're not going to want to get together with these guys in some kind of support group.

One last piece of data you might find interesting. In 1991 a survey asked 2,000 U.S. citizens, "What are you willing to do for $10 million?" Twenty-five percent of this classy group said they'd abandon their families; 23 percent said they'd become a prostitute for a week. Only 16 percent said they'd renounce their U.S. citizenship.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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