updated 7:53 PM CET, Dec 17, 2018

'Accidental Americans' welcome surprise Trump talk of ending 'birthright citizenship'

So-called "accidental Americans" and organizations that represent their interests on Tuesday were welcoming a vow by President Trump that he plans to seek to  terminate the automatic right to U.S. citizenship for children born in the United States to non-citizens.

"It's in the process. It'll happen...with an executive order," Trump told an interviewer with Axios, a relatively-new American news website, on Monday, of his plans to remove the automatic right to citizenship for babies born to non-U.S. citizens born on U.S. soil.

Many industry observers and Washington observers, meanwhile, said Trump's plan was unlikely to get very far. "Centuries of practice and unbroken Supreme Court precedent mean President Trump’s plan to end the practice [of automatic citizenship] would face long odds," the Wall Street Journal noted, adding that the plan would be unlikely to become law even if the Republican party were to retain control of both houses of Congress after the Nov. 6 midterm elections. 

The interview may be viewed now on the Axios website, as it was filmed for a new four-part documentary news series that is having its debut on the HBO television network this Sunday in the U.S. 

In the "exclusive" interview, Trump told his Axios interviewer that he had discussed the idea of ending birthright citizenship with his legal advisers, and had decided to go ahead with the plan, which, the Axios article noted, and other media organisations have subsequently also pointed out, is expected to face legal challenges.

"It was always told to me that you needed a constitutional amendment [to change the rule on automatic citizenship]." Trump said. "[But] guess what? You don't."

Valued Stateside; less so abroad

In the U.S., those whose American citizenship was the result of their having been born there to foreign parents, and the parents of such children, regard the dark blue U.S passport as an asset, and will not welcome Trump's plans. 

However, many "accidental Americans" around the world struggle with the life-long American citizenship they received by the accident of having been born in the U.S. decades before to non-American parents who subsequently returned to their home countries – mainly because of the costly tax obligations U.S. citizenship bequeaths on those who have it, even if they have lived most of their lives in another country. The U.S. is the only country in the world besides Eritrea which taxes on the basis of citizenship rather than residency (although U.S. residents are also expected to pay U.S. taxes).

For the accidentals, the possibility that they might at last be able to walk away from their U.S. citizenship without having to go through the complicated and expensive business of renouncing, which some see Trump's plan as potentially making possible, is being greeted as encouraging news. 

Fabien Lehagre final

One of the first to welcome it was Fabien Lehagre, president and founder of the Association des Américains Accidentels (AAA) (pictured left).

Lehagre is a 33-year-old French citizen who has been leading the cause of les ‘Américains Accidentels’ – initially just in France, but over the past year, across Europe as well, as outposts of his organization began springing up in other EU countries. He was born to non-American parents in California, and brought to France at the age of 18 months by his (French) father.

"The Accidental Americans Association welcomes President Trump's comments on the acquisition of U.S. citizenship through birthright," Lehagre said today, in a statement. 

He added that the AAA had recently sent the president a letter (ahead of President Trump's planned visit to Paris on November 11) outlining the problems encountered by accidental Americans, and asking him to "take steps to enable us to renounce, free of charge, our U.S. nationality that we acquired automatically as a birthright."

"In view of President Trump's recent comments, we have high hopes that he will agree to our demands," Lehagre added.

A longtime campaigner for the rights of expatriate Americans – including but not limited to 'accidentals' – is Republican Overseas global chief executive Solomon Yue. On Tuesday he said Trump's proposed end to the automatic granting of citizenship to every baby born in the U.S. would be a "first step" from the Accidentals' viewpoint, as it would mean there would be "no more accidental Americans in the future".

Current accidentals would benefit, he added, once "the U.S. Supreme Court upholds President Trump's birthright executive order, [at which time] we will be able to argue current accidental Americans should be granted non-citizen status immediately." 

Some doubt Trump's idea would get passed

Some longtime observers of the expat American landscape expressed doubt that Trump's plan would get past Washington's bean-counters, who would call attention to the potential loss of tax revenue it could result in, as thousands of "accidental Americans" like Lehagre walked away from their tax obligations. 

"If Trump abolishes birthright citizenship, the children of the world’s super-wealthy who are born in the United States while their parents are living there will, [like the children of immigrants Trump is trying to keep from having U.S. citizenship], also cease to become U.S. citizen taxpayers at birth," notes David Treitel, managing director of Wimbledon, England-based American Tax Returns.

"As a result, the tax collected by the United States from its own citizens could quite quickly fall by several billion dollars a year."

John Richardson, a Toronto-based tax lawyer who specializes in U.S. expat issues, was also sceptical of the Trump plan for several reasons, including the fact that it "probably violates the 14th amendment", which guarantees the right of citizenship to "those persons born or naturalized in the United States". 

Stressing that his comments reflected his own views and not those of anyone else, he added that he wasn't sure that changing the "birthright citizenship" laws would even, necessarily, "affect the tax situation" for the "accidentals".

Richardson, who has dual American and Canadian citizenship himself, added: "Although U.S. citizenship is a 'sufficient condition' for U.S. 'tax residence,' it is not a 'necessary condition'. The definition of citizenship for nationality purposes need not be the same as the definition for tax purposes.

"Any attempt to enact a statute saying that only those born in the U.S. to permanent residents or citizens of the U.S. can be citizens is certain to face constitutional challenge, and will take years.

"I do think this is a good debate to have, and I am not convinced that that the U.S. should necessarily grant citizenship to anybody born on U.S. soil. But the U.S. does need a public debate on what citizenship means, and what are the obligations of citizenship."

Canada also questioning birthright citizenship 

Some 30 countries around the world have a policy of bequeathing citizenship on those born within their borders, although the details vary between countries. The U.S., for example, allows babies born to American citizen parents overseas to be easily made U.S. citizens, if the parents wish them to be. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, given its proximity to the U.S., Canada is also seeing some politicians raising questions about that country's own birthright citizenship policy, with the country's Conservatives having gone as far as to adopt a resolution at their convention in August calling for an end to "birth tourism" by foreigners.

This resolution "called for legislation to eliminate birthright citizenship 'unless one of the parents of the child born in Canada is a Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada'," according to a Toronto Globe & Mail opinion writer, Konrad Yakubuski. 

In his piece, Yakubuski called on his fellow Canadians to "have a debate about our immigration laws" before it became "inevitable." 

Like most writers on the subject, he didn't mention the fact that the U.S. insists that even those born in the U.S. who wish not to retain their American citizenships struggle to get rid of them, and are therefore obliged to file tax returns and potentially pay tax for the remainder of their lives, even if they never return to the U.S. 

The debate touched off by President Trump's remarks has shone attention on a term that, according to the online UrbanDictionary.com, has been around since 2006: "anchor baby". According to the website, the derogatory term refers to the child of foreign or illegal alien parents who comes to the U.S. with the intention of ensuring that their baby is born there -- and thus, can bestow on them and their family the benefits of U.S. citizenship, including the right "to stay in the U.S. and become eligible for government benefits." Such offspring are also, according to the website, referred to, again derogatorily, as  "jackpot babies".

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