When dual citizenship becomes conflict of interest

The Biblical injunction that “No one can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24) doesn’t apply to nations.  Almost half of the world’s countries, including the U.S., recognize dual citizenship-- even when they don’t encourage it for the complicated legal issues it often raises.  

For example, one who obeys a requirement to give allegiance to a country or votes in a foreign election may be regarded as having renounced citizenship in the other country. What happens when the legal claims of one country conflict with those of the second country?  Which of the two countries has an obligation to assist a dual national in distress? 

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Until the Supreme Court decided otherwise in the 1967 case of Afroyim v. Rusk, a U.S. citizen who voted in a political election in a foreign state would forfeit his or her U.S. citizenship.  From that point on, dual citizens have maintained their right to vote and hold public office without penalty. 

Anyone can become a dual citizen, even members of Congress, high court judges and top officials of the executive branch. There’s no law or regulation against it. Nor are they required to disclose such dual citizenship. 

So what’s the problem? 

For most dual citizens, having the benefits of citizenship in two countries (including expedited immigration) outweigh the costs (which may include tax obligations to both countries). 

Yet dual citizenship in the United States poses a hitherto unappreciated issue for policy-level members of the legislative, executive and judicial branches.  The divided national loyalties of dual citizens can create real or apparent conflicts of interest when such legislators, judges or senior officials make or speak out on policies that relate to their second country.   

The potential damage to our democracy is the greater when such potential conflicts of interest are concealed in undisclosed dual citizenship. 

Current entries on the Internet contain a number of undocumented assertions as to which members of Congress and senior officers are dual citizens.  Without reliable data, however, Americans can only speculate on which senators and representatives may have divided national loyalties. 

The lack of transparency regarding citizenship erodes trust in government, raising credibility doubts where there should be none, and allowing some apparent conflicts of interest to continue undetected. 

When a senator, representative or senior U.S. official speaks out, submits bills or determines policy on an issue of importance to a foreign country of which that member or official (or judge) has the tie of citizenship, their constituents and the U.S. public at large should at least be able to assess whether such views or actions are influenced by the divided loyalty. 

Since they don’t involve national loyalty, religion and ethnicity seldom raise conflict issues.  Moreover, they are generally matters of public record. 

By contrast, dual citizenship creates conflict of interest through divided loyalties. Thus it would seem reasonable to require that dual citizen members of Congress, the judiciary and the executive  be required to renounce citizenship in another country as a condition of public service. 

Both Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzJudge rejects attempt to stop internet oversight transfer Tech groups file court brief opposing internet transition suit Cruz criticizes federal law enforcement on terrorism MORE (R-Texas) and former Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-Minn.) recently received wide press coverage when they renounced their Canadian and Swiss nationalities, respectively.   

Yet the media and government watchdog organizations have largely ignored the potential conflict of interest inherent in dual citizenship.  Why the neglect of this issue?  Shouldn’t members of Congress (and federal judges and executive branch officials) at least be required to disclose their citizenship in another country?   

Even if our legal system continues to allow dual citizens to serve in high positions of the U.S. government, it should require them to recuse themselves from participating in decisions or policy debates that relate to their second country.

As a first step, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress should begin to include citizenship (along with the current listings of party breakdown, age, occupations, education, Congressional service, religion, gender, ethnicity and military service) in its published profiles of each new Congress.   

Americans can then decide whether our legislators (and possibly federal judges and senior government officials as well) should be required to renounce their citizenship in another country as a condition of public service.

Hager is co-founder and former director general of the International Development Law Organization, Rome.