Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Dear Tax Evaders and Criminals: Making Yourself Stateless Is Never a Good Idea

This morning, my Google Alert on statelessness led me to an article published by Oliver Lewis of NZ Stuff magazine. Intrigued, I read the story of Harmon Wilfred and his wife, Caroline, who is the heiress to a Canadian cookie fortune. How did the husband of a Canadian heiress become stateless, you may ask? According to Harmon, he is being persecuted by the US and Canada due to his somewhat mysterious and unclear political activities.

It seems that Harmon used to work for the CIA, or for a Savings and Loan, or something. And he is being persecuted for his political work, either against the Savings and Loan industry or Hillary Clinton, it's unclear and depends on whether or not you trust Wikipedia or Kiwi reporter Oliver Lewis. Anyway, the point is, Harmon is being persecuted, so he and Caroline fled to New Zealand to escape. In 2005, to avoid deportation, Harmon renounced his US citizenship and is now "stateless." New Zealand won't grant him refugee status for some crazy reason, but they can't deport him because the US government won't accept him back. Harmon is appealing to President Trump to help him.

According to the Financial Post, Harmon has served some time in jail in both the US and Canada, though for what isn't clear. And it seems that he and Caroline have gotten themselves into some financial trouble in New Zealand as well, including something to do with an insolvent charity project. Caroline's family, for some reason, has been entirely unhelpful to the poor couple, who are now separated because Caroline lacks a visa to re-enter New Zealand after visiting Canada in 2015.

Oliver Lewis, the reporter, has presented this story as a tale of woe and persecution. He compares the situation of Harmon Wilfred to that of the Rohingya in Burma. I can't quite tell if Mr. Lewis believes that Harmon is being persecuted for his campaign to expose the "Clinton cartel," or the Savings and Loan industry, or whatever, but he certainly takes seriously the claim that Harmon is "stateless."

There is a shadowy world of eccentric millionaires and others who are wanted by the long arm of US tax law or criminal law and who have attempted to renounce their US citizenship as a way out. There are a million websites set up to help you evade taxes by opting out of US citizenship.

Many of these people are happy to break the laws of other countries by overstaying visas and then renouncing their citizenship to avoid deportation, counting on their money and their white-male-ness to protect them from any adverse effects. Many with money purchase citizenship in another country, but for obvious reasons, this is not always possible. Unlike many countries, the US does not require that you have another citizenship before you renounce your US citizenship.

According to Investopedia, there were almost 5,000 Americans who renounce their citizenship in 2016, likely due to tougher laws on collecting taxes from Americans abroad. Unfortunately, it is not clear that many rich, white, American men understand what their citizenship is for. There is nothing in this Investopedia article, nor on most of the websites I checked, about the importance of gaining another citizenship before you renounce.

If statelessness is mentioned, the fact that one might be imprisoned in a foreign country for overstaying your visa, or that you might not be able to leave the country to which you have moved ever again, is not mentioned. It is not clear if most rich, white, American men understand that one cannot simply move to another country with a temporary visa and stay there forever without consequence. Most importantly, many seem to have not considered that they may wish to have children some day and that these children may wish to have a citizenship.

There seems to be an never-ending stream of reporters eager to write a never-ending stream of articles about the "brave" white-guy-anarchists who renounce their US citizenship so they can mooch off the foreign governments of eastern European or Asian countries and operate Bitcoin laundries to launder dirty money without fear of prosecution. Why laundering money for criminals is considered to be a political act is not clear to me, but it apparently makes sense to a lot of journalists like Atossa Araxia Abrahamian at Vice. What all this has to do with the Rohingya, I'm not quite sure.

Sadly, the idea that US citizenship is all about politics, feelings, identity and taxes is very common amongst the techno-anarchists-tax-avoider community. Coddled and protected their whole lives, these men (and they are almost always men) seem not to realize that the world of people without papers is a cold, hard one, full of bureaucracies who simply do not care about you and do not see you as a person. A permanent residency card can be taken away at any time. But US citizenship is a right that can only be willingly given up.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Is Your Country a Prison?

As my government sends armed troops to the border with Mexico to prevent a caravan of Central American migrants from entering the country, I was struck by a story in the New York Times written by Algerian author Kamel Daoud entitled “Can It Be Illegal to Leave Your Country?” As an international lawyer, this seemingly simple question intrigued me, because the answer is both a resounding “no,” but also a quiet, muted “yes.”
Daoud’s op-ed is about the trans-Mediterranean migration route, one of the most ancient migrant routes in the world, both through, and out of, Algeria. It seems that the Algerian government is disturbed by number of Algerians leaving their native land for the dream of a brighter future in Europe. So many decades fighting a bloody war for liberation from France and now scores of young Algerians are displacing themselves to Europe, singing as they go.
According to Daoud, the government of Algeria has criminalized non-authorized emigration. And, of course, the European Union essentially been criminalizing non-authorized immigration for a long time. In fact, while it is unusual for states to criminalize emigration, the widespread criminalization of immigration is so common, it’s easy to forget that the international system of passports only came into being a hundred years ago. Today, it is common as dirt to find immigrants locked up in jails all over the world.
Under international law, the right to leave one’s country is well established. It is upheld in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and many others. That’s nice. It’s nice that we have the right to leave our countries. Otherwise, our countries risk becoming giant, open-air prisons. Unfortunately, the right to leave your country is of little good if you can’t enter any other country. Perhaps it might be good for people who wish to float on an artificial island in the middle of the ocean.
For the rest of us, the right to leave one’s country carries with it few benefits if it doesn’t bring with it the right to enter another country. And the means by which one can freely travel from one country to another are disappearing. Borders are becoming more secure. The paperwork used to authorize movement has become more invasive. Biometrics are now the norm, promoted even by the UN. Global instruments that ensure the right to cross borders without prior authorization, like the 1951 Refugee Convention, have become ever more circumcised.
Meanwhile, the list of inanimate objects that can move freely between countries only grows: money, cars, toys, clothes, weapons, drugs. All of these things pass with fewer and fewer restrictions. News and information fly across the world in an instant. No one seems to know how to get Russian military intelligence out of my Facebook feed. Yet, I cannot go to Russia without a visa and many Russians couldn’t come here, ever. Each year, monarch butterflies migrate to Mexico and back to Canada. But that caravan of migrants will likely never reach the United States.
Governments tell us that borders, biometric ID cards and movement restrictions make us safer. Do you feel safer?

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Atlantic Monthly Likens the Opening of a Falafel shop in Bamberg, Germany to the Sack of Vienna…in Bizarre, Factually Inaccurate Article

I opened Graeme Wood’s article on so-called “fake” refugees in the Atlantic today with interest. Anyone who works in immigration and refugee law in any country will tell you that the asylum system is broken, based on an unwieldy set of laws mostly drafted after World War II that badly needs an update. Because the system is broken, desperate people must fit their lives into an arbitrary bureaucracy that was created for the world of the early 1950s and not for today’s challenges. Climate change, one of the biggest threats to the entire world, is barely mentioned in the refugee regime. But you go to war with the refugee system you have, not the one you need. In particular, if you are a migrant, you do what you can, as immigrants always have.

In Europe, perhaps unsurprisingly, the response to the inefficiency and contradictory nature of the international refugee system has been to create yet more bureaucracy, as though throwing voice recognition technology, office workers, paperclips and threats at desperate people could ever possibly resolve a system that demands each doctor and scientist and cab driver and farmer fleeing the rubble of Syria be given a separate interview to ask them why they can’t go back, then sends them back to Lebanon because they “weren’t persecuted,” a place where they are forbidden to work, either as a doctor, or scientist, or cab driver, or farmer, or anything else.
After labelling Syrians and other asylum-seekers criminals and terrorists because they used to have jobs and would like to have jobs again one day, Germans are then shocked when other Germans won’t give them jobs. The conversation between refugees and locals always goes like this:
“Why won’t you get a job?”
“But that’s why I came here. To get a job.”
Then, after the refugee finally gives up on finding a job in their field and opens a restaurant, the Germans go out and enjoy tasty Afghani food, or Syrian food, or Congolese food, and have a loud conversation about how their culture is being destroyed. Not, like, actually, physically destroyed like in Syria, but you know, sausage places are being pushed out by tasty Afghani food, a lot of which is too spicy.
Mmmmm…Afghani food. Hang on, I’ll be right back…
But back to Graeme. Graeme begins his article in America by trying to hire a refugee to clean his house. He gets a bunch of resumes from a refugee organization because he is one of the nice Americans, not one of the bad, mean ones, and he wants to do something nice for a refugee. Looking over the resumes, he realizes that one is from a doctor! He laughingly points out that doctors from other countries are now competing for the privilege of scrubbing his toilet! So funny! You can never say the Atlantic doesn’t have a great sense of humor.
Graeme then settles down to read the life stories of the refugees he is considering hiring. I picture him sitting at a dining table, perhaps with a mug of coffee, casually reading over the lives of others and judging their worth. In particular, Graeme is struck by what he calls irregularities in the stories. How could an African doctor not immediately get a job in the United States? Doesn’t that seem weird? This person must not really be a doctor because the United States of America would surely provide such a person with every opportunity in the world. An African doctor would never come here and have to work a cash register in Bridgeport.
There were also people claiming to be refugees from Zambia and Tanzania and Graeme is an expert on both countries, so he knows that there is no war in either place! Their claims must be fraudulent! Never mind that fleeing a war is not necessary for refugee status. Claims of persecution are made on a case by case basis and I can assure Graeme that neither Zambia nor Tanzania are any exception to the general rule that governments often persecute their citizens. But the words “Zambia” and “Tanzania” seem to trigger something in Graeme: maybe not all refugees are what they seem….
Armed with his sudden suspicions, Graeme travels to Germany to see how the nation who brought us the Nazis is dealing with the cultural and social challenges of mass non-white migration. As he discovers, the answer is: they’re managing, but it’s hard.
Graeme begins his section on Germany with the bizarre claim that mass migration only began “seven years ago,” when Syrians began fleeing refugee camps in the Middle East, where they are not allowed to work, to Europe. As someone who has been working in the refugee space for decades, I can tell Graeme that there have been refugee flows and mass migration happening for my entire life. He may remember something called “the Vietnam War” and the “boat people crisis” in this country. He may also remember the Balkans war, the Darfur genocide, the conflict in South Sudan…I could go on, but I won’t.
What was different about the recent migration of Syrian refugees from the Middle East to Europe is that it represented the first time in recent years that Europe received a major flow of non-European refugees over a short period of time. As Graeme himself points out, refugees from the Balkans were white. (Many were also Muslim, but Graeme doesn’t mention this, so I won’t, either.) There were tons of them, but it simply didn’t cause the same sort of reflexive panic that the arrival of a large number of Syrians did.
The arrival of one million orderly, well-educated and relatively well-off Syrians, most of them coming from big cities in what had been a middle income country, seems to have triggered some sort of deep, cultural reaction in Europe, some ancient trauma perhaps dating from the Mongol invasion. No offence to the Europeans, but it’s been a little puzzling to watch their collective freak-out. Almost as puzzling as watching Trump voters from 100% white towns freak out because one million Syrians went to Germany.
Sounding like a Fox News segment, Graeme calls the arrival of Syrian refugees looking for work a “refugee tsunami” and, perhaps most bizarrely, a “bum-rush.” He likens the opening of a falafel shop in Bamberg to the sack of Vienna. I have to go back and read this part of the article several times. Yup. It still says that.
Graeme then spends the rest of the article outlining all of the various bureaucratic systems the Germans have invented to “sort” asylum-seekers into “real refugees” and “fakers” who will, in Graeme’s colorful language, slam the “limo door” on “the fingers of any faker trying to take a refugee’s place.” Why some people should be allowed to get into the limo that is Germany, while others have their fingers cut off is never explored. Why there needs to be a cap on migrants into Germany at all is never explained. Graeme assures us that cutting off a few fingers is simply necessary to stop the return of the Nazis and “the end of a liberal vision for Germany’s future.” Vladimir Putin’s opinion on all this is never discussed.
What disturbed me about this article was less the opinions expressed in it, which are common these days on both the right and the left. After all, white countries don’t want a huge influx of non-white people, much like non-white people probably didn’t enjoy white migration two hundred years ago. I doubt it was easy when all those British people arrived, either, but hey, that’s mass migration for you.
I’m not even bothered by the casual assumption that white people have a god given right to go where every they want, whenever they want, and be welcomed with open arms, but everyone else is expected to stay out of white countries. This is totally typical and is the reason why British people demand beer, hot chips and servile politeness when they drunkenly vomit on their shoes in Bali, but get flaming mad whenever an African person wants to live in the UK and work in a shop.
What bothers me is the glee Graeme takes in cataloging the veiled violence and petty humiliations of the refugee process. Asylum-seekers have their luggage examined, they are forced to tell their stories over and over again, they are interrogated about inconsistencies in their stories, every past indiscretion is questioned. They are poked and prodded and judged, their possessions are confiscated and searched, they are forced to take a battery of tests, treated like criminals and told their lives are worthless a thousand times a day, that they are taking the place of someone more deserving. Graeme makes the German asylum office sound like an episode of Survivor and the Bachelor rolled into one. But here, the prize is to cook kebabs for Germans and listen to them complain about how you are ruining their country with the very kebabs they are eating.
In the Stanford Prison experiment, professors and students at Stanford University chronicled how easy it is to divide humans into two groups and then dehumanize one side. The drafters of the 1951 Refugee Convention tried to create categories of migrants to make it easier for governments to determine who really needed protection and who could probably be safely returned to their home. I don’t think they ever meant to brand failed asylum-seekers as criminals worthy of scorn and mistreatment, but by creating two categories of people, they inadvertently set us down a path that leads strait to a cramped office, a stack of manila files, and an asylum officer being paid by the German government to yell “you lie!!!” at an Afghani woman and her six children. This is how we have chosen to spend our tax dollars in 2018.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Mapping Statelessness in the US

Syracuse University and the Center for Migration Studies is conducting a survey, in partnership with UNHCR, to map statelessness in the US.

"By reaching out to immigration legal service providers, advocates, and community-based organizations, we hope to better understand the demographic characteristics and lived experiences of the stateless population. The survey does not request names of stateless persons, and confidentiality will be preserved.   We appreciate any help you can provide in describing particular cases of stateless persons through this survey, as well as broadly sharing this survey with other individuals and organizations that might encounter stateless persons."

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Nothing Is Less Globalized than Citizenship

This article pulls together recent global trends in nationality and citizenship law, but many of the examples used are either not “virtual,” are not about citizenship, or are not, unfortunately, that new. There have been a seemingly increasing number of articles and projects seeking to “take citizenship” to the next level by making it “global” or “virtual” or “putting it on the blockchain” and “de-connecting it from the territorial state.” Sadly, all of these articles and projects ignore the basic facts that 1) citizenship is controlled by nation-states, 2) people need a physical place to live with physical food to eat and physical clothes to wear, and 3) nation-states hate humans almost as much as they love territory. Put these three things together and you can see why a “virtual citizenship” will never work.
In fact, if you pick apart the Atlantic article, you will see that none of the examples are really about “virtual” citizenship. Why? Because there can be no such thing.
Cyprus: This example is about states selling their citizenship to wealthy people. This happens a lot. Many countries, including the United States, offer residency or citizenship to wealthy investors. In the case of the US, investors can get a Green Card with a path to citizenship. These citizenships are not “virtual,” they provide full residency just like any other naturalization.
Bidoon: Kuwait and the UAE have come up with a crazy plan to deport all their stateless people to Comoros by purchasing Comoros citizenship en masse. I assure you, there is nothing “virtual” about the physical mass deportation Kuwait and UAE have in mind.
Jordon Compact: This is an interesting “solution” to the “problem” of Syrian refugees leaving the Middle East for the EU because they can’t work in their countries of first asylum. The plan is to bribe Jordan with preferential EU trade deals into allowing Syrian refugees to work. This plan doesn’t really have anything to do with citizenship. It is novel, though. It will be funny if Jordan ends up in the EU common market while the UK does not.
Estonia: This program is for “virtual residency” and provides no right to enter, reside, vote, or access services. It’s basically a tax thing.
Bitnation: Great idea, but where will I live? Is there a pool? I don’t see a pool. This country sucks.
The truth is that while the rest of human life becomes increasingly globalized, citizenship remains stuck in the early 20th century, with states jealously guarding their right to keep non-citizens out, unless they are fabulously wealthy. In fact, citizenship has been getting less globalized, not more globalized. While information, goods, money, jobs, multi-national companies, weapons, political scandals and internet trolls whiz around the world at dizzying speeds, people remain stuck behind borders. Unless you have a US passport. Then, you’re in luck!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

NY Times Insults Migrants With Cruel, Tone-Deaf Article on “Global Nomads”

What is a “global nomad?” If you mistakenly thought the New York Times was publishing an article about Tuareg rock superstars Tinariwen, you would be wrong. Or maybe they are writing about Roma people coming to the United States? No, not that either.

The photo at the top of the article should have given me a clue that I wasn’t going to like the contents. Two young, attractive, wealthy white people lounge by a beach house, one on her Macbook, the other in a hammock on his iPhone. Is it an Apple commercial, I thought? As disappointing as it would be to see an Apple commercial passed off as news in the Times, the reality is sadly much, much worse.
“A global network of live-work spaces is springing up to serve this new breed of millennial wanderer.”
Oh yes, dear reader, this article is about the global 1%, that privileged group of humanity with US, EU, Australian, Swiss, or NZ passports who can enter and leave almost any country at will, visa free, splashing around their Dollars, or Euros, or Swiss Francs in just about any country on earth. Ayelet Shachar calls this group the winners of “The Birthright Lottery, the 1% of people lucky enough to be born with the right kind of passport. The world is literally their oyster. (Full disclosure: I am one of these people. But at least I have the decency to feel ashamed of it.)
Personally, I am ashamed to live in a world where the 1% go through special lines in airports all over the world, visa free, never stopped by border patrol, the top worry of their minds whether or not their Macbook gets stolen. Want to earn a US salary but only pay the cost of living in Thailand? No problem! You have a US passport!
Do most “global nomads” notice the long lines of the global 29% at the airport, waiting nervously to see if their visa will be accepted? Do the “global nomads” even know about the 89% of migrants who don’t travel by plane, who have never had a visa anywhere, who get from A to B on rickety boats, or trucks driving at night, who get into a shipping container not certain if they’re going to ever come out again? Do global nomads realize their passport, that little blue or red book, is more powerful, more expensive and more controversial than Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket?
When I was a young, entitled, western college student, we would inflict ourselves on poor cities for a limited period of time, usually in Asia or Eastern Europe, for a period of a few months to a year, before returning home to become productive members of society. Thanks to computers, the 1% doesn’t need to be at home to be productive anymore. Many of them can do their jobs anywhere. And so the “Global Nomad” movement was born.
My issue is not so much with the phenomenon of global nomadism, which actually makes a lot of sense if you like to travel and you can work remotely, but with the cluelessness of the people involved in the movement and, by extension, the Times article about them. It’s like watching someone eat white truffles while claiming that truffles are “peasant food.” The article is full of killer sentences like this one:
“Traveling the globe became a way for Smith to regulate his cost of living according to how much his various online hustles brought in, a strategy that Ferriss called “geoarbitrage.” If you’re scraping together $1,000 a month, the logic goes, the money will go further in Thailand than in New York.”
I’d love to show that sentence to a Thai person applying for a visa to visit family in the US. Or show that sentence to a Zimbabwean. Or what about a stateless person, with no passport from any country? Ha ha ha ha ha!!!! So funny. That person is just laughing and laughing.
But the best sentence in the entire article has got to be this one, out of the mouth of the founder of “Roam,” which provides communal lodging for the nomadic 1% in locations all over the world:
“Nomadism, Haid argued, allows the discontented or disenfranchised to design new, sustainable lifestyles in the global marketplace. It’s a means of letting human capital find the path of least resistance, wherever it may be.”
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! I’ll just show it to the Estonian women riding in the back of a chicken truck, on their way to Germany, they hope and pray. Or one of the Syrian moms struggling to carry her toddler across Turkey. Or to one of the young Somali men being sold in the market in Libya. They will find that quote very, very funny, I assure you. Oh Haid, capital always follows the path of least resistance, but most people cannot, due to a little something called “border patrol”.
For the 1%, international travel is an unimpeachable right, so fundamental that it is never mentioned, completely taken for granted in every way. The Times article is clearly designed for NY Times readers, to help them decide whether or not they might like to try being a “global nomad.” But there should be a huge, red, disclaimer across the top: Just make sure to be born with the right passport.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Trust Me, the Consequences of the DACA Repeal keeps Ryan and McConnell Up at Night

Sebastian Haffner was a young law clerk in Berlin, studying up for a case, when the SA officer came into the law library and demanded that all Jews leave. The red-faced Nazi’s shouts tore through the quiet hush of law clerks bent over musty books in companionable silence, secure in their trust that the rule of law would see their country through the baffling rise of a small-time “pimp,” as Haffner describes Hitler.
As Haffner and his colleagues looked on, several clerks rose to their feet and left the room. On resisted and was dragged out. The SA officer approached Haffner and demanded to know if he was Jewish. Haffner replied in the negative. The Nazis left. Haffner describes the shame and anger that flowed through is body. It had all happened so fast, he hadn’t had time to react. He should have stood up, shouted at the Nazis, demanded that they leave the law library where they had no right to be. Instead, he just sat there.
If DACA expires, thousands of young people in college campuses will loose their legal status and be subject to deportation. Will the Trump administration actually order ICE to deport them? After all, what is the logic behind withdrawing their status if deportation does not follow? Was the point of the law to create more illegality, to simply leave people without a status in the United States? I’m not sure the Republicans are quite ready for what that would mean.
Imagine you are sitting in the quiet library of your school, studying. Around you, dozens of your classmates sit in companionable silence. You’ve heard that ICE is starting to arrest Dreamers. There are rumors they might even come to your school, but so far, the politics of DACA are something that have been happening in the newspapers but have yet to touch your life. Midterms are just around the corner and your mind is mostly occupied by worries about your grades.
Suddenly, two armed ICE agents appear at the door of the library, accompanied by the librarian. You know the agents are from ICE because it says so in big letters on their jackets.
On the other side of the room from you, a young woman with long hair gets to her feet. She seems to know what’s happening. The entire room watches in silence as the two ICE agents wind their way between the desks towards her. There is a hushed conversation, then the young woman grabs her book bag and follows them to the door. Behind you, a girl you know vaguely from physics class rises to her feet.
“Hey!” the girl shouts. “Where are you taking her?”
One of the ICE agents turns. “Sit down, please, miss. We’re here on official government business.” Then the two agents and the girl with the long hair turn and exit the room. You never see them again.
Of course, every American knows that the above scene is total fiction and would never happen. It boggles the mind to think that a bunch of American college students would sit quietly in a library while ICE agents combed their school for DACA recipients. This is a nation where college students will protest what’s being served for lunch.
When you read Defying Hitler, you can tell that Haffner never recovered from that moment. Like Lord Jim, the idea that he could have, and should have, done something, at least register a word of protest, at least stand up and be heard even if it changed nothing. The fact that when put to the test, he did nothing clearly haunted him to the end of his life. But the culture in Germany did not support civil disobedience and the Nazis had already shown themselves capable of terrible violence against any and all resistance. Had Haffner said anything, it’s likely the SA officer would have beaten him to a bloody pulp without thinking twice about it.
I suspect that young American citizens in college campuses might not be so quiet and cooperating when ICE comes to call. After all, an ICE agent isn’t going to attack an American college student in front of a bunch of witnesses. This isn’t Nazi Germany, not even close. In fact, this country has a long, proud history of protest and civil disobedience, particularly on college campuses, and a long history of relative tolerance of these protest. During my lifetime, such protests have usually been limited to rather tame affairs involving events happening in foreign countries. But if ICE starts coming for Dreamers on college campuses, in offices and workplaces, I guarantee you this will change, fast.
Are the Republicans ready for this? I don’t think that they are.