A provision quietly tucked into an immigration reform bill would allow the government to bar wealthy Americans from re-entering the country if they renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes.
An estimated two dozen Americans, whom critics have dubbed "Benedict Arnold billionaires," renounce their citizenship each year in favor of countries with more generous tax laws.The provision, sponsored by Rep. Jack Reed, D-R.I., would allow the U.S. Attorney General to establish guidelines for determining who has renounced their citizenship primarily for tax purposes and to bar those people from re-entering the United States.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service keeps a "watch list" of people banned from the Unites States, including international terrorists and Nazi war criminals.
All told, several hundred people renounce their U.S. citizenship each year, most for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes. If enacted, the provision is not expected to affect people who have previously renounced their citizenship.
Among the wealthy Americans who have renounced their citizenship in recent years are Campbell's Soup heir John Dorrance, Kenneth and Robert Dart of the Dart Container Corp. fortune, Star Kist Tuna chairman Joseph Bogdanovich, and two grandsons of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty.
"You are talking about people who have been told by accountants and lawyers that they can make more money by renouncing their citizenship and, frankly, I find that a bit offensive," Reed said.
"These people don't want to be citizens, but they still want to come back to the United States, have homes here, and when they get ill, come back to the medical specialists here," Reed complained.
With little debate, the House Judiciary Committee added the provision to the immigration bill by a vote of 25 to 5 last year. It wasn't mentioned when the House approved the immigration bill in March.
There is no similar provision in the immigration bill approved by the Senate last week. Whether the provision survives will be up to a conference committee charged with ironing out the differences between the two bills.
The Justice Department opposes the provision, saying it prefers to deal with the issue by closing the tax loopholes that allow people who renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes.
Loophole-closing provisions contained in other bills have cleared both the House and Senate several times in the past year, but none of those bills has yet become law.
Some lawmakers have questioned whether the remedy is too severe.
"I do think it is harsh," said Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., one of five lawmakers who voted against the provision in committee.
One of his concerns, McCollum said, is that the provision gives the attorney general broad discretion to determine when tax avoidance is the principle motive in renouncing citizenship.
"I just don't know if it's workable. I don't know if it's practical," McCollum said. However, McCollum said he might "be persuaded down the road."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, predicted the provision "is likely to be thrown out."
But Sen. Edward Kenndy, D-Mass., the lead Democratic negotiator for the Senate on the immigration bill, said he is inclined to be "sympathetic to it."