The saga of Bobby Fischer, whom the United States is trying to extradite from Japan, keeps getting weirder and weirder. The former chess champ, who ran afoul of U.S. law by playing a tournament in the former Yugoslavia 12 years ago, now wants to renounce his American citizenship. How does an American go about renouncing his citizenship?
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 stipulates that Americans wishing to renounce their U.S. citizenship must sign an oath of renunciation in the presence of a diplomatic or consular officer. The oath reads: "I hereby absolutely and entirely renounce my United States nationality, together with all rights and privileges and all duties of allegiance and fidelity." The renunciation must take place in a foreign country, and the State Department reserves the right to reject the citizen's attempt to ditch their citizenship. The oath must also be signed in person, so the three-page letter that Fischer has sent to the U.S. Embassy isn't good enough. Nor would it be enough for one of his representatives—say, someone from the Tokyo-based Committee To Free Bobby Fischer—to show up at the embassy and sign the required documents.
The only time when an American may renounce his citizenship while still inside the United States is during times of war. Then, a formal written statement will suffice, as long as it's approved by a Department of Justice official who deems the renunciation "not contrary to the interests of national defense." The renunciation is void if the statement is written under duress, as occurred during World War II when many detained Japanese-Americans were forced to give up their U.S. citizenships.
A formal renunciation is generally considered irrevocable, except in special cases involving minors who give up their citizenship. Within six months of such a renouncer's 18th birthday, the newly minted adult may change his mind and recover his citizenship.
An American can also carry out a de facto renunciation by swearing an oath of allegiance to a foreign country, joining a foreign army, or becoming naturalized citizen elsewhere. If an American loses his citizenship in such a manner, however, he can file an appeal with the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals. This is what leftist author Margaret Randall did in 1987, after the United States tried to deport her. Though Randall had become a Mexican citizen in 1967, the board eventually ruled that she only did so under economic duress. At the time, she was living in Mexico with three children, and her husband was unemployed; attaining Mexican citizenship, she claimed, was the only way to find a decent job in the country.
If Fischer is planning to renounce his citizenship in order to avoid American prosecution, he could be in for a rude surprise. The State Department's primer on renunciation clearly states that "the act of renouncing U.S. citizenship will not allow person to avoid possible prosecution for crimes which they may have committed in the United States." Since Fischer violated a travel ban issued by a federal agency, his crime is probably not exempt from that provision, regardless of the fact that it involved Yugoslavia. Less clear is how the renunciation might affect Japan's deportation proceedings against Fischer.