Today I received an email from a correspondent who is a recent expatriate. He reports a sobering experience at the hands of our trusted servants at the border. With permission (and identifying information anonymized with [ALL CAPS]):
I much appreciate your newsletter. Now I have a question that may be of wider interest.
A few days ago I entered the U.S. with my new German passport, having renounced U.S. citizenship in March. I am not a “covered” expat and have no tax issues (that I know of). My 2014 U.S. return was done by a professional.
In [GERMAN CITY] the [AIRLINE] check-in agent told me that I would “probably” have trouble from the U.S. authorities since my German passport gave my place of birth as a city in the U.S. I thought he was being fresh.
Then, when we landed in [U.S. ARRIVAL CITY], the customs police took me and my (German) wife aside for about one hour without telling us what the problem was, which caused us some difficulties because we needed to contact the realtor from whom we were renting a house. We felt like criminals. We were not allowed to use our computers or to go to the bathroom without police escort. They did not search our luggage, so it was not a customs issue.
Finally the agent apparently in charge, having done some “research” (her word) told me there were two people with my name, whereupon I told her that perhaps that was because until recently I had traveled (to the same port of entry) with a U.S. passport, but since March had a German one, since I had become a naturalized German citizen. Then she told me (apparently as a result of her “research”) that I had been arrested in [ALMOST FOUR DECADES AGO] (in [U.S. CITY]) on a DWI charge, but that that was not actually a problem so I could pass through. I then dared to ask her ask her why that had come up since in the past 30 years that I had been traveling regularly (once a year) to the U.S. on my U.S. passport it had never been a problem, and she said, “We don’t mess with Americans. But now you’re traveling on a German passport.”
I said, “Well, that was so long ago. Can’t I get that cleared?” She said, “No, that’s your record.”
I was so glad to be free of them that I did not pursue the matter, but it seems to me that this was a case of pure harassment triggered by the fact that my German passport had a U.S. city as my birthplace. This was exactly what the German [AIRLINE] ticket agent had predicted.
The incident scared me, and troubles me greatly. That DWI charge was clarified with a guilty plea and a fine, as I recall, and as I had to show (by documentation from the [U.S. CITY] authorities) way back then when I applied for a German driver’s license, which I received. Then I married a German citizen and got a permanent visa in Germany. That was my status for ca. 30 years, until I decided to become a German citizen, which occured as I said in [MID-2015]. None of this would ever have happened if I had been considered as having a “criminal record,” as these customs police now seem to think. That “record” should have been expunged years ago. The first and only time it has ever come up again is now, [ALMOST FOUR DECADES] after the fact!
It seems to me that the U.S. authorities are targeting people like me (with non-U.S. passports and U.S. birthplaces) for harassment. Why, I wonder? It has cost me much time and money to renounce my U.S. citizenship, and there is nothing inherently immoral or reprehensible, much less criminal, in wanting to become a citizen of the country one has chosen as one’s home (namely, Germany). So why should the U.S. authorities want to exact “revenge” in this way? That is what is seems like to me.
You are a lawyer specialized in tax law, so maybe you don’t know the answer, but I’ll ask anyway: How can I find out how to avoid such problems in the future? Or do I have to resign myself to being treated like a criminal every time I return to my native country (even though it is no longer the country of my citizenship), because of a DWI arrest that occurred and was adjudicated 39 years ago?
I will be most grateful for any light you can shed on this. But please do not use my name in any public response, since I have become thoroughly paranoid.)
With best regards,
Who out there has experienced grief at the hands of our USCIS friends guarding the gates? Any words of advice for my correspondent?
I suspect that the sole trigger for this BS from USCIS is the almost four decades old conviction for drunk driving. That is astonishingly petty, if indeed this is the reason.
There could be a hidden government agenda of harassment of expatriates re-entering the country, but I doubt it. At least, no one else has said anything to me. Yet.
And I am far from being a conspiracy theorist. (I am more of a mediocre middle management muddling through theory of life person — that overworked, normal average person brains make poor judgments because they had too much coffee and haven’t had lunch yet, etc.)
And yet . . . Lois Lerner, amirite? (I’m not saying she should have been brought up on criminal charges; I’m just saying that there is something stinky that happened there.)
The Gods of the Copybook Headings will ultimately be heard.
(Memo to self: re-read Rule 62.)
For my correspondent, the answer might be a formal proceeding in the local State court for explicit expungement of the record of that DWI, almost forty years ago. It will take some time and money, and probably a return trip to stand in front of the judge.
I also suggest a discussion with an immigration lawyer about this. It may well be that our Federal Overlords don’t give two hoots about formal expungement of a criminal conviction at the State level — at least for USCIS purposes. You have to find out whether the expungement process will be worth pursuing, or whether it will be futile.
If expungement is impossible as a matter of State law, or futile because the Federal government doesn’t believe in State-level expungement of convictions, then your only choices are: