Passports for Sale

Passports for Sale

Until recently, becoming a citizen of a country has largely been regarded as priceless—a rare intangible privilege that can’t be bought or sold. This perception is starting to fade.

(Daisuke Matsumura / Flickr)

Last March, Malta began accepting citizenship applications from wealthy foreigners willing to invest $1.5 million in the country in exchange for Maltese citizenship (and with it, all the benefits that come with belonging to an EU member state). While the Maltese program was by no means the first of its kind, it received an enormous amount of attention in Europe for putting a price tag on EU passports. Then, in May, an entrepreneur named Roger Ver launched Passports for Bitcoin, a service that helps clients use bitcoin to buy St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship. St. Kitts has exchanged citizenship for cash for years, but thanks to Ver, it’s gaining a reputation among the techie-libertarian set as a go-to place to escape the U.S. tax code. And after the World Cup ended, the New York Times reported on the possibility of Qatar recruiting and naturalizing young players from across the African continent to boost its team’s performance in the 2022 World Cup. There’s a precedent for that: in 2003, Kenyan runner Stephen Cherono was given a monthly stipend of $1,000 for life to switch his allegiances and become Qatari—an offer that prompted him to change his name to Saif Saaeed Shaheen.

Until recently, becoming a citizen of a country has largely been regarded as priceless—a rare intangible privilege that can’t be bought or sold. This perception is starting to fade as the links between a country’s financial interests and its citizenship policies grow more pronounced. Now that a prominent figure like Ver and EU member countries are getting into the passport business, the idea that citizenship can be bought and sold is reaching the mainstream.

Countries, particularly small ones, have long been sympathetic to well-heeled strangers with cash to spare: St. Kitts, a pioneer in this business, opened up its shores to citizen-investors in 1984. Now, three of its Caribbean neighbors—Dominica, Antigua, and Grenada—along with Cyprus, Malta, and Bulgaria have versions of this legislation, much of it adopted in the past five years, to attract rich foreigners. This trend is a result of what lawyers say is an increased demand for second passports among the super-affluent over the past few years, as well as lagging economic growth in the countries that seek to attract them. Private consultants that help develop, broker, and publicize these deals have also significantly bolstered and professionalized this mini-industry. Citizenship, in these situations, isn’t traded as a means to enter a meaningful social contract, with responsibilities and benefits, as much as it is seen as a souped-up Global Entry badge that makes life more convenient for a select few.

“In the old world, such programs would have been inconceivable. Today, they’re becoming an accepted element of strategic immigration policy,” says Peter Spiro, a law professor at Temple University who studies these movements. “Investor programs give the lie to the notion that citizenship is sacred, in a civic sense, and the Qatari program is a riff on cash-for-passports. The emerging market for citizenship literally commodifies the status, as states come to see immigration as a talent-pool competition and revenue center.”

This can give rise to some very strange situations. During the Sochi games, an American-Italian couple, Gary di Silvestri and Angelica Morrone di Silvestri, represented the Commonwealth of Dominica in cross-country skiing. (Neither completed their race.) They were able to qualify despite their age (47 and 48, at the time) and their birthplace (the U.S. and Italy, respectively) because they bought into the island’s investor-citizenship program—and had very little competition from back “home.”

Supporters of the “financialization” of citizenship say it serves the countries and the new citizens equally well: the countries receive an influx of cash or athletictalent, while people get access to whatever that country has to offer, whether it’s visa-free travel, low taxes, good schools, or a first-rate athletic training regimen and a chance at the big leagues. For investors in politically unstable parts of the world, second passports can serve as an escape hatch in case something goes wrong back home; for instance, there was increased interest in these programs during the Arab Spring.

The influence of big money on citizenship policies can be read as a natural progression of what’s been taking place over the past few decades as a result of laissez-faire economic policies: privatization, offshoring, and the resultant growing wealth inequality.

But there is something admittedly crass about putting a price tag on what (at least in theory) is a meaningful civic relationship—particularly when it’s for tax purposes. “Citizenship by investment is a fraud in two ways. Firstly, it destroys the meaning and the nature of citizenship. It is also an instrument of tax evasion,” says Patrick Weil, a visiting professor at Yale Law School and the author of several books on citizenship policy (I reviewed his latest, The Sovereign Citizen, in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent). Weil believes that those who expatriate to avoid taxes “should not be able to reenter their countries of origin even for short term residence without being submitted to fair taxation.”

Then again, it is a country’s sovereign right to decide who to let in and who to keep out—and not all countries consider fairness a priority when it comes to immigration policy. So it’s no surprise that it’s easier to cross borders and obtain rights and privileges if you are rich, or at the very least, if you present that country with a clear financial incentive to take you in. It’s not hard to imagine that the plight of the hundreds of thousands of migrant children from Central America who arrived this summer at the U.S.–Mexico border would be very different if their crossing presented an immediate economic boon to border states’ economies. (The United States doesn’t sell its citizenship, but it does have a program that gives investors Green Cards.)

Malta had to confront these knotty questions head on as it was preparing to pass citizenship-by-investment legislation in Parliament last fall. Advocates for refugees complained that Malta was detaining migrants arriving in boats from Africa or sending them on to Italy, while rolling out the red carpet for those stepping out of private planes.

The law also drew strong criticism from nationalists. The once-dominant Maltese Nationalist Party, smarting from recent defeats in the presidential and European elections, contended that the rich would-be Maltese citizens did not play a significant enough role in Maltese society to merit the rights and privileges that come with complete civic and political membership. They didn’t like the message that the program sent to the world either: Jason Azzopardi, a member of Parliament, told me in May that he was embarrassed that his country would put its reputation at risk (and appear so economically desperate) with such a scheme. “Until this happened, our economy was the envy of Europe,” he said. “I’m proud to be Maltese. But this puts us in the same category as cash-strapped Caribbean countries.”

The most outspoken proponents of these programs tend to have overtly anti-establishment politics. Roger Ver, a libertarian who did some jail time for selling explosives online without a license and renounced his U.S. citizenship a week after he became Kittitian (paying with cash, not bitcoin) believes in changing citizenships at will because he finds governments oppressive and borders meaningless. “My personal plan is to undermine governments who try to control people and their lives,” he told me last month over Skype.

But governments that push the boundaries tend to undermine themselves. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks question how stringent the Commonwealth of Dominica’s due diligence is when admitting “economic” citizens, and more recently, the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network released a statement on “illicit actors” obtaining citizenship from St. Kitts to evade sanctions. The fate of Roger Ver’s venture is also unclear: now redirects to Ver told me in an email that “St. Kitts will be very friendly to Bitcoin,” but declined to elaborate. And although there’s virtually no way Qatar will qualify for the Cup it’s hosting without infusing its dismally ranked team with fresh blood, it is aware of the PR risks of the tactic. “If we naturalize a few players, what will happen?” the director of Qatar’s soccer program—a German—told the Times. “Everyone will kill us. Everyone will see. We are not stupid, and neither is anyone else.”

The influence of big money on citizenship policies can be read as a natural progression of what’s been taking place over the past few decades as a result of laissez-faire economic policies: privatization, offshoring, and the resultant growing wealth inequality. And if the growing acceptance of dual citizenship over the years challenges the idea that citizenship denotes a profound, lifelong allegiance to just one country—a common analogy is a marriage—then the emergence of citizenship-by-investment suggests ways to actually undo the accident of birth by purely financial means. “We’re all human beings. We should be able to go where we darn well please as long as the owner of the property agrees,” said Roger Ver. “Just because I happen to have been born on one piece of land, I can’t go to another piece of the planet. That’s absurd.”

Critics of fast-tracked, financially-motivated citizenship see it as just another way of entrenching the privileges of the global 1 percent; its more utopian advocates, on the other hand, see this as an illustration of the arbitrariness of who gets assigned what nationality. What’s difficult to argue with is the fact that making it possible for a rich person to buy his or her way out of a country doesn’t do much for the billions who are prohibited from leaving theirs, whether it’s because of immigration restrictions or just plain poverty. And laws that so explicitly link political membership to financial gain drive home the sad reality that borders exist more for some people than they do for others.

Minutes after we spoke, Ver emailed me a photo of him and a friend standing at an airport. In the photo, they are wearing T-shirts imprinted with a red and yellow globe and the phrase, “Borders are imaginary lines.” He says he tries to wear it whenever he travels.

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian is a contributing editor at Dissent and an editor at Al Jazeera America and the New Inquiry.