Citizenship by descent is unique because it requires not only the same degree of government interface as residency or citizenship by investment but also professional documentation of genealogical records. It continually prompts interesting policy questions because it is one of the few processes that requires a concurrent look into the past and the future.
For those not familiar with the concept, citizenship by descent allows the descendants of nationals of a foreign country to reclaim their ancestors’ original citizenship through a documented, researched, and bureaucratic process.
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A growing number of Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders are researching their family tree to see whether they qualify, particularly after the recent pandemic’s disruptions to travel and freedom of movement.
But while it appears easy to claim citizenship by descent on paper, the reality is slightly more nuanced and complex.
1. The Timing of your ancestors’ naturalization can make or break your citizenship claim
Any citizenship by descent process that requires an ancestor to have been a citizen at the time of their descendant’s birth is governed by a strict interpretation of jus sanguinis, the right to citizenship by blood.
An ancestor’s naturalization date is typically a key deciding event that determines the maintenance of jus sanguinis. In the past, many Western countries, primarily the United States, did not recognize multiple citizenships, so the act of naturalization was an event where an ancestor actively gave up their former foreign citizenship to become a citizen of their newly chosen country.
This signifies the relinquishment of their jus sanguinis, their right to claim citizenship by blood, from their former citizenship. However, if they gave birth to their progeny before this naturalization event, their children inherited this right.
Jus soli governs children who become citizens of a country through birth, the right of citizenship by soil. By being born to parents of foreign citizenship in a new country, children do not proactively go through a naturalization event in that new country. Rather, they typically (at least in most Western hemisphere countries) become jus soli citizens through birth in the new country. Since they didn’t make an active decision to naturalize in the new country, they keep their jus sanguinis, the right to foreign citizenship, in their parents’ original home country.
These children do not necessarily get citizenship in their parents’ old country but retain the right to citizenship in that country. This right can often be passed on through successive generations, depending on individual countries’ nationality laws.
Let’s illustrate this concept with an example:
A married Italian couple immigrates to the United States in the 1920s. They already have one child, who was born in Italy, who they bring to the US. The couple then gives birth to a second child in the United States. Several years after both children are born, the three immigrants of the family (remember, the child born in the US is not an immigrant but a natural-born American) naturalize as US citizens. As part of this process, they will have had to give up their Italian citizenship.
At this point, all four family members are American citizens; three of them have naturalized, and the youngest has only ever been American.
This second child, who was born in the US, is born as a US citizen through jus soli. This child never made any decision to naturalize as a US citizen but simply became one by accident of birth. This younger sibling, therefore, can later claim Italian citizenship through jus sanguinis.
But what about the older child, who was born in Italy? Unfortunately, the first child is naturalized through the concept of derivative citizenship, which is the biggest hurdle and most common misunderstanding in determining citizenship by descent eligibility.
Since this child was born in Italy, it never received American citizenship through jus soli. Despite their parents’ naturalization after its birth, it was still a minor when the parents naturalized. Therefore, this child's citizenship status was derived through the actions of their parents, and their descendants are not eligible to claim citizenship by descent through jus sanguinis.
Many immigrants seeking economic opportunity in the 20th century were proud to become citizens of their new country, so they quickly pursued naturalization without knowing how valuable it would be for their descendants had they waited.
2. Antique Records are Sometimes Circumstantial
Naturalization records are sometimes imperfect. Not every historic immigrant understood the nuances of how their citizenship status would affect their children or spouse.
There were periods in history when the husband of a family determined the citizenship status of his spouse, and this was only discovered within the family when the spouse attempted to vote in local elections.
Similarly, travel history could have impacted citizenship status: There were periods in the 20th century when prolonged absence from an immigrant’s newly chosen country meant that the immigrant was suspected of expatriating to their country of origin. Such a situation could, at the time, create complications regarding citizenship status and, therefore, citizenship by descent eligibility of future generations.
3. Archives and Records Complicate Requests
It is not a shock that government agencies can require patience and detail to make formal requests. Any citizenship by descent process requires formally issued documents that carry legal significance in international administrative or legal processes.
These records often come from government departments with enormous wait times as a function of non-digitized archives. Functionally, many of these documents can only be available to the public because they are scrubbed for redactions per modern privacy policies, adding a sizeable manual component to the request procedure.
Also, many governments use fees or shared resources to fund the programs that allow for public access to these documents, especially in the United States. This makes document fees high and maintains the constant threat of fee hikes, especially as citizenship by descent has recently gained popularity.
Citizenship by descent is extremely valuable but also a complex process, so don't delay
Questions around specific historic naturalization timelines and the broader legacy of immigration processes will continue to grow in importance if citizenship-by-descent programs continue to provide valuable citizenships and travel access via foreign passports to descendants.
Reclaiming these descendant citizenships while nationality laws still reward those who put in the effort and research is worthwhile. Generational identity has never been more important for the freedom of movement than today.
IMI Professionals for EU Citizenship by Descent programs
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