When it comes to human migration, nearly everything we hear nowadays in relation to the United States and Europe is related to immigration into North America and Europe.
Historically, however, governments have often been as concerned with emigration as they have been with immigration.
This is not surprising since government have always attempted to “monopolize the legitimate means of movement” as noted by historian John Torpey. For Torpey, author of The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State, a preferred method of “regulating international movement” has been the passport. Wendy McElroy puts things less subtly when she describes the passport as a tool the state can use to “exert social control by refusing travel to ‘enemies of the state.'”
It should not be surprising, then, that the US government is now cracking down on Americans who have outstanding tax bills — by holding their passports hostage. This could affect more than 360,000 Americans.
Former Congressman Bob Barr notes this week :
In an extremely troubling move three years ago, the Republican-controlled Congress handed the Internal Revenue Service the power to strip individuals of one of the most important and tangible rights possessed by American citizens – their passports. The Service is now starting to use this hammer.
Barr rightly points out that, given we already know the IRS uses its power to target political enemies, this new power of the agency is especially troubling.
He also asks how long other agencies might demand similar power from Congress, such as the power to stop a citizen’s ability to “secure a driver’s license, obtain[…] a loan from a federally-insured financial institution, or clear[…] a background check prior to purchasing a firearm?”
These sorts of powers have long been used by abusive and authoritarian states. But the ability to regulate movement through emigration and travel controls are especially attractive to states.
The US, of course, has long been especially contemptuous of potential emigrants, as “the United States is one of only two countries (the other being Eritrea) that taxes its citizens no matter whether they reside.” This acts as a sizable disincentive to Americans looking to move abroad.
And now, if you fail to pay taxes while living outside the US, the IRS can simply revoke your passport if you return to the states.
A Brief History of Emigration Controls
With this sort of behavior, the US government has joined the long list of governments which over the centuries have attempted to use their coercive powers to control the flow of emigrants outside their jurisdictions. Historian David Fitzgerald has noted:
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