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Column: The "price" of citizenship

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Column: The "price" of citizenship
Worthington Minnesota 300 11th Street / P.O. Box 639 56187

SAN DIEGO -- You've probably heard the saying that youth is wasted on the young. Well, thanks to one of the more disturbing stories swirling around the initial public offering of the social media behemoth Facebook, we've learned that, in some cases, U.S. citizenship is wasted on U.S. citizens.

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I know about citizenship. My family of Mexican-Americans is loaded with it. Both of my parents, three grandparents and dozens of aunts, uncles and cousins are natural-born U.S. citizens.

I feel confident in asserting that none of my kin ever found themselves sitting on a piece of a company about to go public with a valuation approaching $100 billion. But if they ever had, I'm also confident that they would never even have thought of dropping their U.S. citizenship, allegedly to avoid a tax bill.

This would not have sat well with my Mexican grandfather who came to the United States legally during the Mexican Revolution. And it would've been even tougher to swallow for my father and uncles who served in the U.S. military.

It's not just that a lot of good men and women have fought and died over the years to protect this nation and that, in doing so, they've given meaning to the concept of U.S. citizenship. For Mexican-Americans, who often feel stuck between borders and cultures, there is the added appeal of being rooted in one country -- the United States.

There are just those things that you don't do in life, and one of them is give up your U.S. citizenship -- for any reason, but especially for something as crass as financial gain.

Which brings us to Eduardo Saverin, the Brazilian-born co-founder of Facebook.

Saverin moved to the U.S. in 1992 and became a citizen in 1998. Recently, he moved again -- this time, to Singapore. Last year, Saverin -- who owns an estimated 5 percent of Facebook even though he is no longer with the company -- opted to renounce his U.S. citizenship.

He did what? We are expected to believe that this last item has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the young entrepreneur is approaching a major windfall and would normally have to pay a hefty sum in U.S. taxes. Saverin's spokesman insists that what drove him away from the United States was our country's complicated rules regarding U.S. citizens holding money while living abroad.

Tax experts along with some members of Congress aren't buying it. Noting that Singapore is a relatively low-tax country, they suspect that Saverin's real objective in choosing the Asian city-state as his new address, and in dropping his citizenship, is to save a bundle on taxes.

Think about it. An immigrant comes to this country, seeks to become a U.S. citizen, makes a fortune -- and then, just before the tax man cometh, says "thank you" and skips out on the bill. That can't be what the poet Emma Lazarus had in mind when she wrote that now famous inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty, asking the world for "your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

For some Americans, who unfortunately need no incentive to think negatively of immigrants -- and never have, a story like this is enough to give all foreigners a bad name.

But I prefer to think of another group of immigrants that more closely defines what this country has always been about. I'm talking about those who come here legally and make the effort to become citizens -- and, once they do, treasure the privilege. And I'm even talking about those who come illegally, and then make the effort to become legal and ultimately become citizens.

How broken is this system when an Internet billionaire can be so cavalier as to throw away his U.S. citizenship as if it were a gum wrapper when there are an estimated hundreds of thousands of undocumented DREAM Act students who would do anything to have what he is throwing away? Aside from the benefits of citizenship, the students I know just want the chance to earn legal status so they don't have to worry about being deported by the same Obama administration that claims to be on their side.

Singapore can have Saverin. And we will keep the DREAMers. I don't have to tell you who is getting the better part of that deal.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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