Mitt Romney and Off-Shore Citizenship

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event at the Bev
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign fundraising event at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In Tuesday's debate, Mitt Romney tried to lobby for his new tax plan without mentioning the specific deductions or credits he'd cut as president. In so doing, Romney used the same strategy of evasion that has shielded his personal tax records from critique. Just as we should press him for specifics on public fiscal policy, we should demand that Romney demonstrate his personal credibility by making available a full decade of his taxes. Why is this -- and Romney's refusals to do so -- still important?

Not because of Harry Reid's "anonymous source." Reid did us all a disservice by trying to bluff his way into Romney's tax records. We don't need uncouth politics. We just need history.

In 1884, Romney's ancestors left Utah as exiles in search of a new home. The U.S. government, by outlawing polygamy, had intruded into their lives too far, they felt. The Romneys and their fellow Mormon exiles fled to Mexico in pursuit of religious freedom.

Theirs was but one of many migrations south of the border in search of rights no longer guaranteed by the United States. Runaway slaves, Confederate soldiers, Kickapoo Indians, and even South African Boers all sought advantages in northern Mexico -- personal freedom, the right to employ slave labor, the proximity to native homelands, and a connection to U.S. markets -- while avoiding the burdens of U.S. citizenship. These groups, like the Mormons, were essentially "off-shore citizens" of the United States: close enough to reap some rewards, but far enough away to skirt the burdens or requirements of American citizenship. This is why border towns like Calexico and Mexicali exist. They thrive on cross-border convenience and advantages.

Like his ancestors, Mitt Romney benefits from his own brand of off-shore citizenship. It appears that he pays little income taxes through economic wizardry in the Cayman Islands. I say "appears" here because of the relative paucity of papers from which to base this conclusion. We need the full decade of documents, because Romney's taxes can tell us more about his character than any debate or stump speech.

For most of us, filing taxes constitutes the most direct engagement we have with our country. The process of submitting federal and state taxes removes the idea of America from an abstract realm and makes it real. Paying taxes also speaks to each citizen's investment in our collective experiment that is the United States. Participating in this social responsibility -- as a contributor or a recipient -- thus certifies one's belonging to American civil society. It also reveals much about one's position, social standing and even one's character.

We are able to parse President Obama's taxes for the last decade. But Mitt Romney's silence raises troubling questions. To date we only have two years' federal filings, years when Romney knew his papers would undergo national scrutiny. What might we learn from Romney's earlier records, a time when he thought only financial technocrats would inspect his economic allegiance to the state?

A tax, an "impuesto," literally means something placed upon oneself -- a burden, a duty. A person's tax record with the government therefore reveals much about his or her commitment to the state. And it does so measurably, quantifiably. So while we may not know, depending on the year and the election, whether Romney is for or against nationalized healthcare, pro-choice or pro-life, or for or against semi-automatic assault weapons controls, 10 years of tax reports can provide direct evidence of his commitment to his ideals.

Romney may very well agree. After all, he required Paul Ryan to share a decade of his own returns, before naming him as his veep running-mate. Taxes must matter. So how can voters truly evaluate Romney's commitment to America without seeing an equal amount of his tax returns, a practice followed by his father (the one "born in Mexico," but never the Mexican)?

While Romney can joke with birthers about no one asking if he was born in America, he should consider that President Obama has shown -- through his birth certificate and 10 years of tax filings -- more of his commitment to our country than the former governor himself. We currently have no way of measuring Romney's commitment to citizenship. Without this quantifiable data, voters will not know the true character of this cross-border candidate. Is he the real deal, fiscally committed to his country in public and in private? Or is he an off-shore citizen hiding the details of his true convictions?

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