If you’re a US citizen and believe you have an unfettered right to leave your country – and come back – think again.
Since the events of 9/11, your government has imposed draconian restrictions on international travel:
- Initiatives like the "Automated Targeting System" and "Secure Flight" require airlines to turn over passenger data to the government. If the government doesn’t like what it sees, it can refuse you permission to board your flight without telling you why.
- “No-fly lists” keep hundreds of citizens trapped in other countries, unable to return to their US homes.
- Hundreds of thousands of US citizens can’t leave the US because they’re ineligible for a US passport. Many don’t qualify for a passport because they’re behind in child support payments or have been ordered by a court not to leave the US.
And we can now add “tax” to the list of reasons why you might be prevented from leaving – or reentering – the US.
Newly authorized IRS access to Customs & Border Patrol (C&BP) databases means that a revenue agent can red-flag your name with the click of a mouse. Already, numerous taxpayers have been tripped up by this system as they attempt to depart the US.
And, if a proposed law takes effect, the IRS will be able to revoke the passports of citizens owing $50,000 or more in back taxes without formally charging them with tax evasion.
Imagine that you’re ready to depart on your vacation to France. As you’re passing through the security checkpoint, an agent tells you that you can’t board your flight. The IRS says you owe it money and customs officials have been ordered to confiscate your passport on the spot. You’re now trapped in the US.
The reverse is also true. If you live outside the US but are a US citizen, the IRS presumes that you’re a tax evader, for reasons I pointed out here. When you renew your passport, you must disclose your Social Security number – and the State Department turns over that information to the IRS. That means if you owe taxes – or haven’t filed tax returns at all – you can be detained as you cross the border back into the US.
I know a lawyer who scheduled a meeting in San Francisco last year with a US citizen client flying in from Hong Kong. The client never showed up for the appointment. Days later, the lawyer learned that the client had been taken into custody immediately after crossing the US border. The client now faces criminal charges for various tax-related offenses.
Don’t feel too comfortable if you’re not a US citizen. Last month, the C&BP gave foreigners travelling to the US on a visitor’s or other non-immigrant visa online access to their arrival and departure history for the last five years. This was pitched as “good news” and “convenience” for those foreigners. But you can be sure that this information is already being shared with every three-letter agency in Washington, DC – starting with the IRS.
The IRS now has a convenient way to find out how long visitors to the US actually spend here. If you’re a visitor who has spent more than 182 days in any one year, or an average of 122 days per year over a three-year period, you’re supposed to file US tax and information reporting returns.
And… it’s already happening. I’ve recently received reports of non-resident, non-immigrant foreign nationals being detained at US border crossings due to taxes they allegedly owed the IRS.
For instance, the IRS is now targeting Canadian “snowbirds” who flock to Arizona, Florida, and other southern US states to avoid wintry weather at home. The agency is using C&BP databases to count the days these folks are in the US. Taxes in Canada are higher than in the US, courtesy of the “foreign tax credit,” so snowbirds who are deemed to be US tax-residents usually don’t owe any US tax. But even an innocent overstay can result in a $10,000 fine.
The bottom line: Whether you’re a US citizen or not, if you have filing, reporting, or tax obligations to the IRS, the agency will be looking for you when you cross a US border. Plan accordingly!