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Dual citizenship’s appeal grows, here and abroad

Viktoria Kirakosyan is hoping to become a citizen of both Armenia and the US. (Globe Staff / Barry Chin) Viktoria Kirakosyan is hoping to become a citizen of both Armenia and the US.
By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / August 22, 2011

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Viktoria Kirakosyan came to the United States for a top-notch education and later decided to become a US citizen. But taking the oath came with a trade-off: She lost her Armenian citizenship.

But now Kirakosyan and thousands of other immigrants who had to sever official ties to their homelands to begin anew in the United States are seeking to hold onto two citizenships - with increasing success. Armenia in recent years joined the swelling ranks of nations that recognize dual citizenships, and now Kirakosyan hopes to reclaim hers.

“I just feel at home both here and there at the same time,’’ said Kirakosyan, 31, the former program manager of the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown. “I’ve been living in Boston for a long time, it feels like my own home; same thing when I go to Yerevan. I don’t feel like a foreigner.’’

Researchers and US officials say they are seeing a wave of people with dual citizenships, at a time when students are coming to US universities at record levels, more households have members from more than one country, and globalization has eroded old notions of allegiance to a single country.

Countries including Armenia, Ghana, the Philippines, and Kenya, meanwhile, have opted to allow dual citizenship in recent years as a means of trying to maintain some hold on citizens who elect to leave for better educations or more prosperous lives abroad.

More than half the nations in the world permit some form of dual citizenship, according to a 2008 study for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington-based think tank that studies world migration. This year Haiti took steps toward it as well.

Only a few decades ago in the grips of the Cold War, having two passports was almost unthinkable. Governments feared it would lead to espionage or that it would prevent immigrants from assimilating into their new land.

The US government does not encourage dual citizenship but officially recognizes it, in part because it doesn’t want to conflict with nations that allow it, said Edward Betancourt, a supervisory attorney in the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs.

“We don’t put an asterisk next to their name if they have a dual nationality,’’ he said. “If a person is a United States citizen, that’s the end of the discussion for us.’’

No statistics for dual citizenship are available, but thousands of people are estimated to have more than one passport. Their rights and responsibilities vary: Some nations permit citizens abroad to vote, while others may require them to pay taxes or serve in the military. Typically to become a dual citizen, people must apply, file paperwork, and pay a fee, similar to the United States, which also requires an exam.

Despite the growth in dual citizenship, many countries such as China and Denmark still refuse to allow it. Some governments fear outsiders’ influence over their affairs.

In the United States, critics say dual citizenship discourages new citizens from fully committing to their adopted home.

Stanley Renshon, a political science professor at the City University of New York, said the US should ban dual nationals from voting or serving in the armed forces or holding elective offices overseas, and encourage dual citizens to instead focus their efforts on their new country.

“It saps attention to what’s going on in this country,’’ he said. “After all that’s what’s being an American is all about. It’s about trying to be a part of this community here.’’

Immigrants say they seek dual citizenship for reasons that are both practical and sentimental. They prize their US nationality, but also wish to easily travel, own property, and invest back home. And often their personal identity - from the language they speak to the food they eat - is closely tied to their native countries.

For developing countries, the benefits of dual citizenship can be significant. Wealthy emigres could invest back home, creating jobs and increasing tourism.

Stephen Tomi, a green card holder from Tanzania who sent a daughter to the University of Pennsylvania, said he is lobbying for his native country to accept dual citizenship so that immigrants in America can invest and create jobs for youths. Tomi has held off on applying for US citizenship until Tanzania accepts both nationalities.

“Tanzania needs to help itself and that’s a part of the push of this dual citizenship,’’ said Tomi, chairman of New England Umoja (Unity) Foundation in Springfield. “Once we’re allowed to go there and invest in our own country, I think we’ll bring development back home.’’

Gabor Garai, a 59-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer, left his Hungarian citizenship behind as a youth when he came to America and became a US citizen, fleeing the repressive communist regime that ruled his homeland at the time. But after the communists fell in the late 1980s, the new leadership reached out to him for help with the fledgling democracy - such as making business connections in America - and he became a dual citizen in 2004.

“When the regime changed, I felt I was proud to be Hungarian again,’’ said Garai, who is now Hungary’s honorary consul in Boston.

Lucy Pineda, director of Latinos United in Massachusetts, a nonprofit in Everett, said she is committed to helping residents of both countries where she is a citizen: the United States and El Salvador. Every year, she visits her impoverished hometown of Agua Fria to deliver donated shoes, clothing, and medicine.

“I made a promise that I was going to be able to help these people in El Salvador as long as God allowed me to,’’ said Pineda, who left when she was 14 and now is 38. “To see my children here who have everything and to see children there who have nothing is very sad.’’

Some say dual citizenship is losing its meaning as borders fall and people decide where to live, effectively committing to a nation.

“The benefits and losses are not all that significant or are not all that clear,’’ said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute who let his own Greek passport expire because he didn’t need it.

Kirakosyan said having two passports would come naturally to her. In America, she loves Thanksgiving and the sense of law and order. But she misses her native land, where friends and relatives stop by without calling, and where they exchange holiday presents on New Year’s instead of Christmas.

“You know there are people who love two people and I could never understand who could do that? How can you be in love with two people at the same time?’’ she said with a laugh. “For me, I love here as much as I love there.’’

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at msacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.