In 1997, Chere Lyn Tomayko fled her country of origin, accompanied by her daughters, Chandler and Alexandria.
Tomayko sought to escape an abusive relationship with Alexandria’s father, Roger Cyprian, as tensions were continuing to escalate in the household.
Fearing that somebody might lose their life if she remained within Cyprian’s reach, Tomayko traveled to Costa Rica, where, like myriad other domestic violence survivors around the globe, she sought protection in another country in the form of refugee status.
After a protracted and complex legal process, the government of Costa Rica approved Tomayko’s refugee claim in 2008, citing the human rights concerns implicated in the case.
On the surface, the case resembles many requests for refugee protection from recent times but for one distinguishing feature: Tomayko is a citizen of the United States of America.
In seeking asylum overseas as a U.S. citizen, Tomayko was part of a sizeable group, as data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reveal that U.S. citizens have lodged approximately 14,000 asylum claims since 2000.
This Essay is the first scholarly intervention to distill the number and nature of refugee claims made by U.S. citizens and to explore the broader implications of this phenomenon.
Tomayko’s case encapsulates many of the complicated dynamics that surround protection claims made by U.S. citizens, including the nature of the bilateral relationship between the United States and the destination country, along with social and political forces in the destination country that might buoy the asylum claim or foretell its defeat. These cases also reflect the strategic choices made by asylum seekers who, by virtue of their citizenship and access to a U.S. passport, have relatively unfettered access to many parts of the world.
For some of these claimants, the asylum process and its promise of lasting protection serve as a shield against criminal or other legal proceedings in the United States.
Notwithstanding the instrumental motives underlying some cases, many applicants genuinely believe that the United States is simply not a safe place for their families to live and have made the choice to flee the proverbial land of the free.
The stories of these U.S. citizen asylum seekers also invite deeper reflection about how U.S. citizenship is valued in the current political moment. To be sure, the United States continues to be a preeminent destination for persons seeking humanitarian protection, receiving tens of thousands of asylum claims annually.
Nevertheless, a significant number of U.S. citizens have decided that the perceived risks of remaining in the country outweigh the bundle of rights and protections that accompanies their citizenship. Abandonment of U.S. citizenship is not a new phenomenon, of course, as thousands renounce their U.S. citizenship each year, typically for tax-related reasons.
Yet the country’s recent flirtation with authoritarianism, widening fissures in its social fabric, and growing environmental risks suggest that a closer study of asylum seeking is warranted—and indeed, prudent—should conditions generate even greater outflows of U.S. citizens.
The Essay opens in Part I with a quantitative overview of claims, drawing from data provided by the UNHCR and destination countries. Following that statistical summary, Part II of the Essay presents a typology of claims that U.S. citizens have lodged, extracting from publicly available sources the applicants’ motivations for seeking asylum and assessing how foreign government authorities have received those claims. Part III of this Essay explores the broader implications of this phenomenon. As a preliminary scholarly intervention into the topic, this Essay does not endeavor to answer the complicated array of legal questions embedded in U.S. citizen asylum claims, nor does it exhaustively tackle the range of theoretical questions—across multiple disciplines—that underlie this phenomenon. Rather, by offering a set of initial observations and theories, the Essay invites additional scholarly treatment of the matter and provides a baseline for empirical inquiry.