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The Curious Case of Gedion Zelalem's Citizenship

Wherein TSF attempts to make sense of multiple nations' citizenship laws.

Jordan Mansfield

Arsenal fans everywhere have been excited about Gedion Zelalem since he burst onto the scene in last year's Asian tour with his incisive through balls and preternatural vision. He was compared to [NAME OF CHELSEA PLAYER REDACTED] immediately upon arrival and those preseason performances did nothing but pour gasoline on the hype bonfire.

For Arsenal fans in America, the hype for young Zelalem has been exponentially greater due to the fact that he spent his formative years in the US of A, sounds like an average American teenager, and could become a United States citizen. We were told in May by Steven Goff of the Washington Post, who has been on the Zelalem trail since 2011, that Zelalem was "close to becoming an American citizen," saying that it was probably going to be finalized very soon.

Well, it's been nearly five months since that report and we've heard nothing about Zelalem's citizenship status. On top of that, all of these reports, from the Washington Post and other sources, have contained brief and often contradictory statements on how Zelalem can get US citizenship and how that affects his German citizenship as well as his ability to get a work permit to play for Arsenal.

Luckily for you all, I decided to delve into the primary sources on the citizenship issue in an attempt to wrap my head around this. It was an awful idea.

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: I am an attorney, but not on immigration/naturalization law, and certainly not on German law. I've just done a couple of days research on this issue so if you know something more or different, please chime in in the comments so we can figure this whole mess out.)

Step 1: How Zelalem Can Become a US Citizen

This is supposedly the simple part, right? Well, maybe not. In his piece linked above, Goff mentions the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 as Zelalem's ticket to citizenship. Goff states that Zelalem will "automatically become a citizen when his father becomes a citizen." This claim was repeated by others, but it's unclear whether they did research themselves or just followed Goff's assertion.

The aforementioned act, found in Title 8 of the United States Code in Sections 1431-1433 (which actually only has two sections: here and here) has this to say:

(a) A child born outside of the United States automatically becomes a citizen of the United States when all of the following conditions have been fulfilled:

(1) At least one parent of the child is a citizen of the United States, whether by birth or naturalization.

(2) The child is under the age of eighteen years.

(3) The child is residing in the United States in the legal and physical custody of the citizen parent pursuant to a lawful admission for permanent residence.

Section 1431 is the "automatic" provision of the Child Citizenship Act of 2000. It requires 5 things: one parent is a citizen, child is under the age of 18, child is residing in the United States, child is residing with the parent who is a US citizen, and the child has a green card. When all five of those things are present at once, the child automatically becomes a US citizen. There seems to be a problem for young Gedion though, one you may notice if your web browser supports the "bold text" feature. He isn't residing in the United States. In fact, he hasn't for over two years due to the fact he moved to London in the fall of 2012 in anticipation of his move to Arsenal. (Side note: Not sure which would be more confusing, US/German naturalization law or UEFA youth player residency guidelines.)

This State Department link, which Goff links in his piece, has broader language, expanding "is residing" to "has resided". Based on the actual text of the statute and the United State Citizenship and Immigration Services website, I have come to the conclusion that that link from the State Department is incorrect.

So then, you ask, what now? Well, there is Section 1433 for children who reside outside of the United States.

(a) Application by citizen parents; requirements

A parent who is a citizen of the United States (or, if the citizen parent has died during the preceding 5 years, a citizen grandparent or citizen legal guardian) may apply for naturalization on behalf of a child born outside of the United States who has not acquired citizenship automatically under section 1431 of this title. The Attorney General shall issue a certificate of citizenship to such applicant upon proof, to the satisfaction of the Attorney General, that the following conditions have been fulfilled:

(1) At least one parent (or, at the time of his or her death, was) is a citizen of the United States, whether by birth or naturalization.

(2) The United States citizen parent—

(A) has (or, at the time of his or her death, had) been physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years; or

(B) has (or, at the time of his or her death, had) a citizen parent who has been physically present in the United States or its outlying possessions for a period or periods totaling not less than five years, at least two of which were after attaining the age of fourteen years.

(3) The child is under the age of eighteen years.

(4) The child is residing outside of the United States in the legal and physical custody of the applicant (or, if the citizen parent is deceased, an individual who does not object to the application).

(5) The child is temporarily present in the United States pursuant to a lawful admission, and is maintaining such lawful status.

To sum up, this section requires six things: US citizen parent, said parent lived in US for 5+ years (2 of which were after the age of 14) or had a citizen parent themselves who met that requirement, the child is under 18, the child residing outside the US, the child is residing with the citizen parent, and the child is temporarily present in the US lawfully.

If Zelalem's father becomes a citizen, Zelalem should have no trouble with any of the other requirements. His father lived in the US for 7 years with Gedion, so the requirement of subsection 2 should not be an issue. If Goff's initial report about Zelalem's father being on the verge of receiving his citizenship was correct, perhaps this is why Gedion is not a citizen yet. Separate action is required after Gedion's father becomes a citizen for Gedion himself to become a citizen.

Whatever requirements need to be met, this process becomes significantly more difficult after Gedion turns 18. His birthday is January 26th. Less than four months. Yikes.

Or, all this discussion could be moot and Gedion is already a US citizen and is merely waiting for the right time to announce it and/or his selection of the USMNT.

Step 2: Can He Keep His German Citizenship?

Turns out, German citizenship law is kinda confusing, you guys. You wouldn't think that something titled "Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz" would be complicated, but here we are. Germany is not particularly fond of dual citizenship. Section 17 of what we'll refer to as the Nationality Act lists how Germans can lose their citizenship:

(1) Citizenship shall be lost

1. by release from citizenship (Sections 18 to 24),

2. by acquisition of a foreign citizenship (Section 25),

3. by renunciation (Section 26),

4. by adoption by a foreigner (Section 27),

5. by joining the armed forces or a comparable armed organization of a foreign

state (Section 28) or

6. by a declaration (Section 29) or

7. by revocation of an unlawful administrative act (Section 35),

Section 25 seems to be applicable here as Gedion is (presumably) acquiring a foreign citizenship. It states:

(1) A German shall lose his or her citizenship upon acquiring a foreign citizenship where such acquisition results from an application filed by the German concerned or his or her legal representative, whereas the represented person shall suffer such loss only if the qualifying conditions for application for release from citizenship apply as stipulated in Section 19. The loss under sentence 1 shall not take effect if a German acquires the citizenship of another member state of the European Union, Switzerland or of a state with which the Federal Republic of Germany has signed a treaty under Section 12, sub-section 3.

(2) Citizenship shall not be lost by any person who, prior to acquiring foreign citizenship following their application for the same, received written approval from their competent authority for retention of their citizenship. Where an applicant is ordinarily resident abroad, the German diplomatic mission abroad shall be consulted in this connection. The public and private interests shall be weighed up in reaching the decision on an application pursuant to sentence 1. With regard to an applicant who is ordinarily resident abroad, special consideration shall be accorded to the question of whether he or she is able to furnish credible evidence of continuing ties with Germany.

In plainer English, general rule: children don't lose their citizenship when their parents get them foreign citizenship. However, it does mention a potential issue if the provisions of Section 19 are met with so let's check those out:

(1) Application for the release from citizenship of a person in parental custody or in the care of a guardian may be filed by the legal representative only and shall require approval from the German family court.

(2) The approval of the family court shall not be required where the father or mother applies for release from citizenship for himself or herself and for a child at the same time by virtue of the right of custody and the applicant is entitled to custody for the child concerned.

It doesn't look like Subsection 1 applies to Zelalem's situation at all. Subsection 2 also doesn't look like it applies. Zelalem's father is not applying to release his citizenship; for all we know, he isn't even a German citizen. Even if he does, it does not matter as that is not how he's losing his German citizenship. Because the provisions of Section 19 do not apply in Zelalem's case, he is not stripped of his citizenship.

But that isn't it -- there's also the continuing issue of how long he remains a German citizen. Because he was naturalized under Section 40b of the Staatsangehörigkeitsgesetz, he has to declare his intention on whether he wants to keep his German or his foreign citizenship. He can do so at any point after the age of 18. If he chooses to do nothing, he'll lose his German citizenship at the age of 23. If he wants to keep his citizenship, unless he gets an exception or approval from the German government, he'll have to renounce his foreign citizenship(s). He has to present any evidence to the German government on why he should be able to keep his German citizenship by his 21st birthday, which does give him a bit of time to mull this issue over.

This last point bleeds over into the next issue...

Step 3: Keep That Work Permit!

Unfortunately for Arsenal, we tend to not have the same luck on getting work permits as, say, Manchester United. For Zelalem to continue playing here, he really has to keep his German citizenship. Perhaps at some point, he will become enough of a USMNT stalwart to have earned a work permit based on his play, but that day seems far away.

It seems as though Zelalem can't lose his German passport for another 5 years, in the worst case scenario. If he hasn't broken through at the USMNT level over the next five years, he probably won't still be at Arsenal. Seems like more of a risk for him than it does for our club.

If this article was way too long for you (it was) here's a quick summation:

  1. Zelalem can definitely become a US citizen, but it might not be as hassle-free as we were led to believe
  2. He can keep his German citizenship, but probably not forever
  3. He can keep his work permit for a while and if he can't, it probably won't be to the detriment of Arsenal.

If you have any further knowledge on the intricacies of US or German naturalization law, please post something in the comments to educate us. This is a weird, complicated situation, and that's without even considering the relative merits of each of his potential national team selections.