The story goes to the heart of some difficult questions about citizenship: how it is conferred, the rights and responsibilities that go along with it, and the explicit versus implicit consent of the governed.
Citizenship is an ascribed individual status. It is the relationship between the individual and the state that claims him or her. A state will make that claim based on two things: place of birth or lineage (the citizenship of the parents or grandparents). Note that neither of these things are within the control of the individual. We don't choose our parents or where we are born. It simply isn't up to us. And we simply can't be too self-congratulatory when we become adults for being an American or a French or a Chinese citizen because it was through no fault or merit of ours that we ended up in one citizenship box as opposed to another. We are all "Accidental" citizens whether it was through blood or place poker. The exception to all this, of course, is when we, as adults, make a choice to be naturalized and voluntarily attach ourselves to another nation-state.
This automatic attachment has merits and demerits. Conferring citizenship on every baby born in a particular territory makes for easier administration. Provided that an individual can produce a breeder document, a birth certificate that says so and so was born in Topeka, the authorities don't have to ask too many questions about someone's status. We can see the difference it makes when we look at citizenship by lineage where it often isn't taken for granted. In this case the individual must prove it by providing multiple breeder documents - usually the parent's birth certificates, certificates of nationality or naturalization papers, but sometimes even the grandparents' proof of status (something my French husband learned when he applied for his French certificate of nationality). It's just a lot more paperwork and behind the pile of paper there must be individuals qualified to process each one. Just imagine a world where every individual in a national territory had to prove that he or she actually has citizenship. This would be a bureaucratic nightmare.
Nation-states also see their interests served here. People are resources for the state. They are potential taxpayers, workers, soldiers, bureaucrats and voters. Generally speaking no state likes to see its population drop. Whatever the domestic opposition is to immigration or social engineering, states pay close attention to demographics and will intervene if they don't like the citizenship stew they have been handed. They have every interest in capturing the young and ensuring that there is a link because it is through that link that states hold people responsible for the duties and responsibilities that come with citizenship.
It is hard for the average person to see the demerits of such systems. An individual born into a particular territory, and who spends his formative years under the benevolent eye of that state, will most likely take his citizenship for granted. It becomes so much a part of his identity that he can't imagine a world where he wasn't French or American or Chinese. It's not brainwashing, it's programming and it's very powerful. Usually what happens is that the child goes through citizenship training as he grows up. He's taught the language, the history, and the benefits and responsibilities that go along with membership in this particular political community. The link exists as a simple matter of law the moment the child is born, but it takes years for the attachment to become reciprocal. It cannot be taken for granted - a very young child has no conception of "democracy" or what it means to vote or serve his country. The Constitution or the Charter or the Rights of Man are things he has to learn. And until he learns can we really say that he is a citizen of any country?
If so, then at what point in time does he become a citizen? When exactly does he or she give his explicit consent to this link between himself and the state? In some countries it is clear because there is a process, a ritual, a rite of passage, that occurs when the child becomes an adult. That child has to "opt in" (a little like Confirmation in the Catholic church). He must say or sign or do something to indicate that he accepts the deal and all the benefits and responsibilities that go along with citizenship status.
In other countries like the United States it works differently. Consent is assumed when the child turns 18 and, no, it has nothing to do with getting a passport or registering to vote or signing up for the draft. The new adult may do none of these things and yet still will be "opted in" automatically. He may not even be aware that he is a U.S. citizen but that makes no difference. Whether he knows it or not, he is "in" until he formally renounces that status.
This is the underlying problem Carol Tapanila's son and so many other Accidental Americans are confronted with today. They have a status, U.S. citizenship, they did not choose - one that was conferred upon them without their explicit consent - but they are being held nonetheless to the duties and responsibilities of that status. And I contend that there is something deeply deeply immoral about that and it both defies common sense and flies in the face of what it means to be a citizen of a democratic nation-state.
An Accidental American who did not know he was an American citizen, or one that grew up outside the U.S. where his citizenship training was, for the most part, training to be the citizen of another country, should not be subject to American laws he knew nothing about, and surely cannot be held to responsibilities he never agreed to assume. The U.S. Declaration of Independence is clear that the American government (any government actually) rests on the "consent of the governed." To maintain the fiction that one has accepted a status (consented) because nothing was said or done to indicate otherwise is absurd in so many areas but is, I would say, particularly nonsensical when it comes to citizenship and democracy. It just doesn't make sense to include someone in a political community if he doesn't know he's a member or has reached his majority and doesn't want to be one.
How American citizenship is conferred is not going to change anytime soon - modifying jus soli would require changing the Constitution and that is not a simple matter. But perhaps there is another way we could address this problem of "citizenship without consent" that would serve everyone a bit better than the current situation.
My proposal would be to have a process, a ritual, a ceremony that would require every American (not just those born or living abroad) to make an explicit choice to be an American. Something that makes those rights and responsibilities crystal clear and asks each individual, "Do you accept them?" (Not sure what would happen if they said "no" but I'm sure they'll figure it out.) In the homeland this could perhaps raise awareness of the value of citizenship and make becoming part of this particular political community meaningful - an honest to God event in a person's life - just as the naturalization ceremony is meaningful and moving for so many immigrants.
As for those young Americans born or living abroad, it could be the same ceremony held at the local U.S. Embassy. Prior to the event some basic information about what it means to be American could be sent to them so they understand that there are rights and also responsibilities that go along with this status. Every effort should be made to make it informed consent.
Most importantly, it would be their choice (not their parents or grandparents) to make that trek and to participate. If these proto-Americans choose not to do it, or cannot (like Carol's son), then that would be considered an "opt out" which means that they are not American citizens. (And, yes, there will be situations where someone didn't get the word and those could be handled on a case by case basis). There are surely other problems with this that I can't see but the principle seems sound:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed..."