While We Fuss About Immigration, Americans Are Emigrating

Over the course of three days, I come upon an article about countries willing to take immigrants from the United States (even a few islands that are giving a discount on the dowry price); a YouTube video by a middle-aged couple who have resettled in blissful happiness (at least they say so) in Ecuador; a BBC report about African-Americans moving to their Old World, because in Africa, they do not have to worry about their sons being shot by police; and a Facebook message from a friend with dual citizenship who informs me, in no uncertain terms, that if the incumbent president is reelected, she will live out her days in Ireland.

All this leaves me a little … unsettled. Not puzzled, mind you; I completely understand the various reasons cited. Our oft-touted research, the supposed reason for the skyrocketing health and drug costs, has given us treatments few can afford, and many U.S. citizens stay in jobs they hate or live in dread of an illness that will bankrupt them—or force them to decide whether to drain their life savings to ease the suffering of, say, an elderly parent. Then you have the political tension that has severed friendships and torn families apart as surely as the Civil War did. The idiocy of a government that has botched public health and won us the rest of the world’s mockery. (That list of the countries who want us is not long.) Life seems easier, happier, safer, and more affordable in other places.

Is this the usual pre-election jitters, when we all threaten Canada (and follow through with enough research that in 2016, the Canadian immigration website crashed)? Or is it the blend of clear-eyed realism, hope, and fantasy that brought settlers here in the first place? This country, for so long the world’s golden child, has tarnished. Forbes recently reported a study that ranks the U.S. as the second-worst place in the world to raise a family. Crime-ridden Mexico was the only country deemed worse. It is also the only country in the world with more murders than the U.S.

The best places to raise a family? Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Iceland also ranked number one in safety and only number four in cost, and it is a world leader in human rights.

We came in fourth worst in human rights.

We also—this will come as no shock—ranked worst for time. We are harried and overworked, with zero government-mandated paid family leave and paid vacation. Another measure on the index, perhaps related, is that one in five U.S. citizens suffer from mental health issues, and our suicide rate increased by 33 percent between 1999 and 2017.

To what extent are the quantitative measures the real ingredients of the happiness our Constitution taught us to pursue? That answer will be different for each of us. I would rather be where those I love are, regardless. But if they all came with me?

It is impossible to know how many people are blowing this fast-melting popsicle stand, because the United States does not keep track of emigration. We are too busy building walls that keep people from coming in to notice those who are leaving. This seems arrogant, does it not? Rough estimates work backward from other measures, such as purchases of second passports (Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are not alone) and IRS stats. The best guess dates back to 2016, when the State Department estimated nine million non-military citizens living abroad—more than double the four million hazarded in 1999. Both totals have been challenged as serious underestimates.

U.S. expats have scattered to more than 160 countries. Most (forty percent) stay close to home, choosing Canada or Central and South America. In 2015, Malta, Singapore, and Luxembourg were fashionable, and U.S. citizens made up more than half of Ecuador’s expat community. This year, trendwatchers report that Switzerland has taken the lead, Spain has joined the top five destinations, and Ecuador and Mexico are over, thanks to populist governments, insecurity, and inadequate response to the pandemic. (All of which we seem to have here, too.)

Only the travel and business industries really track this stuff with any energy, though. Why count a few turncoats? Search for “emigration,” and you will find thousands of articles on immigration, which was once our saving grace and we have now decided is a curse. We bemoan the huddled masses and wretched refuse—but we still like thinking that people will ransom all they have, set off in a leaky boat after midnight, just to live in our country. “They’re com-ing to A-MER-i-ca,” we sing.

Historically, the United States has always been able to boast of net immigration, with far more people entering than would ever choose to leave. We were the dream. The place you could be free, reinvent yourself, grow rich by your own hard work, stand shoulder to shoulder with those who pass for aristocrats in a land that pretends it has none.

We are not yet used to being the place people wish to flee.

“We could move to Europe,” I say to my husband, lightly and a little wistfully.

“They don’t want us,” he reminds me. (Our first choice was always Canada, when we had these wild-hare conversations four years ago, and we both knew they did not want us.) As we talk, the grim reality grows clearer: We are a historian and a journalist, neither of us possessing even sufficient skill to troubleshoot our own laptop, let alone negotiate to give a new country our STEM expertise. Nor do we have cash, which is the fallback for those without brainpower.

I do some googling, partly in the spirit of fun and partly because the thought that no one would welcome us into their country has me hyperventilating.

“St. Kitts & Nevis has a discount,” I tell him brightly. “Twenty-three percent off citizenship, a $150K contribution and a minimum real estate investment of $200K.” Which is significantly cheaper than Cyprus, where we would have to fork over the cool $2.5 million we do not possess, even in fantasy mode. Portugal might be doable—I like that you can make a donation to Portuguese art and culture as your entry fee, and that you need to pass a Portuguese history test. That at least makes it seem more like entering a country than buying a club membership.

Deep down, I know we will not leave unless we are forced to do so. We are all talk, like kids who roll their treasures into a bandanna, tie it to a stick, grab an apple, and make it as far as the end of the driveway. But I do understand why others follow through. It is a way of voting with your feet, and if it happens often enough, someone may begin to tally the results.

By which time, it may be too late.