By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux
Americans are leaving the country or seeking foreign visas in record numbers, according to immigration lawyers and expatriate organizations, during an oppressive year of political violence, racial strife and an uncontrolled pandemic that has kept families locked in their homes for months — with no clear end in sight.
The exodus has been led by parents looking for countries with open and safe schools and by members of marginalized groups fed up with institutionalized racism, shaken by the visibility of white supremacists and worried about what a Supreme Court swing to the right will mean for their civil liberties. They’re largely Americans with financial means and the ability to work virtually, and some are dual citizens and their spouses.
Vows to flee the country amid contentious elections are a well-worn threat among American voters. But 2020 has been unprecedented in the number of people following through on that pledge or taking the steps to leave even before polls opened, experts said. Heather Segal, a Canadian immigration attorney, said inquiries to her Toronto office became relentless after President Trump hesitated in condemning white supremacists at the first presidential debate in late September.
“I had call, after call, after call — so many that one day I felt like an immigration attorney in 1939 Germany,” Segal said. “People start telling me their stories, saying they feel unsafe, exhausted, like they are almost pleading their case.”
The number of Americans who were recorded as having given up their citizenship or U.S. residency soared to 5,816 in the first six months of 2020, compared with 2,072 in all of 2019, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service. In the third quarter, the numbers dropped dramatically to about 800, as embassies curbed services because of the pandemic.
Such data is often delayed by months and can include people who left the United States in earlier years. It includes people who gave up their citizenship or residency for a wide variety of reasons; changes to tax laws for citizens living overseas are also a major contributor to the increase, experts say. But immigration lawyers and groups catering to aspiring expatriates say the jump also mirrors a surge they’ve seen in recent months related to the national turmoil.
The German, French and Australian embassies in Washington said they have experienced noticeable increases in American citizens applying for visas, too, largely those married to citizens of their countries. The embassies declined to give specific numbers or comment on visa applicants’ motivations, citing privacy and diplomatic concerns.
Dan Prescher, senior editor of Internationalliving.com, said traffic related to “how to move out of the U.S.” has surged 1,676 percent over the past five months. He attributes the unprecedented jump to political divisiveness, uncertainty about health care, and the rising visibility of “militarized hate groups” in the United States. “Quieter, more stable countries start to look appealing,” he said.
Wade Davis, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia who recently wrote an essay headlined “The Unraveling of America” for Rolling Stone, said that, even compared with the tumultuous 1960s — with antiwar protests, assassinations and riots — “what is happening now has no precedent in American history.” Americans are choosing between being emotionally exhausted in their own country or potentially feeling alienated abroad, he said. “It takes a lot to pry oneself away from their neighborhoods, their homes, their families,” he said. “No matter who wins the election, the problems won’t be solved right away.”
That’s what worries Terry, an East Coast consultant who started the emigration process with his husband months ago. The couple’s decision to expatriate was validated for them when Trump named Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court last month, he said, because of the possible impact on same-sex marriage.
They are preparing to move this month to France, where Terry’s husband is a citizen. He asked that his last name not be used because the couple haven’t yet informed their employers of their plans. “Overturning Obergefell is possibly on the table,” he said, referring to the landmark 2015 Supreme Court case that affirmed same-sex couples’ right to marry. “We’re just not comfortable with that possibility.”
Many countries have restricted access to Americans because of high coronavirus infection rates, which has made relocating particularly onerous for some. Even those who are dual citizens often must meet testing and quarantine requirements when coming from the United States.
The ease of obtaining visas also varies among countries, and spouses of dual citizens can face hurdles.
Michelle Reeves, a dual citizen of the United States and Australia, packed up her home in Portland, Ore., this summer when she realized her two young children wouldn’t be able to return to school and she saw racial wounds being inflamed across the country. The decision to leave the United States was wrenching, she said, a move that she and her husband would have found inconceivable last year.
But Reeves, 42, knew if her family moved to Australia, her children could enroll in schools that were open and safe and her 8-year-old wouldn’t have to engage in school-shooting drills. For herself, getting more time to focus on her business, the Accessory Junkie, has been rejuvenating.
“I’m more productive again, and it feels great to be back at work where it’s not at the cost of the kids watching their iPads all day,” she wrote in an email from Brisbane, Australia.
“We love the United States, and our children were born here,” she said while still in Portland but added, “the America we came to years ago is not the America we are leaving.”
Her husband, Marc Reeves, is an American citizen and has not been able to join the rest of the family because Australia has reduced entry during the pandemic. But he still hopes to move as soon as his visa arrives. “Every empire falls,” he said. “There are many other thriving places to make a life. The pandemic may end, but the racism and ugliness won’t.”
For Americans of color, fleeing racism in the United States isn’t a new phenomenon, but many say it is experiencing a resurgence.
Las Morenas de España, a website dedicated to teaching women of color how to move abroad, has seen more than 600 people join its online community since George Floyd was killed in May, said founder Sienna J. Brown, who moved to Spain from Brooklyn six years ago. Views on the site have increased 30 percent since the spring, she said.
Brown, 29, largely attributes the spike to police violence and the pandemic, specifically noting a surge of mothers looking to raise their children “in a place where they feel seen and safe.” “With the constant reminder that, unfortunately, the country we were born in doesn’t have our best interest in mind, they’ve decided that it’s time for a change, to move to a new location where they are able to not just survive but thrive,” Brown said in an email.
The West African nation of Ghana last year led a campaign to invite the descendants of enslaved Africans to the continent, and it renewed that call after Floyd’s police killing. “Build a life in Ghana,” Tourism Minister Barbara Oteng Gyasi said during a televised memorial service for Floyd this summer. “You do not have to stay where you are not wanted forever.”
Erieka Bennett, head of mission for the Diaspora African Forum, which helps African Americans move to the continent, said the organization receives “on average 100 inquires every other day” from people curious about citizenship and buying land.
“The bottom line is, Ghana is an option, and people are fearful and scared,” said Bennett, an ambassador for the African Union who is based in Accra, Ghana’s capital. “I’m very concerned about what’s happening in the U.S. . . . And I’m praying for the country.”
It was the sudden visibility of far-right extremists and neo-Nazis in Vancouver, Wash., that piqued one young mother’s interest in moving to Canada. “Freedom car” cruises began popping up in the suburb of Portland, with people driving around for hours with Trump flags — and at least one with a Nazi flag, she said. Far-right groups like Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys held rallies near her home and spoke at a farmers market, she said.
“It felt like a warning to us, the Jewish people,” said Mira, who asked that her surname not be published because she had been targeted online by white supremacist groups after speaking out about far-right activity on the neighborhood app “Next Door.”
The shaken mother called Segal, the immigration attorney in Toronto, and applied for a student visa. She is planning to study at the University of British Columbia next year, and she and her husband plan to start looking for housing with their two children.
No matter who wins the election, Mira is convinced the hatred in her area won’t go away. “I thought people were going to come to their senses,” she said. “But it’s just become more menacing, more radicalized.”
A 70-year-old woman in Laguna Beach, Calif., has similar concerns as she tries to capitalize on her parents’ Canadian citizenship. Though she was born in the United States, she’s trying to prove she has birthright citizenship in Canada.
The retired patient advocate, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation by anti-Semitic groups and Trump supporters, said her family moved to Canada in 1921 to escape pogroms in Russia and immigrated to the United States in 1949.
When a genealogist sent her documents along with images of her parents shortly after they immigrated to Canada, it elicited a visceral reaction that “seemed to pull together all the fears I’d been holding about what was happening in our country.”
Her mother-in-law’s story about when the Nazis took power in Germany roared back into her consciousness. She is awaiting her dad’s Canadian birth certificate from Quebec to help with acquiring a Canadian certificate.
“I don’t feel like an alarmist. I’m being methodical,” she said. “I’m not a victim when I have options.”
Emily Wax-Thibodeaux is a National staff writer who covers national news, with a focus on gender issues and social movements for the America desk. She is an award-winning former foreign correspondent who covered Africa and India for nearly a decade.
Credit: The Washington Post