Few expats from the United States left home for political reasons, despite the idea catching fire on Google’s search engine after every presidential election or controversial Supreme Court decision.
Although Gallup polls suggest that as many as 15% of Americans want to leave the country permanently. But only a small fraction of them have taken the plunge. And when they do, one study suggests they usually leave for the adventure.
And when you scratch the surface of almost any American emigrant, you often find a series of accidents, the Washington Post reports.
“I always used to think that my story was, you know, something special. Turns out it’s actually completely run of the mill … Most of us are out of the country by accident,” said migration scholar Dr. Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels. “It’s not as glamorous as the myths would have you think.”
Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels has been called the leading authority on the American diaspora. And she is part of that group herself. Growing up in Western Massachusetts, she never set out to become an expat. She went to Berlin to do Ph.D. research in 1996. Eventually, she married a German man and started a family. Some 20 years on, she studies the middle-class majority of the American diaspora at the University of Kent’s Brussels campus.
Dr. Klekowski von Koppenfels’ research with Dr. Helen B. Marrow of Tufts University shows that a large majority of Americans want to move abroad to explore or have an adventure. That’s often mixed with the desire to retire abroad, work abroad and/or get out of a bad situation.
The voting agency finds that only a quarter of expats in Southeast Asia and the Americas are fully retired.
“A lot of Americans are actually really globally minded,” said Joyce Zhang Gray, an American who spent her twenties in Singapore, Kenya and Argentina. She founded Alariss Global, a tech platform that handles hiring, local regulations and benefits for foreign businesses looking to quickly hire remote American workers.
“It’s becoming easier and easier for them to act on that global impulse as technology allows folks to cross borders for medium- and long-term stays or to simply work remotely,” she said.
“I haven’t met many Americans in Cairo, Damascus or Abu Dhabi who are truly motivated solely by money,” said Sam Blatteis, a San Francisco native who founded MENA Catalysts, a Middle East government-relations outfit for high-tech firms.
“It’s usually people that are pretty academically and intellectually curious. A good chunk of my friends end up marrying people from cultures completely different than their own,” said Blatteis.
After over two decades of studying migration, World Bank economist Caglar Ozden concluded that immigrants defy categories. Once they get settled, they look to study and work, building social networks and learning the language as best they can.
By the numbers
A Washington Post analysis of United Nations data finds that just one American emigrates for every four Mexicans. The U.S., like most governments, does not keep a close count of citizens who have left the country. But the U.N. and the World Bank estimate around 2.8 million American-born people live abroad.
That’s not counting Americans who were born abroad to American parents, foreign-born spouses of Americans or naturalized American immigrants who later emigrated, even though many in those groups claim American citizenship. They also typically don’t count American soldiers, tourists or temporary workers.
The Federal Voting Assistance Program estimates that around 4.8 million American civilians, plus 1.2 million service members and other government-affiliated Americans, lived abroad in 2018.
Source: The Washington Post