We all know that America is a nation of immigrants (with the obvious exception of its long-marginalized Native population). But every so often, it feels like it’s on the verge of becoming a nation of emigrants.
Why have millions of Americans moved to these countries instead?
But only a small fraction of Americans have actually taken the plunge, data shows. And an even tinier minority leave the United States for political reasons, according to migration scholar Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels.
Before we dig deeper into the causes, let’s take a look at the numbers.
While the United States is the top destination for immigrants worldwide, hosting about three times as many immigrants as runners-up Germany and Saudi Arabia, it’s a paltry 26th in terms of sending emigrants abroad. Our analysis of U.N. data finds that just one American emigrates for every six Indians or four Mexicans.
And unlike emigrants from other countries, Americans go everywhere. We’re the most widely distributed people on the planet. No other nation has as few people concentrated in its top 10 (or top 25, or top 50) destinations, a Washington Post analysis shows.
In part, this wide distribution is probably a legacy of America’s immigrant roots. America is the top destination for migrants from about 40 countries, and many Americans remain linked to their ancestral homelands. It also reflects the wide reach of the U.S. military, as well as civilian organizations such as the Peace Corps and Christian missionaries.
The U.S. government does not keep a close count of Americans who have left the country; few governments do. The State Department asks some expatriates to register, but it does not maintain comprehensive, up-to-date directories. So, to count emigrants, we need a little help from our friends. Or at least from their statistical agencies.
The United Nations and World Bank collect data on foreign-born populations from local censuses and surveys all over the world, and use them to estimate migration patterns between more than 200 countries and localities. By their estimate, the population of American-born people abroad sat around 2.8 million as of 2020.
To keep their measurements consistent across countries and time periods — and to avoid double-counting millions of people with dual citizenship — they focus on just one measure of immigration: a foreign birthplace. Thus, they often leave out 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).
Consultants working for the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), an agency that helps Americans abroad cast their ballots, estimate that a total of about 4.8 million American civilians lived abroad in 2018. Consultants working with American Citizens Abroad, an advocacy group, estimated that there were about 3.9 million civilians, plus 1.2 million service members and other government-affiliated Americans.
By almost any metric, Mexico is the top destination for Americans leaving the country. But there’s an unusual reason for that, which becomes apparent when you slice Mexico’s American population by age.
Typically, migrants from America are young adults — think students, Mormon missionaries and Marines — or middle-aged professionals. But American Mexicans are neither: Two-thirds are under 18 — children, in other words.
The vast majority of these young Americans have two Mexican parents, according to a demographic analysis of Mexico’s data by Claudia Masferrer (El Colegio de México), Erin Hamilton (University of California at Davis) and Nicole Denier (University of Alberta). Born in the United States as Mexican immigration peaked, they returned to Mexico with their parents as the U.S. Mexican population crested in 2007 and fell during the Obama and Trump administrations. Many parents returned voluntarily, but research shows about 1 in 6 were deported.
These young American Mexicans — some call them “accidental Americans” because they didn’t choose their American citizenship — tend to be concentrated in border states, particularly Baja California and Chihuahua.
In other top destinations — Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Australia and other advanced economies — most Americans arrive on purpose. Or at least that’s how it looks at first glance. But when you scratch the surface of almost any American emigrant, you often find a series of accidents.
Klekowski von Koppenfels is not just the leading authority on the American diaspora, she’s a card-carrying member. But growing up in Western Massachusetts, she never set out to become an expatriate. She went to Berlin to do PhD research in 1996. Then her 10-month grant got extended. She met a German guy. She got married. They had children. Suddenly, it was 20 years later and she had built a career at the University of Kent’s Brussels campus. Now she interviews, visits and studies the middle-class folks who make up the majority of the American diaspora, even if they don’t make headlines as often as billionaires erecting doomsday compounds in New Zealand.
“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,” Klekowski von Koppenfels said. “It’s not as glamorous as the myths would have you think,” she added.
Despite the post-election grumbling, Klekowski von Koppenfels says very few Americans leave their homeland for political reasons. Even fewer flee under true duress or peril: The U.N. Refugee Agency lists just 426 American refugees in 2021, with Germany, the U.K. and Canada being their top destinations. That’s vanishingly small compared with 6.8 million from Syria, 2.7 million from Afghanistan or 2.4 million from South Sudan.
Instead, Klekowski von Koppenfels’s research with Helen B. Marrow of Tufts University shows that a large majority of Americans want to move abroad to explore or have an adventure. Emigration almost always has more than one cause, they say, and some especially common ones are the desire to retire abroad, work abroad and get out of a bad situation at home. However, the desire to explore — “to lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies,” as Kerouac wrote — is the American impulse that dominates.
And when Americans go abroad in search of adventure, they often find something else. A significant other or a significant paycheck turns a traveler into an expatriate before they know it. That, not political protest, has become the prototypical American emigrant story.
“Exploration is the key underlying factor for a plurality of Americans,” Klekowski von Koppenfels said, “but there’s most often something else going on as well, whether it’s a job, a partner, study abroad, wanting to help others — something like that.”
Stereotypes of the idly rich or retired expat aside, research by FVAP, the voting agency, finds that the majority of American voters in every world region are also workers. (In most regions, retirees form a large minority, making up more than a quarter of the expat population in Southeast Asia and the Americas.)
There’s no data on what sort of work these Americans do. The Census Bureau’s surveys tracking Americans who return stateside show that they are much, much more likely to be active-duty military than most Americans. They’re also more likely to work in public administration or education, but less likely to work in health, manufacturing, retail or construction.
Joyce Zhang Gray, who was born in D.C. and raised in Texas and Michigan, spent much of her twenties ricocheting across the globe from Singapore to Kenya to Argentina. She now leads Alariss Global, a tech platform that she founded to handle hiring, local regulations and benefits for foreign businesses looking to quickly hire remote American workers.
“A lot of Americans are actually really globally minded,” she said, “and 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.”
San Francisco-born Sam Blatteis founded and leads MENA Catalysts, a Middle East government relations outfit for high-tech firms. He has lived and worked in the Arab world for much of the past two decades, and is the type of expat who acts as an unofficial mayor of the diaspora, assembling ad hoc extended families and convening holiday gatherings at his home in Dubai. Even in cash-rich Persian Gulf monarchies, he said, profits aren’t the most powerful force pulling most expats abroad.
“I haven’t met many Americans in Cairo, Damascus or Abu Dhabi who are truly motivated solely by money,” said Blatteis, who has lived in each. “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.”
Caglar Ozden, World Bank lead economist and co-director of its upcoming World Development Report, has learned over two decades studying migration that immigrants defy categories. Whether they are asylum seekers or adventurers, Armenians or Americans, once they get settled, they all start to behave in similar ways: They look to study and work. They build social networks. They learn the language.
“As a scholar of mobility, that’s what I have learned,” Ozden told us, his voice urgent. “Our common traits are way, way bigger and more fundamental than our differences.”
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Finally, reader Johnny Lake from Oregon made an observation about the U.S. as a nation of immigrants that we thought worth noting: Not all came in search of opportunity or adventure. Hundreds of thousands from Africa were brought to America against their will, enslaved.