The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Millions of Americans have moved overseas — and it’s not because the U.S. is a ‘shithole’

President Trump speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Wednesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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As happens with some regularity, conservative commentator Tomi Lahren tweeted an argument that was rapidly and thoroughly dismantled.

On Friday, it was this:

Here’s an example of an effective response to her rhetoric, from CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski.

And here is another, from The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff.

Both of those make the same point, albeit in different ways.

Let’s start with the reply from Sieff, The Post’s Nairobi bureau chief. The United States doesn’t compile official data on the number of Americans living overseas, but the State Department’s estimate of 9 million roughly aligns with Sieff’s. We don’t know precisely where those Americans are distributed at this point, but data from 1999 released by the Bureau of Consular Affairs gives us some sense.

Many of the Americans living outside the country at that point weren’t living very far away. About 1.7 million of the 4 million people in total were in Mexico or Canada, with more than 400,000 in Mexico City alone. Many more were in Europe, including Britain, Germany and Italy.

Relevant to the current political conversation, 21,000 Americans lived in Haiti and El Salvador, countries described by President Trump on Thursday as “shitholes.” Nonetheless, thousands preferred them to the United States.

Who are these Americans? Some are employees of the United States, such as consular staff. But others ended up outside the United States for the same reason that Lahren likely moved out of South Dakota: employment.

“Many Americans go overseas for jobs. A lot of Americans who go overseas are students and end up staying there because either they get married or start their careers there,” said Marylouise Serrato of American Citizens Abroad, who spoke with The Post by phone Friday. “There’s probably a certain percent of Americans who go overseas because they are dissatisfied or for political reasons — they don’t like the current administration, for example — but that’s not the major driver.”

In other words, expatriated Americans aren’t necessarily leaving the United States because the United States is particularly terrible. They’re leaving for opportunity or personal relationships or any one of a million reasons. Even, at times, going to countries that are demonstrably less well-off than the United States.

By extension, this is why many people come to the United States. Family ties. Employment opportunities. Not necessarily because the places they left are horrible places to live.

The state of South Dakota no doubt has its charms. But it has millions of fewer jobs than California or New York, and it lacks some of those states’ other qualities. There are reasons to stay; there are reasons to leave. That Lahren left is not an indictment of South Dakota.

That Haitians come to the United States does not necessarily prove that Haiti is a “shithole.”