The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Did Americans really move to Canada under Trump? Data tells a bigger story.

Vehicles enter the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel en route to Canada in March 2020. (Paul Sancya/AP)

Immigration between Canada and the United States was once so routine, it was barely considered worthy of comment. From the 1920s to the end of World War II, Canadians were a plurality of immigrants to the United States, and until the 1930s or so, the United States was the second-largest source of immigrants to Canada, after Britain. When Ernest Hemingway went to Toronto to work as a reporter, or Elizabeth Arden moved to New York to pursue her beauty business, no one would have accused them of some bold, political act.

These days, however, with most migration to both countries coming from outside the continent, the rare border crossers who remain seem intriguing. A person who trades the United States for Canada, or vice versa, is often seen as manifesting something profound and important about the comparative political-cultural identities of the countries; an evaluation of their divergent flaws and virtues.

Immigration data from the past 20 years provides some evidence to support the cliche that American emigration to Canada is primarily a left-wing thing: that is, the numbers appear to suggest that an increased portion of Americans will reliably pack up and “move to Canada” whenever a Republican president gets elected. Here’s how the numbers break down:

During George W. Bush’s eight-year administration, the number of Americans who obtained permanent residency in Canada rose from a rate consistent with the late Clinton years (5,602, in the first year of Bush’s first term), to nearly double that by the time of the 2008 election (10,187). Under Donald Trump’s shorter presidency, we see a similar, yet less dramatic, increase. Barack Obama’s last full year in office, 8,485 Americans gained permanent residency in Canada, while in 2019, Trump’s final year, the number had risen to 10,780. (Immigration rates all over the world plummeted amid the covid-19 pandemic in 2020, so the low numbers of Americans who migrated that year should not be considered representative of larger trends.)

So … advantage Canada? Were all those stories about Canada “gaining” from repulsive American presidents true? Not quite, because the Canadian numbers tell only half of a larger continental story.

Even when U.S. emigration rates to Canada are high, they’re almost always eclipsed by the flow of Canadians moving the other way — a flow that doesn’t seem to correlate with anything observably political.

During the past two decades, the three highest peaks of Canadians getting U.S. green cards all occurred during the Bush years, with 21,752 in 2001, 19,352 in 2002 and 21,878 in 2005. Canadian emigration then noticeably declined during the Obama years and was a mixed bag during the Trump era. The year 2018 was the first time in the 21st century that the number of Canadians gaining permanent residency in the United States dipped under 10,000 (9,898), but otherwise the numbers hovered around late-Obama norms. And 2018 was also the only year in the past two decades in which Canada experienced a narrow net gain in cross-border migration, making a small “profit” from the more than 10,000 Americans who came, compared with the 9,000-plus Canadians who left.

I was very critical of the sensationalistic headlines common in the Canadian press during the Trump administration, which often grossly exaggerated the degree to which Americans were “fleeing” into Canada. But it’s nevertheless true that we’ve seen a shift over the past 20 years in which the once notoriously high levels of Canadian “brain drain” to the United States have mellowed and narrowed. The story of why the Canadian outflow decreased during the mid-2000s to early 2010s specifically is a phenomenon that has escaped much mainstream analysis, in part because it doesn’t easily fit into one of the tidy morality fables that tend to substitute for meaningful analysis of U.S.-Canadian relations.

It’s also the case, however — as the chart above illustrates — that out-migration from both countries tends to rise and fall in both places roughly simultaneously, which suggests the trends might just correlate with some third, apolitical variable — say, a strong North American economy providing both countries the means to prioritize recruiting educated workers from each other, or even the internet just making cross-border romances easier.

Among the many missed opportunities of the unambitious and rushed renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was the possibility of bringing some sort of Schengen-style regime to Canada and the United States making it easier for nationals in one country to live and work in the other. Although the numbers might be small as a proportion of overall immigration, the settlement of around 20,000 migrants across the border every year isn’t nothing and remains a testament to the deep economic and personal ties pulling Canadians and Americans toward each other, despite gratuitous bureaucratic barriers.

It’s in everyone’s interest for that total to be higher.