‘Another Country,’ redux: Americans are (again) moving abroad to seek a better life

Sixty years after James Baldwin fled to Europe to escape his native country’s racism, Americans are once again leaving to seek a better life.

Credit: Christine Roy/Unsplash

Election day in the U.S. is November 3, but some Americans have already voted with their feet, fleeing a country whose values have become anathema to them: racism, police violence, the bizarre fantasies of QAnon, exorbitant living costs and daily anxiety of life under a Trump administration.

The U.S. government does not collect data on Americans who leave the country, but estimates that 8.7 million live abroad. A website with information on how to leave says that since May 2020 it has seen its traffic surge by 1,605 percent, or sixteen fold, for Americans seeking information on which countries are open and how to move.

Even if Trump loses, it appears that none of them will be rushing back.

“We do not plan to return to the U.S., regardless of the election outcome,” said Corritta Lewis, who moved in August with her wife and their year-old son to Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Like Tiffanie Drayton, a Black American writer whose June 12 New York Times Opinion piece about “fleeing” America to Guyana went viral, Ms. Lewis sees no future in the United States.  “A new president doesn’t change the systemic racism, police brutality, wealth gap, and overall experience as a black woman in America. It took hundreds of years to build a society of oppression; that won’t change in four.”

They left, she said, “due to the increased racial tensions, police encounters, politics, and overall safety. My wife and I are two Black women raising a biracial son, and we didn’t want him to live in a country where his parents are harassed by police for being Black.” She continued, “On more than one occasion, we have been stopped and questioned by police for no reason. His first interaction with police scared him to the point that we cried for almost five minutes. It broke our hearts… We were simply two Black women in a nice neighborhood, taking a morning walk.”

“We haven’t felt this free in our lives,” she added. “Mexico will probably be our home for the next several years… As the election approaches, I watch in horror and am scared for my family still in the States. I don’t have confidence that things will get better anytime soon.”

For Black Americans, the choice to flee police brutality, racism and income inequality is compelling. For others, economic pressures can feel just as overwhelming. Why spend more than you have to for a safe and healthy life?

Tim Leffel, 56, and his family, chose Guanajuato, a colonial city in Mexico, in 2018; he has written a book explaining how to move abroad to more than 20 countries. “Our daughter is 20 now, but she went to school in Mexico for three years: one of elementary, two of middle school. Private school, but all in Spanish,” he said.

“We had no reason to stay in the U.S. and keep paying inflated prices for rent, healthcare, and other expenses. We own our home outright in Mexico. Living in Trump’s America was becoming more stressful and unpleasant every month, so why pay a premium to put up with that deterioration?”

“It’s doubtful we’ll move back,” he adds. “The U.S. is just way overpriced for what you get, especially in terms of healthcare, the worst value in the world for self-employed people like me. If a new president and congress can get us to universal healthcare, different story.

For travel blogger Ketti Wilhelm, 30, being married to an Italian means moving back to his country of origin. Wilhelm has spent much of her life living and working outside the U.S. She and her husband have no children and can work remotely. “We’ll most likely move back to Milan, because my husband’s family is near there, and we both have friends and connections there.”

“Our motivations are political, but it’s also about much more than that,” said Wilhelm. “It’s what the politics means for living in the U.S.: minimal vacation time, no family leave, no pension, health insurance stress and massive health care costs. Not to mention safety concerns – guns, white supremacy, and mass shootings. All of this is because “socialism” is a dirty word in the U.S., whereas in all the other countries I’ve lived, it’s just part of a modern, well-run and equitable society. There are other ways of living, both culturally and politically, and in plenty of ways, I think they’re doing it better elsewhere.” Her recent blog post offers 11 ways to live and work overseas.

Working as an E.R. physician in training horrifies medical student Alex Cabrera, 30, who lives in Reno, Nevada. Now in his final year of medical school and taking an online degree in public health, he sees patients every day whose care, he knows, can medically bankrupt them—even with insurance. “It’s so hard to live here! Wages aren’t going anywhere, unemployment benefits have been cut, people have no health insurance and the rent here for a one bedroom is $1,200.” He recently drove a friend his age to her new home in Victoria, British Columbia and saw another leave for France.

He’s desperate to flee. “I feel like I’m screaming into the void. On one side, you have Donald Trump who just makes it up as he goes along and Biden promising to improve and expand the A.C.A. (Affordable Care Act), which the Supreme Court plans to overthrow.” He wanted to find a medical residency abroad but is resigned to doing his training in the U.S. for the next four years. “As a physician, it’s almost hard to practice medicine in this country when everything is about profit and patient care is secondary. I’m so tired of this system.”

Because the United States remains a global hot spot for exponential transmission of the novel coronavirus, most countries are no longer allowing its citizens to enter without a pre-approved visa. Exceptions among the European countries include Croatia, Albania, Belarus, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Ukraine. “However all European countries are accepting and approving applications for resident and work visas for U.S. citizens,” says Cepee Tabibian, founder of a website with information for women over 30 who choose to leave the U.S. “They can’t [currently] travel to most European countries,  but they can still apply to move right now,” she said. And prior knowledge isn’t an issue, she adds. “You’d be surprised how many people move to a country they have never been to or have maybe visited once in their life.”

Tim Page is one. A Pulitzer-winning music critic and journalism professor at the University of Southern California, he boarded a flight from New York to Belgrade a few months ago, arriving to live in a place he’d never seen. He owns a house in Nova Scotia, but the Canadian border remains closed to Americans and he was deeply disturbed by the U.S. government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic. He wanted out.

“I’d had some students at USC who came from Belgrade and who kindly adopted me on Facebook and took me out once I had begun to acclimate myself,” he says. “My welcome was a warm one, and this may have been the most beautiful and radiant autumn I’ve experienced since childhood. It’s a fantastic walking city and built in so many layers…I feel very much at home.”

“I’m unmated, I have no dog, my children are grown and doing well. I communicate with my friends through video conversations, phone calls, email, and I keep a nervous eye on developments in the States through on-line television. It’s a much gentler life and, at 66, I appreciate the order,” Page adds. The rent for his one-bedroom apartment is $400 a month.

“I’ll stay until I want to return,” he says. “Social Security has just kicked in. I have dear friends in Vienna, Berlin, Amsterdam and London whom I’d love to see when things open up a bit, but life is startlingly less expensive here and I think this will likely be “home base” for me in Europe for however long I stay. I’m much more at ease than I’ve been in a while.”

Caitlin Kelly

Caitlin Kelly, winner of a National Magazine Award in her native Canada, is a former reporter for The Globe & Mail, Montreal Gazette and New York Daily News. She is the author of "Blown Away: American Women and Guns" and "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail." A writing coach and frequent contributor to The New York Times, she lives in Tarrytown, NY. Follow her on Twitter: @CaitlinKellyNYC.