Emigration

Definition: Outward movement of citizens from their native countries to other countries

Significance: The fact that large numbers of Americans have emigrated to other countries is not often openly acknowledged because immigration of foreigners to the United States has always received more media attention. However, American emigrants provide many of their adopted countries with productive new citizens who strengthen their new homes while reducing the number of the talented and skilled people living and working in the United States.

Americans have always found reasons to leave the United States for other countries. As early as the days of the American Revolution, thousands of people who sided with Great Britain in the conflict emigrated to Britain after it ended. Since then, groups and individuals who have found conditions in the United States disagreeable or who have become enamored of foreign societies or cultures have chosen to make their homes abroad. Some have become citizens of their new homelands, but many have become disenchanted and returned to the United States.

The first settlers of British North America were all immigrants accustomed to the idea of relocating. Consequently, when many of them found their new country and its inhabitants too different culturally or too hostile to feel comfortable, they returned to their European homelands. As late as the early decades of the twentieth century, this trend continued. Between 1900 and 1930, about 30 million people immigrated to the United States, and 10 million people emigrated. Between 1931 and 1940, another 600,000 people left the country, while it was being devastated by the Great Depression.

After 1957, the U.S. government stopped keeping emigration records. Because Americans living abroad have not been required to register with American consulates since that date, the numbers of Americans who have emigrated are difficult to tabulate. Nevertheless, because America is home to people from168 different countries, it is not surprising that second- and third-generation Americans have occasionally chosen to go to their forebears’ homelands and put down roots in places as varied as the Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Panama, Egypt, and Sri Lanka.

Emigration to Europe

Since the era of the Revolutionary War, in the late eighteenth century Americans have found much in Europe to lure them, particularly the compatible cultures and societies. Most early American citizens were themselves only first- or second-generation Americans, so they were not far removed from their ancestral homelands. English settlers went back to England, French settlers to France, and German settlers to German states. During the late nineteenth century, 35 percent of the Croatians, Serbs, and Poles who had immigrated to America returned home. About 40 percent of Greeks and more than 50 percent of the Italians, Hungarians, and Slovaks did.

Many individual American writers and artists felt a special cultural pull to Europe. Some scholars attribute this to a “colonial complex”—an attitude that the Continent, with its long cultural history and achievements, was undeniably superior in most ways to the “upstart” new nation that had been hewn out of a primitive land. Before the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), when the first American literary giants were writing, many of them went to Europe. Examples included Nathaniel Hawthorne, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Some went to immerse themselves in European culture. Others went for personal or financial reasons. Some remained in Europe through the rest of their lives. Others returned to the United States only reluctantly, after periods of exile ranging from a few months to several years.

Wars disrupted many European countries through much of the nineteenth century, making parts of them less attractive destinations for Americans wishing to emigrate. The onset of the U.S. Civil War of the 1860’s and the upheavals among European governments kept Europe in turmoil for much of the century. However, as European visual artists continued to develop intriguing new styles and techniques, American artists such as Mary Cassatt, Benjamin West, and James Whistler went to Europe to study and work in the latter years of the century.

After World War I, some Americans were attracted to French and British receptiveness to Americans with artistic, musical, and literary talent. Writers such as Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, and Ezra Pound moved there to enjoy Europe’s comparatively free and permissive lifestyles. African Americans such as entertainer Josephine Baker and writer Langston Hughes, and veterans of the war found French society less racist and segregated than that of the United States.

During the Great Depression, some Americans were lured to the Soviet Union, believing they would find better wages, free medical care and free schooling there, a prosperity not foreseeable in the United States at the time. However, emigrants did not learn until too late that Americans who went to the Soviet Union were considered the “flotsam and jetsam of the Depression.” They were soon treated badly, not only by Soviet citizens but also by U.S. diplomatic personnel. Many had their passports taken away, removing any chance they had of leaving the country. Many were consigned to the Soviet labor camps known as gulags.

The aftermath of World War II found many emigrant American artists, jazz and rock musicians, and writers continuing to choose Europe. American fashion designers were particularly attracted to the famed French and Italian fashion houses, where they hoped their working and studying would enhance their own credentials. Some American actors whose film careers were less successful than they had hoped moved to Europe, especially to Italy, Germany, and England, where they became bigger stars in foreign films. Some late twentieth century celebrities, such as Lorraine Bracco, Tina Turner, Gwyneth Paltrow, Johnny Depp, Chaka Khan, and Madonna, have found Europe an inviting place to live because the European media are less intrusive into their private lives.

W. E. B. Du Bois (holding cane) with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah in 1962
W. E. B. Du Bois (holding cane) with Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah in 1962. Never fully comfortable in the United States, the distinguished African American scholar and socialist activist emigrated to Ghana, the first black African colony to gain its independence from European colonial rule, when he was in his nineties. When he was refused a new American passport shortly before he died, he and his wife became Ghanaian citizens. However, Du Bois never renounced his American citizenship. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Emigration to Africa and Asia

During the early nineteenth century, freed American slaves were allowed, in fact, encouraged to emigrate to Africa’s west coast. The establishment during the 1820’s of colonies in what would become the independent nation of Liberia held out the promise to former slaves of better lives than they might enjoy in the United States. More than 13,000 African Americans had settled in Liberia by 1870. During the 1920’s, smaller numbers of African Americans were enticed to go there by Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement. During the 1940’s, Morocco became an attractive destination for such African American writers as Paul Bowles and Claude McKay. After the abolition of apartheid and democratization of the Republic of South Africa during the early 1990’s, that nation became an attractive destination for American émigrés, largely because of its English-speaking population and vast economic potential.

Cultural and language restrictions have been among the reasons that American emigration to Asian countries has been limited. Some Asian countries have also had immigration policies that exclude foreigners. Even as British were nationals making homes in many Asian countries during the era of the British Empire, Americans were not inclined to follow suit in any large numbers. Christian missionaries from the United States worked in many of the countries, notably China, for many decades. Novelist Pearl S. Buck was a child of missionaries to China during the early twentieth century. She lived a good portion of her life there. Since the late twentieth century, China’s government has allowed foreigners to work, study, or travel in China, but it has not permitted permanent immigration. Foreign workers have been required to live close to their places of work in order to limit their exposure to and possible influence on the rest of the country.

Japan, though more flexible than China in permitting Americans to reside in the country for longer periods of time, has continued to discriminate against non-Japanese residents. Nevertheless, many Americans have lived there in various capacities since the end of World War II. In 2004, the 51,851 Americans living in Japan constituted 2.4 percent of all registered foreigners in the country— a figure that made them the sixth-largest group of foreign residents.

India has seen a surge of American immigrants. Most are young college graduates looking to study or work there. In 2009, approximately 800 Americans were interning in Indian information technology companies. Most older Americans living in the country are managers of subsidiary companies who train Indian employees. Many Americans in India are second-generation Indian Americans who have returned to their parents’ native land with job skills that assist the growing Indian economy. Other Indian Americans in India are motivated by a desire to live where they are not in the minority and do not have to deal with various levels of discrimination.

Emigration to Canada and Mexico

Many American citizens dissatisfied with their lives in the United States choose to emigrate to neighboring countries to make it easy to return. Should they change their minds about emigrating or should conditions at home improve, they can simply get in their cars and drive back to the United States. Moreover, Canada and Mexico provide havens with climates and cultures not greatly different from those in the United States.

Before the U.S. Civil War, many fugitive slaves and free blacks headed north to Canada’s comparative safety. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a period of divisiveness in the United States caused by the fundamental differences over American involvement in the Vietnam War, young Americans of all political stripes went to Canada in large numbers to avoid conscription into the military or to dramatize their protest against the political climate in the United States. Records of the numbers of Americans who went to Canada during the war are incomplete because not all Americans who entered Canada registered themselves. However, it is estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 Americans, mostly draft avoiders, entered Canada during that period.War protestors and draft avoiders were not the only Americans to emigrate to Canada during that time. From 1968 until 1978, more than 400,000 Americans became Canadian residents. During the decade following those years, the numbers of American emigrants to Canada fell to 5,000 per year.

In later decades, gay and lesbian Americans, opponents of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and people seeking a better health care system or the right to use medical marijuana legally have found Canada a more receptive environment. For example, Canada has allowed more rights to samesex partners than most American states. Canada is also preferred by some environmentally conscious Americans because it signed the Kyoto Protocol in support of international efforts to save the world’s environment, which the United States declined to do.

Americans who have emigrated to Canada have tended to be well educated and under the age of forty. They are generally skilled and speak English— both traits that make them highly eligible for permanent residence status when they apply. Canada’s population is only a little larger than onetenth the size of the population of the United States, but its surface area is about the same size as that of the United States, so it has plenty of room for a larger population. Nevertheless, in 2001, Americanborn émigrés to Canada constituted only 4.6 percent of Canada’s foreign-born population.

For potential American emigrants, Mexico offers many of the same advantages as Canada. It also has the additional advantage of a warmer yearround climate. Americans seeking to lower their living costs and to enjoy a less-hectic lifestyle have been emigrating to Mexico for many years. Indeed, Mexico has been rated as one of the ten destination countries best suited for American emigrants because of its nearness to the United States and its low cost of living.

Before the late twentieth century, most of the emigrants were older Americans living on fixed incomes. In the United States, many of these people would have been living close to the poverty level, but in Mexico they were comparatively well off. For example, it has been estimated that American retirees can maintain standards of living in Mexico equivalent to levels about 50 percent higher than those their incomes would afford them in the United States.

Because American retirees who relocate to Mexico generally settle in communities in which other American expatriates have already settled, they generally find English spoken almost as much as Spanish, and local businesses cater to American tastes. Transitions to living in Mexico thus may become as comfortable as relocating to another American community, with the additional advantages of much lower rent and medical care costs. Between 1990 and 2000, the numbers of Americans living in Mexico grew by 84.3 percent. By 2001, more than 75,000 American retirees were living in Mexico, and all American-born residents made up 63.2 percent of Mexico’s foreign-born population.

Jane L. Ball

Further Reading

  • Anhalt, Diana. A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico, 1948-1965. Santa Maria, Calif.: Archer Books, 2001. Discusses the Americans who moved to Mexico during the McCarthy era to escape political persecution. 
  • Campbell, James T. Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. Although this book is primarily about African American travelers in Africa, portions of the book also discuss the motivations of African Americans who have permanently emigrated to Africa. These motivations have ranged from nostalgia for the African past to religious to economic reasons. 
  • Finifter, Ada W. “American Emigration.” Society 3, no. 5 (July, 1976): 30-36. Examines the reasons why some Americans emigrate. These reasons have included general dissatisfaction with the American political system and feelings of being marginalized because of holding unpopular political views. 
  • Gaines, Kevin. American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Examines how African Americans sought freedom fromthe discrimination experienced in the United States by settling in the newly independent Ghana. 
  • Tzouliadis, Tim. The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia. New York: Penguin Books, 2008. Well-researched and well-written discussion of the brutal conditions in the Soviet Union experienced by Americans who went there during the years of the Great Depression. 

See also: Canada vs. United States as immigrant destinations; Dual citizenship; Garvey, Marcus; Gay and lesbian immigrants; Great Depression; Liberia; Literature; Missionaries; Return migration; Universal Negro Improvement Association.

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