You Are Not Free to Move Out of the Country

An American passport isn’t worth what it used to be—but it’s also never opened as many doors as you might’ve thought.

During every U.S. presidential election, there comes a time when a sizable portion of the population swears they’re this close to leaving the country for good. The most visible adherents of this time-honored ritual are American celebrities, whose bold promises to blow the national popsicle stand echo throughout history. Who can forget Alec Baldwin and friends swearing to depart if George W. Bush won the Oval Office in 2000? Eight years later, a lesser Baldwin (Stephen) and other conservative pseudo-stars also swore to self-exile if Barack Obama took power. Two elections’ worth of Donald Trump have yielded similar pledges by everyone from Lena Dunham and John Legend to 50 Cent and Lil Pump.

Needless to say none of those people actually left the United States. Mocking such transparently bogus vows has become a pastime of its own. Even right wing comedianswhose devotion to tongue-washing the loafers of power far outstrips their ability to induce laughtercan land a solid line or two at the expense of deluded stars threatening to take their talents overseas. When Bruce Springsteen claimed he’d relocate to Australia if Trump won reelection, Fox News guest Michael Loftus came the closest he’ll ever get to delivering a zinger when he said, “I guess it gives new meaning to ‘Born to Run.’” 

But celebrities aren’t the only people to consider expatriation in the event of unfavorable developments. A June 2020 survey by YouGov found that 31 percent of Americans were thinking about moving abroad if their candidate lost the election. While the recent electoral victory of Democratic nominee and inveterate sex creep/war crime supporter Joe Biden has dampened the urgency to get the fuck out—at least for liberals and leftists—the allure of leaving the United States is still strong for many people. There’s a reason “how to move to Canada,” “how to move to New Zealand,” and “how to move out of the U.S.” in general have become some of the most-searched terms on the internet.

Actually, there are many reasons why living somewhere other than the United States seems appealing right now. The nation is a stew of instability: mass unemployment, sky-high healthcare costs, a burgeoning militia movement, precarious housing markets, accelerating climate catastrophes, and a fresh-minted “ruling party” that is doing its absolute best to avoid fixing any of those problems. Who wouldn’t think about emigrating? Never mind that the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side of various borders (Europe is also struggling to manage the pandemic, and even New Zealand’s widely-praised response hasn’t been able to avoid a recession). That there’s any grass at all is enough to make Americans ponder leaving the land of the free to search for more pleasant pastures elsewhere. This isn’t just a case of comfortable white people itching to do Colonialism 2.0. While there are no official statistics on the breakdown of American emigres by ethnicity, the country’s ingrained racism has made it more appealing for Black Americans to move abroad, while many Asian Americans find the job opportunities overseas better than the ones at home. Hispanic Americans are also opting out in increasing numbers for a variety of reasons.

To be fair, most people who’ve mulled moving away from the United States acknowledge it’s largely a pipe dream (multiple studies show the number of people who consider leaving their country is far greater than the number who do it for real). Packing up one’s life and heading to a different state or city is intimidating enough. Getting out of the country altogether requires a relinquishment of roots that is simply too extreme for many to pursue with any real seriousness—which is why it’s so absurd when opponents of immigration claim people from Latin America or the Middle East are casually deciding to move to the United States because they want a government-issued iPhone or whatever. Leaving behind your family, friends, and favorite spots is a daunting prospect. Then there are the (potential) language barriers and cultural differences. After you factor in the moving costs plus the challenges of finding employment, housing, childcare, and the like, it’s little wonder that so many of those “get me out of here” googlings are quickly and quietly abandoned. 

While the personal obstacles to emigrating from the United States are significant, they can also obscure the political ones. Preoccupied by worries about abandoning elderly parents or sending kids to unfamiliar schools or finding a suitable religious community, most people don’t get to the point of asking, why is it so hard to move abroad?

This is the era of globalization, after all, and a U.S. passport (until recently) was widely regarded as one of the most privileged pieces of paper a person could own. In non-COVID times people with U.S. passports qualify for visitor visa exemptions in 185 countries, per the 2020 Henley Passport Index, a number exceeded by only a handful of European Union countries and wealthy East Asian nations. (A visitor visa, for those who are unfamiliar, is a document that permits one to enter a given country and often requires a hefty fee and/or complex paperwork ahead of time; having an automatic exemption is a huge advantage). Compared with a person from places like Peru, Pakistan, or Palestine, U.S. citizens continue to enjoy an almost unimaginable freedom of movement. But while the average American is more than welcome to spend a few weeks sunbathing at Spanish beach resorts or riding elephants through Thai jungles, good luck trying to actually start a new life there: U.S. passports will automatically qualify you for resident status in precisely zero other countries. 

If you’re like most Americans (apologies to our beloved readers from other countries, this article might not be the most relevant for you!) the restrictions on your ability to move abroad may seem to hold an unpleasant but inarguable logic. Just as parents must keep their kids from doodling on the walls or eating handfuls of ice cream for breakfast, governments—you might think—must keep close tabs on who’s allowed to live within their borders, if only to prevent utter chaos. The case for open borders, as articulated by my colleagues Brianna Rennix and Sparky Abraham, has been criticized by even self-described “advocates of immigration” like Yale law professor emeritus Peter Shuck, who claimed that reducing restrictions on people’s ability to enter the United States would be “political suicide.” If you accept that premise, it’s only reasonable to think that other nations are also within their rights to make it hard for foreigners to move there.  

Such a concept would’ve been much more difficult to sell a hundred years ago. When the League of Nations established the modern passport system in the aftermath of World War I, it was widely criticized for enforcing a hierarchy of rights based on arbitrary criteria like one’s birthplace. It was also just bizarre, in the minds of many people at the time, that anyone with the desire (and money) to emigrate should be prevented from doing so. As the American Immigration Council observes, the idea that European immigrants to the United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries “did it the right way” is nonsensical because up until 1924, there wasn’t a wrong way to immigrate. This doesn’t mean that freedom of movement actually extended to everyone—women were often forbidden from moving on their own, leftists and other social undesirables could be barred entry, and racist legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act sought to limit the country’s non-white population—but even this relatively low bar for the free flow of people is far beyond the imaginations of most Americans today.

Yet on some instinctual reptilian-brain level, it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s not supposed to be like this. This doubt is sometimes sparked by reading about the lives of historical figures. When you discover that Mark Twain spent more than a decade of his life living and working abroad in places like London, Berlin, and Vienna, you might be inclined to wonder “how?” Or consider the fact that 29-year old Gertrude Stein moved from Oakland to France and stayed there until she died at the age of 72. Did Twain, Stein, and other American expats of the past owe their mobility to their wealth and/or fame? Such a justification seems reasonable until you consider that Twain (like many writers) was often broke and Stein (like many others) wasn’t especially prominent before she made her big move to Paris. 

It’s easy to understand why people arrive at ahistorical explanations for Americans’ previous ability to live abroad: today, money and social status are the easiest ways to leave the country, assuming you aren’t lucky enough to qualify for dual citizenship via ancestry or marriage. As the New York Times helpfully suggests, “Want a second passport? Try buying a house.” Hefty real estate investments will get your foot in the door of many countries. If you’re looking for a more direct path, outlets like Business Insider offer tips on literally purchasing citizenship in places like Antigua (around $160,000 for a family of four), Moldova (~$229,000), or Cyprus (a cool $2.53 million).  

For those who lack great wealth—but do possess high levels of education and the ability to navigate complex bureaucracies—a limited number of “back door” options to moving abroad are also available. Such people tend to fall into the demographic categories you might expect, with some exceptions. I’ve written before about the global ESL teaching industry and its appeal to downwardly mobile/mostly white young people from the middle class. A few other loopholes also exist. For example, the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty (DAFT) permits U.S. nationals to acquire residency in the Netherlands on the condition they start a business there, which involves filing a €1,348 application and making a €4,500 “investment,” among other costs (you have to move to the country before starting the process).

However, if you’re among the roughly 60 percent of Americans who don’t hold a four-year university degree and/or the roughly 60 percent who have less than $1,000 in savings, you’re largely out of luck. Even if you’re fortunate enough to qualify for Malaysian citizenship thanks to your parents, or Portuguese citizenship thanks to your Sephardic ancestors, the financial and logistical hurdles of acquiring a second passport are prohibitive. Plus, it can take a looooooooooong time, with waits of well over a year just to review an application in many cases. 

To play devil’s advocate for a moment: who cares? Is the inability of most Americans to emigrate really that big of a deal, considering all the other problems of the present day? Isn’t complaining about this just whiny American privilege? Plus, given that most people prefer to stay where they are, then if the United States had non-exploitative healthcare, a stronger social safety net, and a housing market with any semblance of sanity, why would you even need to move elsewhere? 

If those questions have entered your mind, banish them! They originate from the premise that human beings should only hold rights that can be “justified,” and those rights should be grouped into hierarchical categories. If people want to move from Place A to Place B, then you are presuming they’d better have a good reason for it. They better meet the right criteria of “deserving,” too. And before they fight for the right to move, they better fight for more immediately pressing rights like universal healthcare. This kind of logic is profoundly authoritarian. Not only does it constrict people’s ability to make choices about their own lives, it also serves to fragment and isolate various struggles for freedom, which can then be stymied or crushed altogether. The freedom to move from one country to another is not just a treat for the globetrotting bourgeoisie—it can be a useful form of leverage for workers, which is why the ruling class tightly controls the flow of people with constrictive visas (even for “highly skilled workers”) that can be denied or revoked on a whim, while the flow of capital is allowed to spray like Mr. Burns’ fire hose. A 2020 OECD report found that nearly $12 trillion is currently held in offshore accounts, which is believed to be a slight improvement from previous years when the amount was literally unknowable. 

For such a stark double standard regarding the mobility of humans vs. money, there had better be a damn good reason for it. As Noam Chomsky writes in Language and Politics, “the burden of proof has to be placed on authority, and [institutions of coercion and control] should be dismantled if that burden cannot be met.” If a person from Georgia the U.S. state wants to move to Georgia the Central Asian country (or vice versa), it shouldn’t be their obligation to persuade government officials that an exception to restrictions on their movement is warranted. It should be the government officials’ obligation to explain why an exception is required in the first place. 

The excuses used by the U.S. government (and others) to throttle the movement of people have never been very convincing. According to the State Department, the first major legal restrictions on people’s mobility were necessary due to “uncertainty generated over national security during World War I.” The policy took on a frightening new scope during the federal incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. This mass deprivation of rights is viewed by most of the American public as “a tragic anomaly born from a misunderstanding,” as Nathaniel Sumimoto has argued in Current Affairs, but when similar constraints have been enforced elsewhere we’ve generally been quicker to recognize the real danger. The Soviet Union’s propiskas, documents that gave the holder permission to live or work in a given city, were often cited by Cold War-era Western critics as evidence that Soviet citizens were all but enslaved. Today, China’s hukou system—which restricts the ability of ordinary Chinese people to live and work in certain areas—has drawn criticism for “creating new divides” between rich and poor from none other than the loudly pro-inequality magazine The Economist. There seems to be a general understanding, even if it’s often smothered, that freedom should be humanity’s default setting.

What happens when it becomes obvious this is not the case in the United States? Americans have long been indoctrinated to believe they enjoyed freedoms that were the envy of the world. This lie has always been obvious to some—Native Americans, Black Americans, LGBTQ Americans, and others who have never enjoyed the luxury of pretending otherwise—but today the gap between “how free we think we are” and “how free we actually are” has never been clearer. The vast majority of Americans have no meaningful freedom to choose their job, care for their kids, or even protect their own health. And despite capitalism’s promises to provide all the lifestyle choices you could ever desire, few of us have the option of trying our luck elsewhere if we want. There’s something sobering about the thought that, for most people, moving to Canada is as realistic as moving to the moon. 

Americans are not nearly as free as they thought they were. The thing about building walls along a country’s borders (whether physical or metaphorical) is that they can trap the masses inside just as surely as they keep other masses outside. But simply breaking down those walls, or even eliminating the borders they “protect,” is not the end goal. Reclaiming our freedom to move is only a single part of reclaiming our freedom to live interesting and satisfying lives. As Rennix and Abraham write, “If we believe that most countries in the world mistreat the poor, then allowing the poor to move from country to country only gets us so far. Open borders are not the solution to global injustice: They are simply a rectification of one injustice among many, creating the opportunity for a more fully international community to tackle other injustices wholesale.” As we prepare for four years of life under the Biden administration, we have a lot of battles to fight. Each of these battles is unique in many ways, but they all share a common goal: to increase human freedom and happiness, wherever you happen to live.

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