Why Americans Are Going Abroad

When Citizenship Globalizes, Governance Changes


As the fighting in Yemen heats up and many countries evacuate their citizens, the plight of 41 Americans stuck in Yemen (and their lawsuit against the State Department) has received national attention. This kind of issue is likely to become more common in the future as more and more Americans choose to live beyond our borders.

While immigration is a popular political issue, with both parties often engaging questions about how many people should be able to move to the US, from where, and with what qualifications, emigration from the United States is on the rise. Around the developed world, “immigration” is a big issue as millions of migrants from poorer countries stream northwards and westwards into the developed economies, in search of a better life for themselves and their families. If these migrants form cohesive communities of fellow nationals, we call them diaspora communities. Many developing countries have policies relating to their diasporas to encourage philanthropy, money transfers, investment, travel, and political advocacy in developed-nation capitols. Haiti, for example, refers to its diaspora community in the United States as the “10th département,” or province, indicating how Haitians abroad are actively included in the nation and seen as valuable constituents (at least sometimes).

For developing countries, the big policy question isn’t immigration but emigration. But even in rich countries, emigration often matters. France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, and Portugal all actively engage with their diaspora populations, maintaining official counts of the diaspora, and often trying to bring them “home.” Italy makes it remarkably easy for descendants of Italian emigrants to claim citizenship, for example. Other countries in unique circumstances, like Israel, Armenia, and Taiwan, also maintain unique ties to their diasporas.

But for most rich countries, and especially the United States, we don’t talk about diasporas. In fact, we don’t even call Americans abroad a “diaspora.” We call them expats. The term is ridiculous for many reasons, not least that it actually applies to people renouncing their citizenship, but it is especially useless given that, for every other country, we have the same term for those living abroad: a diaspora community. “Expats” usually denote people perceived to have influence or status: so it doesn’t usually get applied to people from developing countries.

The growing American diaspora matters for American culture, economic vitality, and political influence. A large American diaspora can facilitate the spread of ideas from and to the United States. If Americans have welcoming communities abroad, they may have more of a “safety valve” when unemployment rises at home. And with many Americans abroad, the whole nation benefits from a legion of informal diplomats. Thus, if the diaspora is changing, it has consequences for those of us back home.


The American Diaspora

How Many Americans Emigrate?

Nobody “officially” tracks how many Americans emigrate each year. In fact, this particular data collection problem has plagued researchers for years. Are there 2 million Americans abroad? 3 million? 9 million? The US government chooses to remain in the dark on this basic question by not systematically and rigorously collecting data, although many other countries do. Think about that for a second. We know how many people immigrate to the US, to within a reasonable margin. But we barely have a clue how many leave.

Using data from the World Bank and UN Population Division, I’ve put together a global table of the American diaspora. However, this is a low estimate of the diaspora. It represents those born in the US, living abroad. American citizens not born in the US and living abroad won’t show up. Many “Americans” in my data may have been born in the US, but haven’t lived there for decades, and may not even be citizens or consider themselves “American.” Furthermore, my sources exclude employees of the United States government, tourists (even fairly long-term ones), temporary workers, and obviously any illegal emigrants from the United States. In other words, my data represents a lowest estimate of Americans abroad. It is based on compiled estimates of Census data, as well as the best guesses of researchers at the UN and World Bank.

The graph above shows the foreign-born population in the United States as a share of the population in green, and then shows the share of the native-born population living abroad in red. It does not track the annual rate of migration, but rather the stocks of migrants. As such, the rate of migration is approximately correlated with the slope of the two lines. As can be seen, there are far, far more immigrants into the US than emigrants from the US. The numbers are pretty amazing: in 2013, there were 41 million foreign-born individuals residing in the United States, compared to 2.8 million US-born individuals residing abroad. However, from 2010 to 2013, the foreign-born population essentially flatlined, while the US diaspora grew by 200,000.

With a little quick math and some assumptions about the attrition rates of US and foreign diasporas, we can derive an estimate of migration rates.

I’ve put here my estimates of immigration and emigration rates to and from the US, as well as the net migration rate in purple. I’ve also included the official United Nations estimate of net migration in the US (dark gray), as well as Census Bureau estimates of net migration to the US (light gray). While the UN and Census Bureau estimates are slightly higher than mine in some years, they show the same pattern: very high migration in the 1990s, falling since. However, my estimates reflect a particularly interesting trend: much of the US’ falling net migration since 2010 is due to rising emigration by the US-born rather than falling immigration by the foreign-born.

The American Diaspora

Where Does the American Diaspora Live?

Americans don’t just migrate “abroad,” as if the rest of the world were some nebulous blob into which emigrants vanish. American emigration has followed some distinct patterns for quite a while, and they’re not that hard to figure out.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

American emigrants are disproportionately concentrated among Anglophone countries, political allies, and countries with large diasporas in the US. This makes sense, as those are the countries where emigrants will have the easiest time finding work and making connections through shared language, government or NGO ties, or family and social networks. In terms of raw numbers, about 1/4 of the American diaspora, or 670,000 emigrants, lives in Mexico. Many of these emigrants are likely to be of Mexican ancestry to begin with, and some may only have lived in the US for a few years. But for many, the United States is truly home: it’s just that Mexico is too.

The next biggest destinations are Canada (308,000), the United Kingdom (212,000), Puerto Rico (200,000), Germany (144,000), Australia (89,000), Japan (56,000), Israel (55,000), South Korea (53,000), and France (49,000). As with Mexico, many emigrants in Japan, Israel, or South Korea have ties of ethnicity, faith, or ancestry to their “new” homes. Indeed, diasporas tend to fuel one another, so that when a foreign diaspora forms in the US, it will eventually create a US diaspora in the homeland.

In terms of their share of the local population, the American diaspora is largest in Guam, the Cayman Islands, American Samoa, Bermuda, and Puerto Rico: over 5% of the population in each. US-born individuals were once almost 13% of the population of Venezuela, but that figure has fallen to 3.7%. There are virtually no wealthy countries where more than 1% of the population is American, except for micro-states like Monaco and San Marino.

The American Diaspora

Where are Recent Emigrants Going?

So if the above map shows where Americans are in 2013, the question is: what were the big changes since 2010 that led to larger emigration?

Fear not, I have a map to answer that question.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

Mexico is the main destination for recent emigrants, with a net gain of 85,000 US-born individuals. The United Kingdom, Canada, South Korea, Ireland, Australia, and Italy are also major gainers. Meanwhile, Jordan saw the largest decline in its US-born population (-2,400), followed by Thailand (-500). As should be obvious from the map and these numbers, ares with shrinking US-born populations were uncommon.

Why are so many Americans moving to Mexico? To answer that question, I’m going to have to talk about immigration into the United States.


Diasporas in America

Where are Immigrants Coming From?

We all know that Mexico is the main source of immigrants to the United States; that’s old hat. The American Community Survey places the Mexican-born population in the US at 11.6 million people of 41 million foreign-born individuals in total. But hold on: that means that 3 out of 4 foreign-born individuals in the US are not Mexican. We debate immigration and border controls for Mexico ad nauseum, yet, on the whole, the typical immigrant isn’t Mexican. The foreign-born population includes 1.9 million Indians, 1.8 million Filipinos, 1.7 million Chinese, 1.2 million Vietnamese, and 1 million South Koreans: South and East Asia together account for about 11 million immigrants. Europe supplies another 5 million or so, Africa 1.7 million. Central and South America and the Caribbean round things out with another 10 million.

But here, a picture will be easier.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

The map above shows the size of each country’s diaspora in the United States as a share of their population. In other words, it shows which countries have seen the most extraordinary outflows of people to the US.

There are more-or-less 4 major clusters on this map: Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. Each has its own unique history of out-migration to the United States leading to disproportionately large US-based diasporas compared to their populations. Interestingly, except for a few very small countries, the Guyanese diaspora in the United States is the largest relative to the homeland, at 32% of the population. The US Virgin Islands have a diaspora in the US equal to half the islands’ population, while the island of Dominica, with just 72,000 people total, has 28,000 people in the United States. Other countries with relatively large diasporas (over 20% of their population) in the US are Grenada, the Cayman islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, Jamaica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Several other countries are approaching those levels with US-based diasporas equal to between 10% and 20% of their population: El Salvador, Barbados, Bermuda, Trinidad and Tobago, American Samoa, and Belize.

Although Mexico’s emigration rates to the United States have been high, this list should make clear that Mexican emigration isn’t that extreme compared to the rest of the region. With a diaspora equal to 9.5% of its population, Mexico occupies a spot similar to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, or the Bahamas.

Diasporas in America

Migration in the Balance

With immigration and emigration established, it’s only reasonable to think about the overall balance. I’ve already shown how overall immigrant stocks are much larger than emigrant stocks, but maybe that trend is all driven by a few countries. It’s conceivable that hugely imbalanced migration with, say, Latin America and Asia could disguise net outward migration to Europe, perhaps. So what does the data say?

See the full visualization and get the data here.

There is no country on earth with an American diaspora population larger than that country’s diaspora in the United States… except for Australia. Apparently Americans like Aussies more than the Aussies like us. On Wednesday, I’ll have a whole post dedicated to Australia, so ignore the Land Down Under for now. Several impoverished African countries also come close, not because so many Americans are moving there, but because so few of those countries’ people can find a way to get to the United States.

The United States continues to, on balance, draw immigrants even from high-income societies in Europe, and comparatively fewer Americans are drawn away. However, that may be changing. Between 1960 and 2013, Americans rose from 0.15% of Iceland’s population to 0.8%. For Norway, we grew from 0.25% to 0.45%. For Sweden, 0.12% to 0.20%. For the UK, 0.23% to 0.33%, which amounts to an increase of 100,000 Americans. Germany gained 125,000 Americans. Spain gained 35,000. France, meanwhile, kept its American population more-or-less flat.

Americans are moving to Europe (and other countries) at an increasing rate: yet the United States still has larger immigrant stocks than emigrant stocks by a huge margin. What’s the story here?

The American Diaspora

Comparing Net Migration Rates

Just like I was able to use stocks of migrants to assess total migration rates, so too it is possible to approximate the US’ bilateral migration flows based on changes in bilateral migration stocks. The results are “fuzzier” because it’s possible a US-born individual could move from, say, the UK to India, but let’s assume such foreign-to-foreign migration among the US-born is irrelevant. Furthermore, my estimates of flows are themselves based on a compilation of other peoples’ estimates of stocks, which are themselves based on various Censuses, surveys, and other sources. In other words, while I hope the data I present is illustrative, it should absolutely not be considered exact.

From 2010 to 2013, the US has had an average 34,000 person per year loss of people to Mexico. Yes, that’s right, those teeming hordes of immigrants trying to cross the border? They’re headed south. Approximately. It think it’s entirely defensible that net migration with Mexico was negative from 2010–2013, but I wouldn’t place any big bets on 34,000 exactly. I’m not the only one to think this: a Pew study recently suggested migration with Mexico may be negative.

It’s also worth noting that negative migration with Mexico doesn’t actually mean negative migration across the Mexican border, as I glibly suggested. The US is still receiving lots of immigrants from El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua, and other countries, and those immigrants usually arrive through the US-Mexican border. But the point is, increasingly, Mexican migration is changing. The new out-migration to Mexico is partly Mexican-born individuals in the US going “home.” But the much, much bigger trend is US-born individuals (often members of transnational families whose parents are Mexican-born) emigrating to Mexico.

Meanwhile, immigration from Asia is accelerating: net migration from India, China, and the Philippines came to about 200,000 individuals.


The American Diaspora

The Ties That Bind… or Loose

I said at the beginning of this post that a large and engaged diaspora was an asset. They serve as informal diplomats, as business connections, as a hedge against unemployment during recessions, and many other functions. Furthermore, a large diaspora alters a nation’s ability to exercise political power abroad, simultaneously creating a liability, but also creating a base of soft power and a louder voice in foreign countries.

However, a large diaspora is only an asset if they maintain economic and social ties to the homeland, and carry a positive or hopeful vision for home. Furthermore, the diaspora, to be useful, needs a positive vision of home that jives with what those back home actually want. When diaspora-led governments came to power in Liberia and Haiti, the results were less than desirable, including civil war. Diasporas that harbor old grudges and grievances may even actively work against the political goals of their homeland’s government (such as Cuban-Americans in the US).

For the United States to benefit from its growing diaspora, there must be ongoing economic and social ties, as well as positive associations with the United States in the diasporan imaginarium. If Mexican-Americans moving to Mexico carry with them affection for their communities in the United States, democratic values, and transnational economic ties, then that’s very good. But if they bring home bitterness at deportation, frustrations due to ethnic or racial tensions, or separate themselves from friends and relatives still in the United States, then the US may not only not benefit, but the diaspora may actively sour ties between the US and, for example, Mexico.

So how does the diaspora see the United States?

The American Diaspora

Citizenship Renunciations Show Strained Diaspora Ties

One simple barometer of how the diaspora feels about the United States is to see how many of them renounce their citizenship. The Internal Revenue Service posts a quarterly bulletin of citizenship renunciations.

See the full visualization and get the data here.

Since 2009, citizenship renunciations have skyrocketed. This despite the fact that the State Department raised the price of the renunciation paperwork from about $400 to over $2,000 in 2014. Yes, that’s right, it costs $2,000 to officially abandon a United States citizenship. The main reason for these renunciations is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) which places onerous tax burdens on Americans abroad. However, the fact that the proximate cause is tax-related does not reduce the relevance of rising renunciations: these individuals create norms among other diasporans, demonstrating the severability of ties to the US, and, in their own minds, rejecting allegiance to the US. Furthermore, the State Department often denies travel visas to the United States for diasporans who have renounced their citizenship, making it much harder to maintain social and business ties.

Voter participation has remained static or fallen as well. In the 2008 elections, 273,000 Americans abroad submitted overseas ballots. In 2012, that number had barely risen to 278,000. But the diaspora grew from approximately 2.4 million to 2.7 million people. It’s possible this growth was among children ineligible to vote. But it seems likely as well that a rising proportion of the US-born diaspora do not strongly identify as participants in American civil society.

Neither of these are very good signs for American diaspora engagement.

The American Diaspora

Oceans of Opportunity

Even as much of the American diaspora may be increasingly detached from American national identity, there are other signs that diasporans are carrying on a long-held American tradition. When times were tough in the “Old Country,” many early American migrants picked up and moved across the Atlantic to the United States. There is some evidence that young Americans today have followed that route in recent years as jobs were scarce, especially for entry-level work.

The number of young Americans studying abroad has tripled since 1991. The vast majority of these students will return to the United States, many with improved skills and connections abroad. While there is some evidence the rate of growth in study abroad fell during the recession, on the whole, a growing share of the US-born diaspora consists of students actively investing in their own futures and hoping to learn about their host countries.

More young Americans go abroad to work as well. Exact numbers aren’t available, but anecdotal accounts suggest that the number of Americans going abroad to teach English has grown dramatically in the last decade. I was unable to find any statistics on American English-teachers abroad. With tight job markets back home, these young teachers are another growing component of the diaspora. The number of Americans in the Peace Corps hit an all-time high over 15,000 in 2009 as well. The number of Americans receiving Fulbright English Teaching grants or research grants has likewise risen from under 1,800 in 2007 to over 2,000 today, especially in Western Europe and East Asia.

How many Americans are going abroad for work? It’s hard to say. But almost certainly a growing number: it’s worth pointing out that some of the fastest-growing diaspora communities were in the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Australia, all countries that are prime study-abroad locations, or Anglophone nations where finding work and getting a visa is relatively easy.

The American Diaspora

What Next for Americans Abroad?

The US-born diaspora is growing on all fronts, which, on the whole, is good for the nation. But it poses challenges as well. A growing diaspora, especially a working diaspora, means a sharper focus on US tax policy, especially the income tax. The FATCA in particular has enraged much of the American diaspora with its excessively high compliance burdens due to the United States’ outdated tax code. Americans abroad consume relatively few public services, and would prefer to face the same legal conditions as other foreigners abroad. As it is, the US-born diaspora is uniquely penalized by its home country.

Furthermore, recent changes in migration flows suggest productive policies for immigration and border control. Mexican migration is a shrinking problem, thus the real issue may be border control at Mexico’s southern border.

But the real change is this: American citizenship is globalizing. More Americans than ever before are abroad, and a growing number of foreigners are living in the United States. This trend is highly unlikely to change. It implies that, in the future, e-governance tools will grow in importance as a larger and larger number of citizens are far afield. Rationalizations of tax law to mitigate onerous diasporan tax burdens will eventually be necessary. If such measures intended to include the diaspora are not taken, we may find that more and more US-born diasporans truly live up to the “expatriot” name.

The American Diaspora

The Duty to the Diaspora

Furthermore, given that the US-born diaspora is one of the most widely dispersed diaspora in the world, the United States will face growing pressures to maintain a global diplomatic and security presence.This contradicts the hopes of some strategists who look forward to diminishing claims on US security guarantees. Although some countries have the luxury of only worrying about their diasporas in one or two countries, the United States is in a position of managing a diaspora spread through over 100 countries. Commonly enough, Americans view the rest of the world as the rest of the world’s problem. Unfortunately, in an increasingly globalized world, that attitude will lead to disastrously bad policy for Americans abroad.

There are between 2.2 and 6 million Americans abroad right now, and the path to 10 or even 20 million American diasporans is not hard to imagine. In other words, the diaspora amounts to somewhere between New Mexico and Maryland in size. Assuming there are 3 million residents, the diaspora would be 31st largest state: not huge, but hardly negligible.

However, the diaspora population has grown by 10.8% a year from 2010 to 2014. The fastest-growing state, North Dakota, has grown by 9.9%. In other words, the diaspora is outgrowing a massive migration-fueled oil boom at its peak. From 2000 to 2014, the diaspora has grown 31%, behind only Utah and Nevada.

With a rapidly-growing diaspora, American security and diplomatic obligations may become even more complex. Russia’s infamous “duty to protect” the Russian diaspora sounds ominous today. But many Americans may find themselves leaning on a similar argument if the American diaspora is threatened in Latin American countries where they represent between 1% and 13% of the population.

This problem was particularly highlighted by the plight of Americans in Yemen. As I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, a number of Americans are stuck in Yemen right now, and suing the State Department for not providing evacuation. Countries without diasporas don’t have these problems. But for the United States, a country where we treat diasporans as full citizens and have such diasporan citizens in hotspots worldwide, the globalization of citizenship will change how we do national security. Sometimes, that means that innocent diasporans complicate national security. In other cases, it means that American citizens adopt positions totally hostile to the United States, putting our nation’s security apparatus in something of a tricky gray area.

The point is not that the United States should intervene in countries with large or threatened American diasporas. Every case will be different. Rather, I want to emphasize how a globalizing citizenry will create new challenges and new demands on resources. The United States is not going to experience a diminishing demand for hurricane and disaster relief or for security guarantees, in no small part because it will be American citizens and American businesses these foreign operations increasingly protect and support. Nor will the War on Terror ever get simpler to prosecute, as a growing share of the nation’s enemies are likely to be its own citizens abroad, as many European nations are discovering in regards to ISIS.

What will it mean for us not only when a growing share of residents are non-citizens, but when a growing share of citizens are non-resident? It’s hard to say. It will be a world where many Americans have much wider opportunities for employment, education, and personal growth, but also a world fraught with security ambiguities and uncertain allegiances.

But a good start for now would be if the government could just start formally tracking emigration. In my next post, I’ll take a look at a country that tracks and reports migration data pretty well: Australia.

Go to the next post (where I talk about Australia!)

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Start the series from the beginning!

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I’m a grad student in International Trade and Investment Policy at the George Washington University’s Elliott School, and an economist at USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service. I like to learn about migration, the cotton industry, airplanes, trade policy, space, and faith.

My posts are not endorsed by and do not in any way represent the opinions of the George Washington University nor the United States government or any branch, department, agency, or division of it. My writing represents exclusively my own opinions. I do not receive any financial support or remuneration from any party for this research.

Cover photo source.

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