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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

High Time for a Debate on Emigration

Eduardo Saverin's renunciation of U.S. citizenship seems to have been quite a kick in the gut for a lot of Americans.  After all, he was one of the quintessential American success stories. It's not exactly a perfect fit - no "rags to riches" since Saverin's family appears to have been fairly well off in Brazil. But his story is one that fits so perfectly into a narrative that all Americans learn young and believe in so very strongly.  It is supposed to go like this:  immigrant comes to the U.S, makes good, becomes a citizen and settles permanently to be surrounded by his or her grateful descendants in his twilight years.  It's a wonderful story and one I literally cut my teeth on growing up in the U.S.

Americans sometimes criticize countries like France for not tracking people by ethnicity or color - data that might reveal serious socioeconomic differences due to latent racism in French society.  The assumption of the critics, of course, is that the French are doing this on purpose.  Not entirely fair since there are very good reasons why the French don't that have to do with recent European history.

One could, however, say something very similar about Americans' reluctance to track emigration.    The U.S. government is pretty good about determining who comes into the U.S. but is strangely silent about those who leave.  It is incapable of saying with any certainty just how many American citizens leave the country permanently or temporarily every year and the exact number of U.S. citizens living abroad is unknown.  For a country that just loves statistics and has a real "can do" attitude, the explanation the government gives for this, "it's just too hard" is unconvincing.  So when a high-profile case like Saverin's hits the media, Americans don't have a context for understanding it.  Based on the best information they have, they interpret it as an anomaly - a mere blip on the radar - perpetrated by an unusually ungrateful individual who didn't have the sense to understood how good he had it.  The fact there are no reliable numbers means that everyone can keep their heads in the sand and pretend that there is nothing worthy of consideration going on.  Understandable when one suspects (as I do) that reliable numbers may reveal uncomfortable facts. Ignorance is bliss.

Here is what we do know.  The reality is that something called "reverse migration" has always been part of the American immigrant experience.  The lack of data doesn't allow us to measure this precisely but it's been estimated that around a third of European immigrants to the U.S. in centuries past came to the U.S., made some money and then went back to their countries of origin where their U.S. savings could buy them a house and a pleasant retirement back in the home country:  Irish, Germans, Norwegians and many others.  There was even a time in U.S. history when 25 treaties were signed with 34 sending countries, called "Bancroft treaties," to ease migrants' naturalization as U.S. citizens but also to manage their return and to revoke their U.S. citizenship if they decided to remain home permanently.  To my knowledge none of these treaties is still in existence but it is an historical fact that this was a real issue for the United States from the nineteenth to the early 20th century.

In more recent times Indians, Mexicans and Chinese immigrants to the U.S. have continued this tradition, lured back to their home countries by opportunity, a good economy and a chance to reconnect with friends and family.  This article reports that there has something of a "brain drain" of Asians out of Silicon Valley and also recent foreign graduates from U.S. universities.  Difficult to estimate the magnitude of this phenomenon but it's definitely on the radar of U.S. politicians and industry who are proposing all kinds of schemes to encourage them to stay ("staple a Green Card to their diplomas?")  The American public seems to be either unaware of the situation or convinced (with no empirical evidence to back it up) that the problem is not people leaving but is rather one of keeping out all those people who just want to storm the gates and "steal jobs."  Because, of course, everyone wants to move to the sweet spot of the universe which is the good old U.S of A and no one ever ever leaves unless it is for nefarious purposes. (I love my country but I feel really foolish and slightly embarrassed after having typed that last sentence.)

My take on it (and feel free to disagree) is that no country in the world is so special that it can have a rational conversation about immigration without also talking about emigration.  International migration is a fact of life these days and opportunities abound all over the world in the most interesting places.

Assuming that the U.S. wants to continue to be a magnet for immigrants, is still interested in new citizens and wants to keep the ones it already has, some serious questions need to be put on the table for a national debate:

1.  In the face of increasing international migration, stiff competition for highly-qualified migrants, and economies worldwide that also offer economic opportunity and democratic societies, what immigration policies would make the most sense for the United States in the future?

2.  Once immigrants arrive, what incentives can the U.S. offer to convince them to stay, become citizens and remain?  Would Americans be open to some form of "circular migration" where migrants come, become citizens, move back home or to another country and perhaps one day return to the U.S.?

3.  Where U.S. citizens (naturalized or birthright) do choose to emigrate out of the U.S. temporarily or permanently, is there an argument for giving them incentives to either invest some of that money earned abroad in the U.S. or to encourage them to come back with all the skills and knowledge they gained abroad?

4.  And, finally, does the U.S. have an interest in giving some recognition to, and initiating a formal dialogue with, its very own emigrants:  the 6-7 million U.S. citizens living outside the U.S.?  Or is the U.S. okay with the idea that they renounce en masse after having established themselves elsewhere as Saverin did, thus losing their talents, any investment the U.S. made in them, and their future productive power?

Don't mean to put the cat among the pigeons here, but the above would make for a very interesting conversation, now wouldn't it?


Tim said...


You might want to check out this recent Rachel Maddow print ad that is getting some controversy in Canada.

To note the comments about a future run for political office Maddow actually lives in Massachusetts which historically not considered a very right wing state.

Tim said...

You should also check out the following wikipedia pages on Hong Kong Canadians:

Notice how many of the people above were actually born IN Canada. In fact a higher percentage of Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong were actually born in Canada than Canadian citizens living in Canada. Canada will NEVER allow its overseas citizens to vote because certain constituencies such as in Vancouver and surrounding areas(i.e. Richmond, Burnaby, Maple Ridge) would have half of their population living outside the country.

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed reading all of your blog posts over the past year. They are all very well written and thought provoking. This one, though, has to be, without a doubt, your masterpiece.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

And thank you so much for reading and following the Flophouse. I love doing this blog and the idea that other people find it interesting and enjoy reading it is so good to know (and a bit humbling as well). I was not so sure about this post but you've reassured me that it did resonate and was useful.

All the best,


Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Tim: Thanks for the links. Interesting stuff. The Maddow article in particular. First thought I had was that Maddow's mom may have had an entirely different take on it. No immigration story is simple. If she was interviewed perhaps there would far more ambivalence in her story about moving to the U.S. than Americans would be comfortable hearing. :-)