Americans Abroad: Escaping or Enhancing Life?

UConn's Arnold Dashefsky discusses insights from a new edition of a landmark study of Americans who live outside the US.

Passport on the desk of an American businessman

About 8 million Americans currently live outside the U.S., according to a pioneering study coauthored by a UConn scholar. (Getty Images)

Amid the headlines and policy discussions about immigration to the United States, there are approximately eight million Americans who have left the country to live in other nations, according to a UConn researcher who has updated his pioneering study of Americans living overseas.

“Emigration doesn’t fit the narrative of the United States. Our ideological bias is that we are a country of immigrants. Why would anybody want to leave the United States? There are lots of reasons,” says Arnold Dashefsky, Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies and Professor Emeritus of Sociology, who is co-author of the second edition of Americans Abroad: A Comparative Study of Emigrants from the United States (Springer).

Dashefsky says the original 1992 study of American emigration found that more people left the country than arrived from overseas during the Great Depression in the early part of the 20th century. He adds that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if this happens during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that there is not yet any statistical evidence this is happening.

What he and his co-author Karen A. Woodrow-Lafield, an expert demographer and research faculty affiliate in the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland, did discover is that there are two general reasons why Americans relocate to another nation — “instrumental” and “expressive” reasons.

According to the researchers, instrumental reasons may include starting a new business, pursuing a job, improving the standard of living or attending school. Expressive reasons could include returning to a spouse’s homeland or for a religious, humanitarian, or missionary objective, as well as the search for adventure or travel, but only to a lesser extent for reasons of alienation.

“Certainly, multinational corporations have developed surveys to identify what it’s like to be a worker in other countries,” Woodrow-Lafield says. “They do quality of living surveys so they can adjust salaries to make it more attractive for employees. There are also work tourism programs, where people can work abroad while developing their careers.”

She says data sources in the study are from government censuses and surveys and nongovernment organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic and Cultural Development (OECD). She notes that because of security issues since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the U.S. State Department no longer releases detailed information from embassies about Americans living abroad beyond a list of nations with at least 100,000 Americans in residence.

“Generally, Americans abroad are likely to be residing in Canada (over 300,000) and Mexico (over 800,000), not surprising given their proximity; but they’re also in several European countries,” she says, adding that nations with U.S. military bases such as South Korea and Germany are likely popular because of former military postings and other connections in those countries. Other nations with large American emigrants include Australia, France, Greece, Israel, Italy, Japan, Philippines, United Kingdom and, more recently, the Dominican Republic.

Woodrow-Lafield says national policies are directed generally at controlling who is coming into a country and most nations do not have policies directed toward leaving the country. There are fewer sociological studies focused on leaving the U.S. than immigrating to the U.S. She says in recent decades that because of enforcement policies along the U.S.-Mexico border, there has been reduced return migration to Mexico; but recently, Mexican immigration has been lower than return migration.

At the same time, Woodrow-Lafield notes the State Department and its embassies play a role in times of crisis overseas in assisting Americans living in affected areas during natural disasters or if U.S. citizens have been arrested or imprisoned.

Dashefsky says the 1992 study found that Americans bring to their new country of residence certain cultural dispositions that at the time were more progressive, such as greater gender equality and environmental concerns. Many also left during the peak of the Vietnam War. Four decades later, immigration policies are a more prominent political issue.

“Immigration has become a political phenomenon; and for some people, it challenges their perception of the kind of culture we do have and creates rising resentments, which play out politically even in our current presidential race,” he says. “The controversy continues over DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) involving Dreamers who arrived here as kids and don’t know any other culture. Migration does have a very cultural effect and subsequently political and potential economic effects as well.”

Dashefsky notes that the long-standing ideological metaphor of the United States as a melting pot of immigrants is not accurate looking through the lens of social science.

“It created a false idea that there was democratization of the country,” he says. “The way I explain it to my students is more to describe it as Anglo conformity. We’re speaking English, and our jurisprudence system is based on the English law with certain modifications that we added. We all read Shakespeare in high school although he’s not an American author, so part of our literature is derived from that. The point is, yes, there is a diversity, but not all of our culture has learned to deal with this diversity; otherwise we wouldn’t have all the social conflicts we have today.”