Millions of Americans have left the country. Where are they going, and why?

We all know that America is a nation of immigrants (with the obvious exception of its long-marginalized Native population). But every so often, it feels like it’s on the verge of becoming a nation of emigrants.

After the 2004 reelection of George W. Bush, the 2020 election of Joe Biden and the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Google search interest in moving to Canada spiked. It happened again in June, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the landmark abortion rights ruling Roe v. Wade. According to recent Gallup polls, as many as 15 percent of Americans say they want to leave the country permanently, and even more say they would consider expatriating under the right circumstances.

But only a small fraction of Americans have actually taken the plunge, data shows. And an even tinier minority leave the United States for political reasons, according to migration scholar Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels.

While the United States is the top destination for immigrants worldwide, hosting about three times as many immigrants as runners-up Germany and Saudi Arabia, it’s a paltry 26th in terms of sending immigrants abroad. Our analysis of U.N. data finds that just one American emigrates for every six Indians or four Mexicans.

And unlike emigrants from other countries, Americans go everywhere.We’re the most widely distributed people on the planet. No other nation has as few people concentrated in its top 10 (or top 25, or top 50) destinations, a Washington Post analysis shows.

In part, this wide distribution is probably a legacyof America’s immigrant roots. America is the top destination for migrants from about 40 countries, andmany Americans remain linked to their ancestral homelands. It also reflects the wide reach of the U.S. military, as well as civilian organizations such as the Peace Corps and Christian missionaries.

The U.S. government does not keep a close count of Americans who have left the country; few governments do. The State Department asks some expatriates to register, but it does not maintain comprehensive, up-to-date directories. So, to count emigrants, we need a little help from our friends. Or at least from their statistical agencies.

The United Nation and World Bank collect data on foreign-born populations from local censuses and surveys all over the world, and use them to estimate migration patterns between more than 200 countries and localities. By their estimate, the population of American-born people abroad sat around 2.8 million as of 2020.

To keep their measurements consistent across countries and time periods — and to avoid double-counting millions of people with dual citizenship — they focus on just one measure of immigration: a foreign birthplace. Thus, they often leave out Americans who were born abroad to American parents, foreign-born spouses of Americans or naturalized American immigrants who later emigrated, even though many in those groups claim American citizenship. (They also typically don’t count American soldiers, tourists or temporary workers).

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