Frightened by shootings, appalled at Trump, Americans are voting with their feet — to leave

Eleanor Pelta has secured Polish passports for herself and her two sons. Stephanie Schwab is planning an escape route via Spain. Elie Jacobs has begun to keep enough cash on hand to buy last-minute plane tickets to Israel for his family. Alex and Aussa Lorens are applying for work visas in Australia, while Josh Lewin is aiming for New Zealand.

And Kami Lewis Levin already has her bags packed and tickets purchased. She leaves next week, with her husband, three children and a dog, for a new home in Costa Rica.

Americans are not flocking to the exits, but some of them are thinking about it, and some are talking about it, and at least a few are acting on the idea. Google searches for terms like “how to move out of America” spiked this past weekend to levels not seen since November 2016, right after the presidential election, and last seen a decade ago during the Great Recession. And in dozens of interviews after the massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, people who were born here spoke of their crystallizing desire to leave.

Kami Lewis and her dog Abby in Canaan, NY on August 6, 2019. Kami and her family are leaving the United States for Costa Rica due to the political climate within the United States.  (Photo: David 'Dee' Delgado for Yahoo News
Kami Lewis Levin and her dog, Abby, in Canaan, N.Y. Levin and her family are leaving the United States for Costa Rica due to the political climate in the U.S. (Photo: David "Dee" Delgado for Yahoo News)

These are not recent immigrants who feel threatened by nationalist rhetoric coming from the White House and Congress, but for the most part middle-class or relatively affluent Americans disheartened by the turn in American politics since the 2016 election. And it is not necessarily Canada — the default destination for agitated Americans over the decades — where they are threatening to move, because work visa qualifications there are tight. Instead, they are casting a larger net across the globe.

“The text-message threads and FB message threads have surged with questions about how and when to leave,” said Jacobs, a 41-year-old public affairs consultant who lives in New Jersey with his wife and toddler, and who began looking to Israel as an “escape hatch” as soon as Donald Trump was elected, but whose stockpiling of cash took on new urgency this week.

For many, the exploration of the departure gates is a direct response to the current president of the United States and his party. Before 2016, Coloradans Alex and Aussa Lorens were saving up to buy a house; after that they turned their attention to qualifying for a 190 Skilled Nominated visa for Australia, which requires proving English proficiency, a skills assessment and an “expression of intent” letter to those Australian states that are specifically looking for workers in Alex’s industry, which is hospitality.

Among what the couple sees as the many attractions of Australian society — including universal health care and affordable private insurance, mandated parental leave, four weeks of vacation for all workers and strong limits on guns — the Lorenses are drawn by the political culture, which, Aussa says, “protects them from a Trump-like outcome.”

“They do not have a major political party that is at all equivalent to our far-right Republicans,” she says. “Their conservative party is more like the moderate Democrats. They don’t argue about whether health care is a basic human right or whether climate change is real. They banned guns after a mass shooting.”

For others, the motivation is what they describe as an increasing level of daily fear.

“The way things are going, it’s to where you can’t even take your family out in public because it’s just a matter of time,” says Josh Lewin, 34, a native of Murfreesboro, Tenn., who lives there now with his wife and four sons ages 4 to 14 and works selling commercial security systems. “I need to do something to protect the family and not have to worry about this day in and day out.”

“First it was a shooting once a year, then once every six months, then once a month, and now it’s every day,” he says. “We don’t even bat an eye as a country now. I would like to move somewhere where that isn’t true and my kids don’t have to be afraid.”

He is surprised to feel as he does, both because he knows that statistically the dangers to any one individual or family are quite small, and because he has never been one for strong political opinions, and lives among relatives and friends who are Trump supporters. In fact, he emphasizes, “I’m not trying to choose sides. I am the type to sit back and support whoever is piloting the ship because you want to support your president and not see him fail.”

He has kept his feelings to himself, he says, particularly at work, where other men wear handguns strapped to their ankles at the office and, according to his wife, “joke about mass shootings being a force of natural selection.”

The Lewins have rejected Australia because “they have huge spiders there,” Josh says, and he is about as scared of spiders as he is of mass shootings. He has set New Zealand as his goal, intrigued years ago by the popularity of the extreme sport of “drift triking” — riding nonmotorized Big Wheels-like contraptions down huge hills. (New Zealand does have spiders, but venomous species capable of harming humans are extremely rare.) More recently he has been attracted by the fact that “after one mass shooting there they took steps to make it not so easy for people to get ahold of weapons of war.” And then, “after the shootings this weekend, I went from a 3 on the scale of how likely I was to actually move to a 6.”

Those who say they are serious about leaving are quick to add that they recognize the privilege that allows them to consider such a move at all.

“I am acutely aware of how not everyone can do this,” says 40-year-old Janelle Hanchett, a writer, who sold everything she owned in Northern California in July and moved with her husband, Charles MacDonald, a union ironworker, and their four school-age children to the Netherlands. “We are not rich, we have crippling student loans, but we had equity in a house and the means to pick up and leave.”

Tired of what Hanchett describes as “the specter of this rising authoritarian regime, and of feeling unsafe all the time,” they applied for a “freelance visa” that the government of the Netherlands created to thank America for liberation during World War II, and that allows Americans to live and work as freelancers. (If they become employed by a Dutch company full time, their status switches to a sponsored visa.)

Charles MacDonald, second from left, stands next to his wife, Janelle Hanchette, surrounded by their four children — from left, Rocket, George and Ava, and, in front, Arlo — at the San Francisco International Airport on their way to the Netherlands in July. (Photo: courtesy of the family)
Charles MacDonald, second from left, stands next to his wife, Janelle Hanchett, surrounded by their children — from left, Rocket, George, Ava and, in front, Arlo — at San Francisco International Airport on their way to the Netherlands in July. (Photo: courtesy of the family)

“It feels saner, more humane,” she says of her new home in the city of Haarlem, the capital of the province of North Holland. “The people seem happier. And there aren’t guns.”

Under the program, they are entitled to all the country’s benefits, including universal health care, a payment from the government of about 250 euros per child per quarter, and admission to a “Newcomer” school that costs 3 euros per month and helps children learn Dutch and transition to their new country.

When they learned about the school, Hanchett says, “we started to cry from happiness.” The principal told them, “Americans always react this way.”

In addition to being aware of their privilege, these emigrants are also aware of the many layers of irony.

Irony in the fact that they have, they concede, come to sound somewhat like the conspiracy theorists they accuse the “other side” of being — one group stockpiling guns and building bunkers, afraid the government is coming for their guns and immigrants are coming to take their jobs; the other keeping go-bags by the door and hiding cash for airplane tickets for fear that the government will start rounding up members of certain nationalities, religions and races.

“Yes, some of this is tinfoil-hat crazy, but some of it makes a lot of sense,” says Jacobs of those on his left-leaning newsgroups, many of whom are former national security bureaucrats, who are learning Krav Maga self-defense and buying guns. “But the fact is we live under a government that has instituted some terrifying policies.”

Another irony is that many are looking to return to places their own ancestors fled — and that at a time when one group’s badge of patriotism is to chant “Send her back," they are essentially sending themselves back to the countries their ancestors came from.

“We have an escape route planned through Barcelona,” says Stephanie Schwab, a digital marketer from Chicago who was born and raised in the U.S. but who has an EU passport issued to descendants of German Holocaust victims. “The day that we will be ready seems ever closer.” Well aware that Spain under longtime dictator Francisco Franco was informally aligned with Germany, although formally neutral, during World War II, she added: “Wouldn’t it be nutty if we had to escape fascism and anti-Semitism by moving to Spain?”

Same for Karen Allendoerfer, whose husband, a German citizen, has lived for more than 20 years in the U.S., where they have raised two children. “That would be ironic,” she said of her vague plan of eventually teaching English in her husband’s native land. (She currently teaches biology at a STEM-focused private school in Silicon Valley.) “Moving to Germany to get away from Nazis.”

Still, the “old country” is the place most likely to welcome Americans nowadays, making it a logical choice. Poland counts anyone with a Polish parent or grandparent as a de facto citizen, which is why Eleanor Pelta, whose parents fled Jewish persecution there, has a Polish passport in addition to her American one, as do her children, who derive Polish citizenship automatically through her.

Her original “motivation was to allow my kids to work in the EU if they wanted to,” says Pelta, who is an attorney with the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “But these days I’m quite pleased to have dual nationality, and I find it rather ironic that a child of Holocaust survivors would be viewing her Polish passport as an escape route.”

Spain, too, has been welcoming its formerly persecuted back home — particularly the descendants of the Sephardic Jews who were forced on pain of death to convert or emigrate during the Inquisition. Several years ago Spain established a path to citizenship for foreign nationals who can prove Sephardic Jewish descent, and while it is a high bar, requiring evidence of ancestry dating back more than 500 years, thousands of Americans are attempting to clear it before the application deadline on Oct. 1.

As some look to leave, others, equally distressed with the current atmosphere, argue for staying put and fighting back.

It is that line of thinking that keeps Pam Fradkin, an administrative assistant at a Boston-area university, from going anywhere. “Being queer is a danger to me everywhere,” she says. “I’ll fight to maintain my humanity and my rights in the country in which I was born. I will also fight to see and be the change I wish for.”

Kami Lewis Levin believe those who think the country is on the wrong track have a responsibility to try to fix it — which is, in a roundabout way, why she is packed for Costa Rica. Only by living elsewhere, she believes, can they have a clear lens on what is happening back home. “My three kids have effectively grown up in Park Slope [in Brooklyn, N.Y.], this wonderful magical bubble of a place, and so they think that everyone is on the same page politically. We need to get them out of here, to see a world that isn’t wealthy, where people take care of each other, where they come to understand what their privilege is.”

Kami Lewis packs for her family's move to Costa Rica.  (Photo: David 'Dee' Delgado for Yahoo News
Kami Lewis Levin packs for her family's move to Costa Rica. (Photo: David "Dee" Delgado for Yahoo News

Both she and her husband will be teaching at the La Paz Community School in Guanacaste, Costa Rica, where 30 percent of the 315 students are on scholarship and which all their children, ages 4, 11 and 13, will attend. They aim to return to the States in three years, when their eldest will be in his junior year in high school, and when, she hopes, there will be a new resident in the White House. If not, they might extend their stay.

“We threatened to go both times [George W. Bush] was elected, we threatened to go when Trump was elected, and based on what the polls are showing and he seems to have an actual shot at being reelected, we’re happy to be going,” she says. “We’re happy to not be here.”

Hanchett also understands the criticism of those who opt to leave, and admits to some guilt at “abandoning” her native land at a time she believes it to be in trouble.

On the one hand, she says, “after experiencing the safety that we feel here and the sense of well-being that permeates” her life in the Netherlands, “I can’t see going back.”

But that, she says, “is a grieving process. I miss my mother, my brother, the Pacific Ocean, my country. I hope I’m wrong. I hope that America turns around and gets it right. Right now I feel like I abandoned a sinking ship — and everyone I know is on it.”


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