Frightened by shootings and fed up with Trump: Meet the Americans fleeing for countries like Australia
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.
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.
Australia high on the list for those fleeing the US
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.”
Random gun violence weighs on US citizens
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 Tennessee, 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.
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.
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.”
The intense difficulty of leaving for many
Those who say they are serious about leaving are quick to add that they recognise 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.
“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.”
As some look to leave, others, equally distressed with the current atmosphere, argue for staying put and fighting back.
With a presidential election around the corner in 2020, there is hope that meaningful change might be on the horizon. But for now, at least for some US citizens, the land down under is looking ever more appealing.
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