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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Love It and Leave It: Portugal and the U.S.

Updated: Feb 22, 2022


Some nations view themselves as havens; others as countries with a history of diaspora.

The United States falls into the former category, and Portugal falls into the latter. I am an American living in Portugal.

Portugal has one of the highest emigration rates in the European Union. More than two million Portuguese, or 20 percent of the population, live outside the country, according to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, or Eurofound (February 15, 2016).

Even when the Portuguese emigrate, they often return for annual festas. During the August holiday month, villages swell to three times their normal size with luxury cars from Switzerland and Luxembourg gaining prominence. Also, remittances are sent home to Portugal. In 2019, they constituted 1.7 percent of the gross domestic product, according to Base de Dados Contemporaneo. Remittances increased to 344.76 EUR million in July from 286.46 EUR million in June 2020, according to Trading Economics.

In 2015, the United Kingdom was the most popular destination followed by France, Switzerland, Germany and Angola.

No matter where they are, Portugal remains in the hearts and souls of the émigré.

Between 2011 and 2014 after the Great Recession, more than 485,000 workers left Portugal for better living and working conditions, according to Eurofound. The demographics changed to a greater proportion of emigrants having higher qualifications.

The economy bounced back after a 2011 bailout austerity agreement with the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund). The country’s finances also were fueled by tourism, a growing technology industry and strong exports. Gross domestic product has increased and unemployment has dropped as companies complain of a huge shortage of qualified workers.

Now, the Portuguese government wants people to come back home.

The year-old Regressar scheme offers incentives to former residents who have lived away for at least three years, according to the World Economic Forum (August 15, 2019). Returning emigres will have their income tax halved for five years. For those taking a job, there is help with relocation costs. As of August last year, about 1,700 people from 72 countries had registered on an accompanying online portal to Regressar for people looking for work before their return.

For Portugal, opening its doors is a priority, said the World Economic Forum. Prime Minister Antonio Costa said that immigration is essential to beat the country’s demographic crisis. Recently, he called for Europe to mobilize against populism and xenophobia.

Whatever their stance on immigration, Americans view their country as a nation, which attracts immigrants because of its historical economic and political stability.

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

These words on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty represent a strong aspect of the American psyche. Unless an American is Apache, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chinook, Comanche, Hopi, Sioux, Hawaiian or members of another indigenous people, that American is an immigrant or has forbears who moved to the United States from somewhere else.

“Immigration is our origin story,” said President Barack Obama in a video for the Democratic National Convention in August. “After all, unless your family is Native American, all of our families come from someplace else.”

Therefore, Americans, unlike the Portuguese, are not bound by place. They are bound by the American Dream, which is shaped by the ideals of liberty, democracy, equality and opportunity. Freedom includes the chance for prosperity and success as well as social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work without social barriers.

The Declaration of Independence shapes the American Dream by proclaiming that “all men are created equal” with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The U.S. Constitution promotes similar freedom “to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

To most, abandoning the American Dream is unthinkable. They believe in it and are working toward achieving it for themselves and their children.

Indeed, during the heated protests against U.S. participation in the Vietnam War, supporters carried placards that issued the ultimatum:

Love it or Leave It.

However, leaving the United States does not mean that the emigrant does not love it. Furthermore, disagreeing with government policy reflects democracy, where different voices must be heard by everyone.

What I often hear from Americans who are contemplating emigration is guilt. They feel that they are abandoning the country at its weakest. Yet, I also hear them say that they need to ensure the survival of themselves and their children.

“Those (Black Americans) who have remained abroad have faced their own personal struggles this spring and summer, describing feelings of deep conflict in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and protests that have followed,” according to Fortune, America’s Black brain drain: Why African-Americans are moving abroad – and staying there (August 10, 2020).

Warren Reid is the founder and CEO of Nemnet Minority Recruitment, a diversity recruitment and consulting firm that works with educational institutions. Seven years ago, his family moved from New Jersey to London, when his wife, Najoh Tita-Reid, accepted a position running Western Europe for the pharmaceutical giant, Merck. Three years ago, she joined a health food company as global Chief Marketing Officer in Switzerland, where they live now.

“Reid says by being abroad he’s meeting his primary obligation to provide a safe and affirming environment for his family; his children have not had to wrestle with some of the issues he did as a Black kid growing up in the U.S,” according to Fortune.

“That’s been the good side," said Reid. "The other side is there is a movement that’s going on, and I’m removed from it. There’s a little guilt that goes along with it. How could I bring to bear my education, resources, and network to move the movement forward?"

The U.S. government does not keep a record of the number of emigrating Americans. Unlike some countries, a citizen does not have to deregister upon emigration. However, the U.S. State Department estimates that 8.7 million Americans out of a total of 331 million were living abroad in 2016. The number of Americans has been increasing over the years. The most recent figure is double the 1999 figure of 4.1 million, which represents a rate growing faster than the U.S. population.

Based on various sources and figures from 2011 to 2017, the countries or regions with the highest number of Americans are Mexico followed by the European Union, Canada, India and the Philippines.

Common reasons for Americans to leave the United States are marriage/partnership, study, employment and retirement.

Other reasons for emigration are political, racism, economic inequality and the exorbitant cost of health care.

Though relatively average by global standards, 16 percent of polled Americans overall said in 2017 and, again, in 2018 that they would like to permanently move to another country, if they could, which is higher than during either the George W. Bush (11 percent) or Barack Obama administration (10 percent), according to Gallup News (January 4, 2019).

While Gallup World Poll does not ask people about their political leanings, most of the recent surge in Americans’ desire to migrate has come from groups that typically lean Democratic and that have disapproved of Trump’s job performance: women, young Americans and poor people.

During the first two years of the Trump administration, a record-high one in five U.S. women (20 percent) said they would like to move to another country permanently. This is twice the average for women during the Obama (10 percent) or Bush years (11 percent) and almost twice the level among men (13 percent) under Trump. Before the Trump years, there was no difference between men’s and women’s desires to move elsewhere.

“The 30 percent of Americans younger than 30 who would like to move also represents a new high – and it is also the group in which the gender gap is the largest,” said Gallup News. “Forty percent of women younger than 30 said they would like to move compared with 20 percent of men in this age group. These gender gaps narrow with age and eventually disappear after age 50.”

“Desire to migrate among the poorest 20 percent of Americans during Trump’s first two years is also at record levels. It is more than twice as high as the average during Obama’s two terms. So far, under Trump, three in 10 Americans (30 percent) in the poorest 20 percent say they would like to migrate, if they could, compared with an average of 13 percent under Obama.

“But more than anything else, Trump himself may be the primary motivator. Regression analysis shows that regardless of differences by gender, age or income – if Americans disapprove of the job Trump is doing as president, they are more likely to want to leave the U.S. Overall, 22 percent of Americans who disapproved of Trump’s job performance during his first two years said they would like to move compared with 7 percent who approved.”

Perhaps because I am an immigrant, as were my parents, it seems that the world is on the move. Even aside from the unprecedented 70.8 million people who have been forced from home by conflict and persecution, according to the United Nations, compared with 7.8 billion in the world, people are on the move.

“If all of the world’s international migrants (people living in a country that is different from their country that is different from their country or territory of birth) lived in a single country, it would be the world’s fifth-largest, with around 244 million people,” according to Pew Research Center, Fact Tank, News in the Numbers (May 18, 2016).

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