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The Great Escape

The Americans Who Are Fleeing the United States

The rise of a violent far right is forcing a growing number of citizens to consider emigrating to other countries. Some vulnerable minorities fear they may have no choice.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If there’s any truth to the popular superstition that a bird pooping on you brings good luck, then hopefully the pigeon that relieved itself on me on the chilly morning of November 21 as I passed beneath its midtown Manhattan perch on my way to the German consulate was sending good thoughts. I was carrying a stack of documents to formally apply for German citizenship under a law enacted in 2021 to correct gender-discriminatory provisions in Germany’s nationality law that had prevented my grandmother from passing German citizenship to my father and hence to me.

While dual citizenship was something I always wished I had as a convenience, I now had a more urgent reason to get it: I’m a gay man living in a country that I fear is slowly but inexorably backsliding from flawed democracy to right-wing authoritarian rule, turning into a place where the rights and safety of LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups are increasingly under attack by a Republican Party and right-wing majority Supreme Court that, given their way, would not hesitate to erase them entirely. In such a scenario, it makes sense to have an exit strategy—whether dual citizenship, the ability to work abroad, or some other means to escapein the perhaps not inevitable but no longer unthinkable event that the stuff of dystopian science fiction becomes reality.

The advent of the Trump administration and the rising political instability in the United States that’s followed in its wake have spurred increased interest in dual citizenship, said Temple University law professor Peter Spiro, an expert on dual citizenship and a German American dual citizen himself. Spiro says that while people have always found that fact about him mildly interesting, nowadays he senses more of a “whiff of envy”—and more and more people are asking him how they too can get it.

“Having dual citizenship was seen as sort of a curiosity, you know, a conversation piece, but not more than that—it wasn’t perceived as having real value from the perspective of U.S. citizens,” Spiro explained. “And with Trump and also with Covid, Americanscertainly a certain demographicare interested in second citizenships as a kind of insurance.”

Polling by Gallup of 1,000 Americans aged 15 and older indicated that in the first two years of the Trump administration, 16 percent of Americans said they hoped to leave the country permanently, a sharp rise from the 1011 percent who said the same during the Bush and Obama years, with particularly high rates among women. Data for subsequent years provided by Gallup show that the figure fell to 14 percent in 20192020 but then rose again to 15 percent under Biden. The surveys under Biden took place between April 22 and June 21, 2021, and April 19 and September 1, 2022, the latter coinciding with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Also following the Dobbs decision, Google Trends indicated a significant spike in searches for “LGBT friendly countries.”

A group on Reddit for Americans hoping to move abroad, r/AmerExit, saw “thousands” of new users join after Dobbs, said the group’s 26-year-old creator, Jacob, who would not disclose his last name but noted that he and his husband moved to Europe and now live in Norway because “even back in 2019, I could tell the United States was getting more and more politically unstable, and I didn’t want to stick around for that.”

It’s hard to precisely quantify how many Americans with their eyes on the exits are LGBTQ, racial, or ethnic minoritiesGallup’s data don’t account for thatand some studies indicate relatively few Americans actually leave for political reasons. But members of r/AmerExit who do belong to marginalized groups, such as LGBTQ, African Americans, and Asian Americans, often indicate in posts a desire to leave because they see the U.S. becoming increasingly unwelcoming and unsafe for them.

This should come as no surprise. One of Trump’s most damaging legacies is how he made open bigotry and hostility to liberal values great again, freeing politicians and media figures to pump antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia into the mainstream without consequence. Public figures can now condemn LGBTQ people on national TV and spur social media followers to send death threats to drag events—even after a deadly mass shooting in a gay bar—or party with white nationalists and pay no price.

This goes far beyond the cynical nursing of white Christian resentment that the GOP has used for decades to win votes. It’s not just cynicism anymore: It’s genuine, hate-fueled authoritarianism, the same poisonous stew of white supremacist, theocratic fascism that fueled the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol and hides behind polite euphemisms like “Christian nationalism,” “national conservatism,” and “common good constitutionalism.” It doesn’t take a deck of tarot cards to discern that if someone like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wins the 2024 election and the GOP takes Congress, America could quickly become a very frightening place for anyone who belongs to a disfavored minority group and isn’t willing to accept second-class citizenship—or worse.  

Massage therapist Tiana Esperanza’s immediate reason for moving to the Netherlands last year with her husband—schoolteacher and r/AmerExit member Richard Altfeld—and their two children was that they lost a house they were preparing to buy in Austin, Texas. But racism also played a significant role for Esperanza, who is Black, along with worries she had about raising biracial children in a country where she and Altfeld, who is Jewish, frequently faced abuse as an interracial couple, worries that became especially acute after events like the murder of George Floyd.

In that context, Esperanza lamented the relief she felt when her son and daughter were born with more white-looking features. “It’s fine, but I never wanted to have to navigate having a Black child, and that’s a shitty way to think when it’s like having a child that looks like me,” she said.

While Esperanza and Altfeld said they were mindful of the problems of antisemitism and racism that still persist in Europethey have already heard racist remarks from Dutch people about MoroccansEsperanza said her experience when they visited the Netherlands several years ago was markedly different from the U.S. “We were here for two weeks, and in that two weeks, the cultural difference was just phenomenal,” she said. “I was just a personno one followed me around in the store, no one looked at me funny, no one bothered us.”

It was during the time leading up to the birth of her first child in 2019 that Esperanza learned about Blaxit, the movement of African Americans relocating abroad. More have learned of it since: Google Trends showed an uptick in people searching for “Blaxit” after last May’s supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, in which a white nationalist killed 13 shoppers, most of them Black.

There can be no doubt that racist, antisemitic, homophobic, and transphobic hate speech, violence, and state-level legislative attacks have dramatically worsened over the last few years. Consequently, right-wingers who used to pretend at least perfunctorily to oppose bigotry have now gone full mask-off.

In November, voters in Georgia reelected Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene despite her history of antisemitic rhetoric; following her reelection she appeared at a New York Young Republican Club gala whose attendees also included white nationalist Peter Brimelow. America’s most-watched cable TV host is Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, who routinely spews white nationalist rhetoric and praises authoritarian regimes like Vladimir Putin’s Russia and that of autocratic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who was a featured speaker at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. And this month, DeSantis’s administration rejected a nationwide A.P. African American studies course as “woke indoctrination.”

Carlson scored the first literal and figurative mask-off televised interview with Chaya Raichikthe former real estate agent behind LibsOfTikTok, who regularly tweets screenshotted announcements of all-ages drag events and trans-inclusive health care services knowing her followers will call in death and bomb threatsin which she called the LGBTQ community “evil” and a “cult.” Raichik is the same woman who, within hours of a gunman shooting up a gay bar in Colorado Springs, Colorado, attacked a youth drag event in the same state on her Twitter and whose tweets attacking Boston Children’s Hospital for its transgender care program led to it receiving multiple bomb threats.

It’s thanks to the “groomer” libel and false claims that LGBTQ people are pedophiles spread by people like Raichik, Matt Walsh, James Lindsay, and Chris Rufo that drag queen storytime and drag brunch events now routinely have fascist thugs show up, sometimes armed. In December, angry demonstrators, consumed with unrestrained animal rage, spat venom at a drag queen story hour event in a library in New York’s heavily LGBTQ Chelsea neighborhood, and two women were later arrested after attempting to gain entry into gay New York City Councillor Erik Bottcher’s apartment building, writing “groomer” and “predator” on the sidewalk outside. Meanwhile, bills attacking LGBTQ rights have been signed or introduced in dozens of states, including several banning trans-affirming health care, one in Oklahoma that would make it a felony to perform in drag in the presence of minorsincluding drag queen story timeand one in North Dakota that by some interpretations could make it possible to prosecute trans people for existing in public.

To be sure, America has yet to go full bore into tyranny. But there’s a sense that American democracy and the protections for minorities that depend on its health are living on borrowed time, that one or two election cycles or Supreme Court decisions are all that stand between freedom and fascism. It’s hard to watch hate and rage toward minorities contaminate and infect our politics and society like the putrid tentacles of a demonic slime mold, carrying the imprimatur of powerful and connected people, without thinking back to the growing political violence and attacks on minorities occurring against a backdrop of freedom and democracy during the Weimar Republic that preceded the Third Reich. It’s the air of menace in the night before everything goes dark forever.

Consider that far-right extremists felt emboldened to venture into a gay neighborhood to harass a drag queen story time event and attempted to invade the apartment building of a gay elected official, while a Times of Israel analysis found that hate crimes against Jews in New York City doubled between 2020 and 2022. It begs a chilling question: If things like this can happen in a highly progressive and diverse metropolis that is home to one of the largest LGBTQ communities in the world and the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, then how safe is anywhere in America, and for how much longer?

For trans people in particular, the sense of threat has become so extreme that some have contemplated seeking asylum in Europe. Such thinking is likely premature, as conditions in the U.S. are not quite bad enough that European nations would grant LGBTQ Americans asylum, especially when the U.S. itself remains a top destination for LGBTQ asylum-seekers. But trans people driven to such levels of desperation are a troubling indicator of where things are headed here. For the same reason that LGBTQ people have long been among the earliest victims of fascist regimes, Republicans are attacking trans people because they’re an easy target. But they’re far from the only target, which is why they’re also attacking drag queens and smearing the whole LGBTQ community as “groomers” and an “evil cult.”

Naturally, no place is perfectly safe. A far-right party descended from postwar fascist movements now controls Italy’s government; Israel now has its most right-wing government ever; a party with neofascist roots forms a key member of Sweden’s ruling coalition; far-right parties are also on the move in Austria and Spain; and Canada, perhaps the most popular potential destination for fleeing Americans, has right-wing extremism problems of its own.

But those who would throw cold water on Americans’ exodus plans are missing the point, at least as it relates to vulnerable minorities, like journalist Andrea Chalupa, who in July tweeted, “For those planning to escape abroad, there’s nowhere to escape to.” Chalupa wasn’t wrong in saying America going “full authoritarian” would have global repercussions. But if that happened, even temporary respite would be better for those who would be the first to bear tyranny’s brunt than staying here. Implicit in Chalupa’s words is an exhortation to stay and fight, but those of us who have already spent our lives fighting just to survive have a prerogative to head for the exits if we determine that our continued survival depends on it.

It is, of course, possible predictions of doom are wrong. Perhaps America will manage to get its act together. I hope that happens, but I can’t be too sure. Trump’s election and misrule, the January 6 attack and the scent of rising fascism are worse than alarmingthey’ve shaken faith in our nation and in the American exceptionalist presumption that the U.S. is a country for people yearning to breathe free—not a country that people yearning to breathe flee.

Spiro noted that dual citizenship is a common aspiration among people in Latin America, where a long history of economic disaster, democracies becoming dictatorships, and violent conflict has made second passports hot commoditiesand most members of the Facebook group I belong to, which focuses on German citizenship, are from places like Brazil and Argentina. It could be that the U.S., which already has the worst gun violence of any developed nation and socioeconomic inequality rivaling that of some Latin American countries, is now converging with its neighbors to the south in that sense.

Some people might think members of minority groups that have long faced prejudice, discrimination, and violence in America thinking about leaving the country because they fear for their future here are overreacting, perhaps having watched one too many episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale or read one too many pages of It Can’t Happen Here. But a pigeon in the city could also be a canary in the coal mine, and I’d rather have a mine cart than suffocate in darkness.