My eyes are getting quite a workout this election season from rolling them every time someone threatens to leave the US should Donald Trump become president. Google searches for "move to Canada" skyrocket. Cape Breton Island welcomes US citizens. People are ready to flee. Oh, come on.
For celebrities, no problem. Miley Cyrus. Whoopi Goldberg. Et tu, Jon Stewart? They have the resources to go in style. For the rest of us, it's not so easy, because we need money to live, and finding work in a foreign country is complicated. Plus, if you'd like to stay in one place more than 180 days, the length of most visas, you'll need residency.
Living abroad is, as they say in Spanish, complicado. Which is a polite way to express what is actually a logistical nightmare. And even if it weren't so difficult to establish residency in another country, it is ethically questionable to leave just because you don't like the president.
Living abroad as an American means endless paperwork
Let me tell you about my seven-year journey to Argentine residency. It's a tedious and painful read, but it's important you know this before getting carried away by dreams of escaping the Trump presidency via emigration.
I left the United States almost 10 years ago, spurred by the cumbersome process of finding a preschool for my then-2-year-old daughter. There were applications, group interviews, personal interviews, and essays to write — all for the privilege of paying $20,000 a year to send a toddler to play.
My frustration with preschool reflected a general dissatisfaction I had with life in New York. Everything felt too complicated, too expensive, and injected pointless competition into all aspects of life. I couldn't see raising my daughter like that. So we sold everything and left for a year of open-ended world exploration with the ultimate goal of finding a new place to live.
We traveled through Europe, Canada, and the United States. We lived in Panama and Costa Rica, too. But the day our bus crossed into the lush green mountains of the Salta province of Argentina, something clicked, and I knew we were home. Unfortunately, our tourist visas only allowed us three months. We renewed them for another three, but at six months we had to go. So we took the 12-hour bus trek to Chile. The next time we had to leave, we went to the United States. Then to Bolivia. All the while, I gathered paperwork.
We submitted papers three separate times. Each time, some new obstacle stood in the way.
Oh, lord, the paperwork. Trámites, they call it in Spanish, which is Argentine shorthand for "Don't be surprised if you don't see me for days." You enter the DMV-like waiting room and take a number as if you're waiting your turn at a bakery, but instead of a chocolate-dipped cannoli you get a chat with a bored public servant who has processed far too many of the exact pieces of paper you need.
One particular paper — the FBI international criminal background check — symbolizes the residency process best. In the United States, an employer might require a background check before your first day of work. You need it for residency, because it's on the checklist of documents you need to apply for your work visa or residency in most countries. This paper assures your new host country that according to the FBI and Interpol, you are not a criminal.
One important tip. Remember to tell the FBI you're applying for residency in another country, so they'll print your background check on the special paper you must have for the apostille stamp. Don't know what apostille is? Look it up. Because if you're planning to move to another country, you should immediately get comfortable with researching minutiae of this sort.
Only the State Department, though, can issue the apostille, so that's the next stop once you receive your official report from the FBI. Note: There is nothing on any website to tell you this. I found out via trial and error.
After four to six weeks, you receive the FBI document, then send your specially papered FBI criminal background report along with a separate application form and fee to the State Department. It takes another four to six weeks for the apostille, unless you can take it to Washington in person, which obviously you can't because you're filing paperwork in another country where leaving would immediately invalidate the very paperwork you're attempting to obtain. Then, in a fittingly Borgesian twist, this paper is only valid for three months, but with all the different departments, signatures, and seals you likely need more three months to receive the thing.
We submitted papers three separate times. Each time, some new obstacle stood in the way. But then I got pregnant. We didn't have a baby just to stay in Argentina, but it certainly helped. That, and hiring a savvy Buenos Aires lawyer who had the necessary contacts to ease away our ills.
To take account: Six years, thousands of dollars, a 2-inch stack of paperwork that we now carry with us whenever we travel, and one adorable anchor baby boy later, I have my residency card.
Argentina, by the way, is one of the easier countries to stay in permanently. It's surprisingly lenient, unlike other places where overstaying your visa can mean arrest or being banned from the country forever. Immigration doesn't ask how much money you have in the bank, nor are you forced to show proof of work, and should you overstay your visa, you pay a small fee the next time you leave the country.
Finding a job, getting a bank account, and voting are also really challenging
Even with residency, though, US citizenship brings with it a host of complications when living abroad.
How are you going to make a living? Are you a doctor, lawyer, accountant? Your degree doesn't mean anything unless you find a US company to hire you. Otherwise, finding a local job is tough and won't pay nearly as well as the same job in the States — unless you move to go to a country where salaries are higher, which also means the chances of getting residency plunge toward zero and the cost of living soars.
My husband and I both work online. Our clients are all over the world, so we don't depend on Argentine law or economy to make a living. Both of us do more than one thing. I write, teach, and design graphics. He's an artist, but you can also hire him to analyze statistics or create a presentation. Such flexibility keeps us nimble so we can work from anywhere, and should we have to leave Argentina, we can choose from various forms of work wherever we go.
Want to open a bank account? It's always been a challenge for non-Argentines to open an account in Argentina, so, as many Argentines do, we went to Uruguay. They turned us down. Why? The Foreign Account Tax Compliant Act requires foreign banks to report US citizen accounts. In order to avoid having to muck about with this at all, foreign banks simply refuse US account holders.
I'm sure if we had millions to invest, they'd make an exception. But we don't. Instead, we bring small amounts of cash into the country when we travel or close family comes to visit. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but you get used to it. You also grow accustomed to careful budgeting, so you have enough funds to buy food and pay the gas bill until the next money drop.
Want to travel? Whenever I enter or exit countries, particularly with my kids, I carry paperwork to prove who I am, where I live, where I was born, and that I'm not only parent to my children but also legally allowed to travel with them. Even with Argentine residency, I still need the same visas any US citizen requires for travel. So when we road-tripped to Brazil last summer for what was supposed to be a cheap family vacation, we paid the whopping $160 per person for the visa. Our baby Argentine, though, crossed the border for free.
As for elections, I can vote absentee, but it's likely the ballot will never arrive in the United States, as in seven years I have yet to see a piece of mail I send from Argentina reach its destination. My other option is to take the 20-hour bus ride or pay $300 to fly to Buenos Aires and vote at the embassy. It's annoying but manageable once every four years for the presidential election. But to do this for every city and state ballot cast?
Oh, and one other thing: You're still liable to pay taxes in the US when living abroad, even on money you make outside the country.
Logistics aside, it's wrong to leave the US if Trump becomes president
These are the logistical hassles of living abroad as an American, but there's also a moral dimension to the "I'm moving to Canada if Trump wins" movement. Why do you want to seek out a new home country if Trump is president? To escape possible persecution? You're not a refugee. You're not escaping neighborhoods turned to rubble or death by firing squad. Trump must still contend with US law and procedure. He can't just divine through sheer desire, and the military won't attack on his command. His own party wants nothing to do with him, so who is left? His supporters.
And this gets to the real reason I think moving away to escape Trump makes no sense. Whether or not Trump becomes president, those who support his bigotry will still live in the United States. Leaving creates a vacuum that will be happily filled by those who want to see the Trump legacy flourish. Their votes mean more when fewer people vote. Their voices amplify when those who would protest go on vacation.
It might be a better life for you, but what about those people who don't have the means to leave? They will be forced to fight the Trump agenda without support from those who left them behind.
I'm ashamed to say it, but I didn't vote in the 2010 midterm election, the one that led the way for a sweep of 87 Republican freshmen into the Capitol, many of whom refused to compromise, and led to the 2013 government shutdown. Yes, as the fabulous Samantha Bee said in her Full Frontal monologue that won me over as a permanent fan, "I built that." It's a mistake I won't make again, but living here in Argentina, I will never be as engaged in US politics as I can be living there.
If you have the resources to pack it all up and go, you have enough money and influence to make a difference
When I left Brooklyn, I had no idea a man like Trump would one day stand so close to the presidency. Not for a moment did I consider that one day, my presence in the United States would be needed as counterbalance to those who want to see walls built between countries and groups of people marked and carded because they come from a different religion. And while it kills me that living abroad negatively impacts my civic life in the US, I don't see us ever moving back.
We left to find a more tranquilo life, one with less stress, pressure, and competition, and we found that in Argentina. My original reasons for leaving the United States still stand. It's too expensive. We can't afford to live there based on what we make now, so we'd have to find new jobs, work longer hours, see less of our children. And the thought of picking up my life again to move back to a place I don't want to be fills me with dread. I simply don't have the monetary or personal reserves to manage it.
If you have the resources to pack it all up and go, you have enough money and influence to make a difference. If you truly want to protest Trump, stay in the United States. If you want to escape Trump, get active in local politics and vote.
If you're leaving the US to travel and explore other countries and cultures? Fantastic. Do it. Because in the oft-quoted words of Mark Twain, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
But if you're going because you don't like what you see in your country and want to protest, you're wasting your time. To leave means to pour your dollars, your time, your effort and energy into another country. You do nothing to address the very reasons you claim you're leaving in the first place.
With Republicans currently apoplectic about their frontrunner while they simultaneously fight President Obama's attempts to fill Antonin Scalia's spot on the Supreme Court, we are at a turning point. The three branches of the US government are all up for grabs right now. And while a single ballot feels small in impact, it makes a difference in numbers. It's just much harder to do when you're not living in the United States.
Leigh Shulman is a writer, traveler, and mother currently living in northwest Argentina. She founded the Cloudhead Art education NGO and runs Creative Revolution Retreats, international writing retreats for women. You can read more about her and her writing on Twitter @thefutureisred.