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Do Americans Really Move To Canada Because Of Politics?

These hockey fans sure make being Canadian look like fun.
AFP/Getty Images
These hockey fans sure make being Canadian look like fun.

Every election, there's that chorus of people who insist they are moving to Canada if candidate so-and-so wins. Everyone knows these people. They're tweeting and Googling about it as you read this. One Nova Scotia island is even specifically appealing to the anti-Trump crowd.

And, yeah, some people actually follow through with it. The Guardian dug up one such couple earlier this year. Another immigration lawyer tells NPR that he has definitely seen this happen on a wider scale.

"I did a lot of American immigration in the late 1990s, 2000s, [and] there was a huge spike in liberal-leaning individuals moving north," said David Aujla, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer.

But is there ever a mass movement? Kind of. Maybe. It depends on what you mean by "mass," really.

We know. It's a crappy answer. But it's a tough question to answer because the Canadian government has data on how many people move there, but not on why they move. When asked the "I'm moving after this election" question, Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada sent NPR data on Americans who gain permanent residency status in Canada (gaining permanent residency is a necessary step toward gaining Canadian citizenship). Here's what it shows:

So there's a spike in the 2000s, when the total number of people getting permanent residency status each year roughly doubled, to nearly 10,200 new permanent residents in 2008.

Is this evidence that politics drove emigration to Canada?

Aujla thinks so.

"Bush was elected [in] November 2000 and was president for eight years. If you were a disgruntled Democrat and applied for immigration to Canada at the beginning of 2001, it would take about 18 months to 30 months to finalize the permanent resident application," he wrote in an email. He reads that as a spike because of Bush's election, followed by a downturn that he attributes to both President Obama's election and the economic crisis.

It's true, of course, that plenty of conservative Americans were upset enough to want to leave when Obama was elected. But Obama didn't inspire this kind of migration, Aujla said, because Canada is (broadly speaking) more liberal than the U.S.

"A lot of people call to vent. I remember even getting a call from this fellow in Texas as soon as Obama got elected," Aujla said. "And suddenly I'm thinking to myself, 'Well, why are you calling Canada?' "

But seriously. Why did they move?

The problem is that it's hard to know for sure. Changing countries is a major, complicated decision, and a lot of factors can play into it. Another lawyer said he thinks economics — and not politics — likely explains a lot of this movement.

"I think there is probably a more direct correlation to the strength of the U.S. economy than to presidents," said Joel Guberman, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer, in an email to NPR. He said the statistics tell him a different story. "It appears that the high is 2008-09. The worst years for the U.S. are the highest exits, while very prosperous years are lower."

Guberman doesn't buy that politics is the primary force driving U.S. movement to Canada. Mostly, he says, the threats to move to Canada never become more than that: just threats.

"Did we get an increase in phone calls? Sure. Does real activity take place? Not really. It's a handful," he said. "It causes a stir and that vocabulary starts being used, but does it actually materialize? Not really."

He has practiced immigration law for more than 30 years, and his firm currently has 17 lawyers on hand, so he has handled a lot of clients trying to move into the country. How many Americans has he helped to gain residency in Canada?

"I can count them on one hand," he said. "Oh, it's minuscule."

For context, the figures in that above graph aren't huge numbers — 8,000 or 9,000 new Canadian permanent residents from the U.S., out of the roughly 260,000 total people getting permanent residency in Canada each year, aren't that many. Not to mention 8,000 or 9,000 out of nearly 320 million total Americans. And a few thousand is certainly far fewer than however many people are driving those spikes in Google searches.

Also, it would probably be a little, um, American of us to assume that our politics are the only things driving people over the border.

Aujla, for example, said that a lot of Americans moved to Canada in the 1990s and early 2000s not only because of politics but because of exchange rates. A strong dollar helped convince people they could afford life in Canada.

In addition, he said, Canadian politics plays a role in determining how many people move into the country. Tighter immigration rules in the past few years, under former Prime Minister Stephen Harper's conservative government, may have cut down on the number of people moving to Canada after around 2012, Aujla says.

One other important point: Politics is only one factor in why a lot of people move to Canada.

Politics "was a very minor consideration" for Jim Gauer, a 63-year-old architect and writer, who moved to Canada in 2004. That was right in that prime, Bush-era, emigration wave — but he said the reasons behind moving to Canada weren't very political. Rather, he was tired of New York City's high cost of living. He had recently been to Victoria, in British Columbia, on vacation and had always thought it was a nice city. But he added that today's politics have cemented that his decision was the right one.

"Now that I'm here, the gong show that passes for presidential campaigns south of the border reminds me that politics have a lot to do with my desire to stay here."

Americans increasingly renounce their citizenship

Semi-relatedly, while the number of Americans fleeing to Canada may not be skyrocketing right now, the number of Americans who give up their U.S. citizenship each year sure has.

But, again, it's probably not politics; rather, they just might be fed up with the IRS.

Tax attorneys Andrew Mitchel and Ryan Dunn have been compiling expatriation data at International Tax Blog, and the numbers show that more than 4,200 Americans expatriated (that is, "renounced their U.S. citizenship or terminated their long-term U.S. residency") last year. That's 10 times higher than in the late 1990s.

To be clear, these aren't people running away from the U.S.; lots of them already live overseas but are only now choosing not to be U.S. citizens.

As with the Canadian permanent residency data, there are no official data on exactly why people are doing this. For their part, Mitchel and Dunn have said they doubt that it's politics or tax rates themselves. Instead, Mitchel says it's about U.S. tax reporting rules.

"The rules are really complicated, and it costs them a lot to have their tax returns prepared," he said.

While some Americans abroad may be actively avoiding paying their taxes in the U.S., he says that plenty of others simply don't know what the rules are. And when they do finally discover what they have to pay and what the rules are on reporting their taxes, they decide to renounce their citizenship.

He credits the recent spike in expatriation, then, in part to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, a 2010 act that ramped up enforcement of tax laws and, in his word, "flushed people out of the bushes."

So lots of people might say that they're leaving the country if (pick one) Trump/Clinton/Cruz/Sanders/Kasich is elected president. But lots of people will give up their citizenship for entirely different reasons. And of those who do actually say they want to leave, few will probably end up going to Canada.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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