Impact of Social and Political Instability on Emigration Decisions in the Case of the United States

Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels
Amanda Klekowski von Koppenfels Migration and Politics Lead Researcher
Impact of Social and Political Instability on Emigration Decisions in the Case of the United States


Emigrating, or relocating, for a better life is the most human of behaviors. We have migrated for the better part of 100,000 years – but we know we have borders and nation- states restricting access to people crossing those borders. Visas and passports have been a relatively recent addition to human movement, roughly within the last hundred years. Even so, immigration has always been controlled by nation-states, ever since their inception.  Migration is not just about physically picking up and moving.

Seeking a second passport is something that people have done for decades, whether to facilitate movement or to have another option. Doing so – acquiring a second citizenship – does not mean you have to move immediately, it just gives the possibility of doing so, in case things go drastically wrong at home. A second citizenship can either translate into immediate movement, or it can be a back up, or an insurance policy. Moving around the world is, especially for a US citizen, possible and even easy, but employment is generally not possible, and staying in one country is generally limited to 90 or 180 days, depending on the country. After that, a visa application would need to be made – assuming eligibility.  Acquiring a second citizenship means that both employment and long-term residence become possible without needing a visa.

Emigration Aspiration

But how many people want to leave the United States? The World Gallup poll asks people around the world if they would like to leave the country of their residence permanently. In 2008, in response to that question, 11% of Americans said they would like to leave the US permanently, a figure which dropped to 10% in 2016, but rose again to 16% in 2018. These figures are not startling by global standards – in fact, they’re just about average. A Gallup International poll in 2022 showed that 33% of US citizens indicated they’d move abroad – statistically the same as the 32% in all high-income countries who agreed they’d also like to leave their own countries.

Yet it does turn out that most people who say they’d like to move are not able to do so, whether from the United States or elsewhere around the world. In the case of the US, people may not be able to get a visa for their desired country, they may have caring responsibilities for family members unable or unwilling to move, or they may decide against leaving a job or taking children out of school. Often, the decision of relocation gets pushed down the road, for a later date – once that big project at work is finished, once the kids graduate from high school.

Impact of Social and Political Instability

Together with a colleague, Helen B. Marrow, I commissioned a survey in 2014 to ask US-born US citizens about emigration aspirations. We found, like Gallup International, roughly one-third of US citizens indicating some interest in moving away from the United States. We asked the same question five years later, in 2019, and were surprised to find that there was no substantive increase in migration aspiration – in 2019, we again found roughly one-third of US citizens indicating some interest in moving abroad. The political changes in the United States between 2014 and 2019 had not resulted in any statistically significant increase in emigration aspiration. There were significant increases for sub-categories: people who were particularly politically involved, for instance. But overall, US citizens had not acted on the “move to Canada” sentiment which, drawing from Google Trends’ record of Google searches, hit an all-time high on November 9, 2016.

Unlike “move to Canada”, which has spiked at various points, “move to Europe” has, according to Google Trends, increased steadily since 2016, particularly strongly since 2022. The key question is whether this is casual “googling”, or if is it an indication of serious interest in moving abroad. Past research, including my own, does suggest that most people who investigate moving abroad are not going to do so – but some will certainly do so.  Events in the United States in the last several years, leading to increasing social and political instability, are often taken as a reason for increased interest in emigration – but does it actually lead to increased emigration? We do see more talk about leaving the United States now, but is that just talk, which, in turn, sparks more talk and more publicity, or is it indicative of a sharp rise in serious migration plans? My research suggests that most of the talk is just that – talk. Still, people do leave the United States; it is not an isolated phenomenon.  However, my research also suggests that political or social instability is rarely the only, or primary, reason for emigration. Here, too, Americans are no exception – around the world, people usually migrate for multiple reasons. They might not be happy with the political situation in their country, but it’s not until there is a job available, or perhaps remote work has become possible, or a love interest develops, that they act upon that aspiration to move.  Or it could be the other way around – they’d been thinking of joining a foreign partner abroad, but it was not until the outcome of an election went a particular way that they decided to do so. Partnership and employment do remain the two most significant reasons for migration worldwide, including for US citizens.

Second Citizenship

Acquiring a second citizenship – whether through descent (e.g. Italian, Polish, Irish) or through investment – is one way of bridging that gap. As noted above, it’s a Plan B – it need not mean that an individual is going to act on those thoughts of leaving the country, but it means that, should things go badly awry, a move is possible. It helps to shift the needle from casual Googling to making plans a reality, either now, or at some point.  Restrictions on dual citizenship have dropped around the world over the last several decades, making acquiring a second passport easier now than it ever was before. The United States allows for dual citizenship. There are no additional burdens with a second passport – the United States is the only country in the world that requires that citizens file income tax returns on worldwide income.  The acquisition of second passports – in the US, but also worldwide – does seem to be increasing. As tolerance for dual citizenship has increased, individuals have begun to realize that the costs of dual citizenship are low, and the (potential) benefits significant. Social and political instability in the US is certainly one reason that people are exploring second passports – most will ultimately not use that passport for residence abroad, but it’s something that is good to have. Just in case.