Who Are the People Fleeing the United States?

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WASHINGTON — At the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor are the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” inviting the oppressed and downtrodden from across the globe to America’s protective embrace. Yet since 2000, almost 14,000 Americans have applied for asylum in other countries.

The dangers of life in America outweigh the benefits for some Americans, according to a new paper from Jayesh Rathod, a professor of law at American University’s Washington College of Law. This stands in stark contrast to America’s self-image as the land of the free.

“As somebody who studies immigration law, part of the narrative that I impart to my students, and that those of us living in this country, and even abroad are aware of, is that the United States is portrayed as a destination country, the premiere destination country for immigrants,” Rathod told Capital News Service in an interview. “And in some ways what this trend is doing is pretty profoundly disrupting that narrative.”

Rathod’s paper primarily focuses on the rare phenomenon of American citizens seeking asylum in other countries because they feel unsafe in this country. Since 2000, just under 14,000 asylum applications have been made by United States citizens to other countries, with Canada being the top destination by far.

Rathod outlines various reasons why Americans may choose to take the leap. There are, of course, political dissidents – Edward Snowden and others who can become propaganda tools for governments at odds with the United States. There are domestic violence survivors, like Holly Ann Collins, who in the 1990s was granted asylum in the Netherlands after escaping an abusive husband in the United States.

In addition, many asylum applications are cases of families where the children are U.S. citizens by birth but the parents are immigrants to the United States who feared deportation and the separation of their families. This was especially prominent during the presidency of Donald Trump and the data reflects a large spike in asylum applications following his victory in 2016.
The grounds upon which a person can claim asylum are narrow. Criteria for who may claim asylum vary by country, but generally the United States is not considered dangerous enough to warrant asylum.

The United States makes for an interesting case because persecution does not exist equally across the country. Someone can move between states and find different levels of legal and social acceptance. Given the patchwork, most American asylum claims fail.

When asked how often these claims succeed, Rathod said: “Not very often. So that’s another finding is that of the 14,000 or so claims that were lodged by U.S. citizens from 2000-2021, fewer than 400 were granted. So what that tells us is that there’s a general sense that the U.S. can still protect people.”

One group of emigres highlighted in Rashod’s paper are trans and queer people who no longer feel safe living in the United States. Researchers at UCLA’s Williams Institute found that transgender people are four times more likely to be the victims of violent crime than their cisgendered counterparts.

Not only that, but violence against trans people has been on the rise in recent years. Both 2021 and 2022 were record-breaking years for violence against trans people. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there were at least 38 trans people killed by gun violence or other violent means. Most of this violence is perpetrated against Black and Latina transgender women.


Given the increased risk of violence in the United States, a life abroad has seemed appealing to some members of the trans community.

In deep red North Dakota, Zara Crystal and other activists are working to get trans people out of the country through the new non-profit TRANSport. The group started on Facebook and achieved 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in November. The organization will focus on moving trans people in difficult situations out of the country and to a safer locations of their choosing.

Before even attempting an asylum application, TRANSport will help make its clients have their passports, paperwork, money and medical needs in order for relocation. The organization is currently raising money and plans to begin accepting applications in March.

Crystal herself hopes to eventually start a new life in Sweden, which a survey by UCLA’s Williams Institute ranked among the most supportive countries for transgender rights.

Sweden also is where transgender activist Danni Askini sought asylum in 2018. The 20-year-old grew up in a small, conservative North Dakota town with a conservative evangelical Christian family. In high school, she underwent four years of conversion therapy before running away to Fargo.

While Fargo has been an improvement, Crystal said she still feels alienated: “I never felt at home in the United States. I’ve always felt other. And it got to the point where so many people were sending me death threats and stuff. I just didn’t feel safe here anymore.”

She told CNS the threats,  combined with concerns over proposed anti-LGBT legislation, spurred her to make solid plans to leave the States.

There are those who have already been able to establish new lives abroad, even without asylum, like Julia and Justine, a couple who moved to Berlin, Germany, during the Trump administration.  They asked that their last names remain confidential.

Justine is a trans woman who originally fled violence and abuse in rural Arkansas before landing in the Washington, D.C., area.

In Washington, Justine met Julia and found work as a contractor with U.S .Citizenship and Immigration Services, an agency of the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for immigration and naturalization services. Justine had concerns about the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but an incident in 2018 served as the catalyst for her departure from the United States.

Justine was leading a hackerspace in Washington’s Columbia Heights neighborhood when Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers conducted a raid in the neighborhood. Some of Justine’s students were undocumented and the raid served as her “road to Damascus” moment. She realized she needed to get out. Around the same time, she saw a job posting with a tech startup in Berlin.

For Justine, Berlin was the obvious choice: she had been there several times before and actually spent time living in Germany as a child when her father was in the military. When asked if she would ever come back to the United States, Justine expressed concerns about the state of American democracy and anti-LGBT laws, especially ones targetting teachers. 

“I think they have effectively made the practice of me just being myself and teaching people illegal,” Justine said. Recruiters have contacted her about job openings in places like Texas, but that’s off the table for Justine: “No, no, no, you cannot pay me enough to go to Texas.”

Justine and Julia are active users on the subreddit /r/AmerExit. The page, which has over 30,000 members, is dedicated to Americans who no longer want to live in the United States.

There seems to be a large interest in life abroad among American citizens, even if asylum may not be on the table. A 2019 Gallup poll found that record numbers of Americans wanted to leave the country. The survey found that 40% of women under 30 would rather live in another country. Canada was the most desired destination.

While the vast majority of Americans will not be permanently leaving their country,  Rathod said that it is an important question to ask why people feel that they need to not only leave their town or state but also the country as a whole.

“The point is that people are feeling like, well, it’s just not worth it for me to live in this country,” Rathod said. “ Now, you know, so I think that’s an important and really, for me, a very powerful message that we need to pay attention to.”