a nation of immigrants

I’ve been wondering for some time if there’s a chance that if there’s a prolonged economic downturn, a significant number of Americans won’t just see their jobs moved overseas, they’ll begin to follow them. I’m sure it’s extremely unlikely: a significant depression in the US would almost certainly be accompanied by a more or less worldwide one. Anyway, it’s not like Americans left the country in huge numbers in the 1930s, and even if a depression were a push factor, there still would have to be some pull factors drawing people elsewhere.

That said, I found myself wondering about American emigration again when I read this:

Why does Germany have an engineering shortage while U.S. engineers are forced into “sales”? If our engineers didn’t go into sales, they’d be unemployed. It also puzzles me how, in 2008, German industry, with an ever higher euro, keeps outcompeting the U.S. in sales abroad. The Germans are actually looking for more than half a million skilled workers, including 100,000 engineers.

Of course unemployment in the US is still fairly low, sales can pay well enough, there are restrictions on Americans working in the EU, and Germany is attracting workers from other parts of the world who likely earn less than an American would ask for. So there are some pretty easy answers to the question: why aren’t American engineers trying for those jobs? And that’s before you get to the question of whether Americans are not inclined to emigrate, not even temporarily, with the intention of sending money back and eventually returning.**

*Though the article itself is actually on an entirely different topic from this post, by the way, namely: what effect will growing numbers of wealthy young wealth-managing liberals have on Democratic (and by extension, American,) politics?

**I know very little about American emigration history. I think quite a few Americans actually left for Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the American economy was growing rapidly (outside of panics/depressions). A chart in Eric‘s book indicates that the United States was second only to the British Isles as a source region for immigrants to Canada between 1891-1910 (figure 3.2, page 68). I wonder if that number includes immigrants to the United States who later went to Canada.


  1. Interesting question, and I had not considered it at all.

    Lately the province of Alberta has been running full-page ads in my local newspaper, with the tagline: “Milk has an expiry [expiration] date. You shouldn’t.” The implication is that skilled workers who are having trouble renewing their temporary visas in the US should move to Canada instead.

    Overall, Canada is doing a fair bit to proactively recruit immigrants — including, I suppose, American immigrants. Here is the Alberta website, complete with helpful FAQ.

    I’m having an imagination failure even thinking about large numbers of Americans leaving the country, either as sojourners or emigrants. This may be my own failing entirely. It’s kind of an inchoate recognition of the sheer inertia that I (think I) recognize in most Americans, with regard to the upending of life that immigration requires — learning a new language (usually), uprooting your family, losing social status/prestige, etc. etc. We have such privilege in this country, especially those of us in the dominant culture, that I’m having severe difficulty imagining what permanent emigration would look like.

  2. We have such privilege in this country, especially those of us in the dominant culture, that I’m having severe difficulty imagining what permanent emigration would look like.

    Exactly. And when I think of Americans going abroad in the past, I think of people who left for ideological reasons, although this is partly just because they were more prominent and got press coverage, like those who believed communism was the future. And a subtext of that emigration was that the United States as a country would eventually have to go down the path of the Soviet Union, not that individual Americans would have follow them there.

    Canada is an interesting case then and now. I’ve seen stories about Canadian recruitment efforts too. I think one even got on the Daily Show or the Colbert Report. In terms of Americans’ perception of difference, it’s pretty clearly the easiest place to move, French-speaking areas possibly excepted.

  3. I can think of some other examples of American emigration, though only on small scales and for idiosyncratic reasons. The Confederates who went to Latin America after the Civil War and the Mormons who went to Canada and Mexico in the late 19th and early 20th centuries come to mind. Also the Kickapoos.

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  5. Yeah, and there are more people who left for their beliefs or because of persecution or both. Liberians, for example.

    This post reminded me that I once came across an article on American migration to the Canadian west while I was doing a paper on Canadian-U.S. relations. Turns out it’s still sitting in my grad school filing folders, so I’ll probably blog about it when I read it. (It’s also online, for those with interest and access.) Skimming the first few pages, it looks like over a million Americans went to Canada in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

  6. My own grandmother’s family moved to Canada in the late 1910s/early 1920s because they had a Germanic last name (my great grandfather was from Austria, his wife from Ireland) and my great grandfather was forced out of work due to anti-german (and general anti-immigrant) backlash during and after WWI.

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