In March 2017, about a month after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, I entered Seattle’s World Trade Center and met with the honorary consulate of Austria. I carried documents in a manila envelope, including my mother’s passport and certificates of marriage, birth, and Austrian citizenship. My brother and I had begun the process of getting our second passports. We’d talked about dual citizenship and started the process in August, before the election, but afterward we moved quickly. It wasn’t our sole reason. Nevertheless, I was constructing an exit strategy.
I’d already started conjuring the story before the election. “If he somehow wins, I’m gone,” I took to saying, joining a chorus of Americans. Before the election celebrities—Lena Dunham, Bryan Cranston, Chelsea Handler, Snoop Dogg—said they’d move to Canada if Trump won. After the last two presidential elections Republicans took (2004 and 2016), Google searches for a Canadian exit spiked: "Canada immigration,” “move to Canada,” “Canadian citizenship,” “how to apply for Canadian citizenship.” Since 2004, Washingtonians searched each of those phrases more than any other states’ citizens (in the last five years, we and Vermont tend to take the top spots). After the 2016 election, the traffic blitz crashed our northern neighbor’s immigration and citizenship website for a bit.
Do people actually flee, though?
When Trump won, U.S. citizens did apply to live in Canada in higher numbers—but only just. From 2015, permanent residency applications rose 13 percent, up to 7,745 in 2016. The next year that number rose to 9,019, a 16 percent increase. In 2018, it dipped by 3 percent, and held constant in 2019. Hardly an exodus. And Cranston, Dunham, Handler, Snoop? Still around.
But when Trump took office, one group did try to leave in huge numbers: asylum seekers. In 2016, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police intercepted 2,464 people trying to cross the border between ports of entry. In 2017, that number surged to 20,593. Following Trump’s travel ban, the influx was so great—driven by communities like Haitian refugees who crossed the border at frigid and remote locations—that Montreal converted a stadium to a welcome center. The number stayed as high the next year, dipped by about 4,000 last year, and only dwindled drastically this April, when the pandemic fully set in. Of course this was the case: Those immediately imperiled will actually leave.
In fact, people escaping a troubled nation is why I had the option to leave in the first place. My grandparents met in Canada, not long after World War II ended. She’d come from northern Germany, he from Austria. They left behind childhoods of trauma. They had survived bombings and raids and looting by soldiers on both sides. He’d had to dive beneath snow to dodge bullets from English pilots using a child as target practice on their way back from a mission.
By mid-2017, my situation was nothing like my family’s, but I had that second passport. I was slowly making good on my claim. By early 2018, I’d been offered a part-time English teaching gig in Spain, which I was about to accept. Then after a couple years freelancing, I got offered a job this magazine, and took it. By that point, a year and a half into Trump’s term, he wouldn’t have been my main impetus for leaving anyway. On the list of people this tragic, stupid presidency has harmed and imperiled, I’m nowhere near the top. And all those reasonably safe, privileged people who flee incrementally further jeopardize those at risk—one more vote and voice lost. When an election goes sour, flight is a reflex for a lot of us. But staying—perhaps complacently, perhaps to fight—is the path most choose.
For me the thought of leaving the U.S. in protest was a mental resort, a sort of psychological vacation. For others, flight is necessity, a last resort. You escape when you must.