A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

The U.S. goes fascist. How do you escape?

October 21, 2016

Dear Cecil:

Any guidance for those who fear a fascist takeover of the United States and think they may need to get out in a hurry? What countries will accept political refugees from the U.S. on short notice? What’s the easiest way to get your money out of the country in advance? Are there people who will arrange to ship one's art collection overseas, no questions asked?

Cecil replies:

I’m happy to note, Al, that the odds of a fascist takeover look somewhat slimmer than they did when your question arrived a few weeks back. Even so, one has to deal with the tension somehow as this debilitating campaign enters its final stretch: for some, that may mean constantly re-refreshing poll-tracking sites; for others, evidently, it means packing the bags and setting ’em by the door. The bad news for blue-state types ready to scram on November 9 is that things will have to get really scary before any old American citizen can pass as a political refugee. The good news? That leaves more time to plan your exciting new life abroad and find a safe harbor for you and your money. Well, most of your money.

A refugee, you see, has to persuade some kindly foreign government that she has, per UN convention, a “well-founded fear” of persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The election of an unqualified bully as chief exec won’t in itself do the trick, and even if President Trump concluded his inaugural address with a declaration of martial law, you’d still have to demonstrate you’re a likely target of government oppression. Finding yourself on a national database of Muslim Americans might not even be enough until federal goons actually start rounding up the registrants.

Where to flee to? If you’re concerned about Trump, I can’t imagine you’re a big Putin fan, so following Edward Snowden to Russia is probably a no-go. Closer to home, Canada’s liberal refugee policy doesn’t mean they’ve been overly sympathetic to putatively oppressed Americans. A black American, Kyle Canty, who’d argued he was endangered by racially motivated police violence in the U.S. lost his Canadian asylum bid in January. But you never know. In 2014 Canadian immigration officials ruled that a Florida court’s 30-year prison sentence for having sex with a 16-year-old boy was excessive and let U.S. citizen Denise Harvey stay up north.

Assuming a long, slow slide into totalitarian hell for the U.S. rather than a sudden putsch, consider less urgent forms of emigration. Line up employment in Canada beforehand, for instance — they’re much more welcoming to foreigners seeking a work visa than we are, and if you’ve got the right skills (plus enough cash savings to ensure that you won’t beeline onto the dole) they might open their doors even before you score a job offer. Then again, if you’ve really got some extra bucks in the bank, invest in a business overseas — most countries just love deep-pocketed foreign entrepreneurs.

Staying in your new nation is potentially trickier than getting in — one pink slip and it could be back to the U.S. with you, freeloader. If you plan on marrying into citizenship, choose your destination wisely: wedding your Saskatchewanian sweetie, for instance, doesn’t put you on the fast track to becoming a naturalized Canadian. Most European nations are more accommodating to foreign-born spouses, though, and if you tie the knot with an obliging Brazilian, full citizenship can be yours within a year. Some countries might grant you citizenship based on descent: the Law of Return permits Jews to relocate in Israel, and if one of your grandparents was born in Ireland there’s a process for repatriation to the auld sod.

With enough assets at your disposal, even if you’re on the lam, you don’t have to live like a refugee. But you may find foreign banks increasingly more reluctant to take your cash — following the passage of a 2010 U.S. law demanding stricter reporting on the financial doings of Americans living abroad, many overseas institutions have decided we aren’t worth the effort. If you’re the particularly suspicious sort, you could get more creative — buy a foreign gold certificate, or dive into the murky world of Bitcoin.

As for your art collection — for a displaced person, Al, you certainly are a high roller — some governments will indeed demand a sizable chunk of its value. Sweden might otherwise be a dream relocation site, but you’d have to cough up a 25 percent value-added tax. Certainly there are shady professionals who can assist, but immigration officials prefer their admittees with clean hands, and a smuggling racket is a good way to make a bad (read: extraditable) first impression.

Though we hear the same talk about moving to Canada or Europe every four years, evidence suggests few Americans actually skedaddle after the wrong candidate gets elected. This year the big difference is that the people most likely endangered by a Trump victory are the ones who really want to stick around. It’d be cruelly ironic if the subjects of mass deportation were to find a mess of American expats waiting for them in Mexico.

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