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by Robert Soloway

I was sitting in a waiting room while getting tires put on my car. There were 4 of us waiting, all male. Three of us were in our 50’s or maybe early 60’s. One was a white guy who had most of one arm missing and a limp. I was guessing he was a Vietnam War vet. There was a black man from Gambia who had a beautiful English accent. The fourth was a Venezuelan house painter who had been here seven years and appeared to be in his early thirties.

What arose out of the conversation was that all four of us were considering eventually leaving this country. The Vet was collecting benefits and said he would have been long gone but apparently the Defense Department won’t pay his benefits if he lives outside the country. He said that as soon as he hits 65 his disability benefits convert to retirement pay and he can leave. He is headed to Mexico.

The Gambian man has been working here for one company for over thirty years and is nearing retirement. He says that things in his country have settled down and they have a democracy now and his pension will make him rich there.

The Venezuelan was also returning home, soon. He has a college degree in hotel management from his country and he came here to learn English and study, which he has done, as well as married and had a daughter. He is going home to raise her. Becoming a dad has made him understand how important family is to him. When did we forget that in this country?

And me? I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the pace and complexity of life here. I found a place for sale in Nicaragua. It’s 5 acres near a beach, on the edge of a tropical forest. There is a 2-bedroom 1-bath residence and another building with eight small hotel rooms. The whole thing is $159,000 and it earns enough to make you well off in that country. Okay, so I’m not leaving right now, but there was a time when I never would have dreamed of living elsewhere.

This experience stirred my curiosity about U.S. emigration. You never hear anything about people leaving the US. It turns out there are no statistics kept on it. When someone leaves the US no one bothers to ask if they plan on coming back. The U.S. Census Bureau uses estimates and apparently these numbers are debated. What is clear is that many foreign-born people who live here for a while maybe becoming citizens, eventually leave. In my tire shop experience, two of my compatriots were foreign born. While hundreds of thousands of former immigrants go home each year, it is estimated that only about fifty thousand natives leave annually, intending never to return. However that might be inaccurate.

What I discovered is that there is a massive migration beginning from the US to Central America. The countries there, already tasting the effects, are competing for people from this country by offering tax breaks. Panama offers emigrants 20 years without real estate taxes. In Nicaragua, a qualified investor can avoid property and income taxes for up to 10 years. The numbers of Americans arriving and staying, according to these countries, calls into question the US estimates for emigration. It is possible that tens of thousands have already left for these countries alone, and the flood is just beginning.

The reason this is happening is multi-fold. First, Baby Boomers are retiring in record numbers, like 4 million a year, and are expecting to live longer. Many have planned a more ambitious retirement. Some of this includes moving to another culture.

In addition, Central America is convenient. The technology revolution has brought many modern advantages to these countries. While it is true that most of the native population cannot afford these services, they are available: phone service, Satellite TV, Internet access, etc. In addition, it is only a few hours away from the States by plane.

This wave of emigration is also being fueled by the same crowds that fled to the Sunbelt over the previous 40 years. Since the 60’s and the arrival of easy air travel, northerners have been retiring to the south in droves. Now the Sunbelt states are more crowded and the real estate prices have been forced up, making them less of a bargain for Northerners moving down. Central America has all the appeal of moving south and the added feature of a new cultural experience.

So maybe we should stop worrying about the immigrants who want to come here. America’s first great exodus could be right around the corner.

Published: Jul 15,2008 21:34
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