I attended a weekend seminar in April, “Fast Track Your Retirement Overseas, 2019,” hosted by International Living (IL), a magazine that for the last forty years has sold the idea of better living abroad. Clutching a “welcome pack” tote bag, I joined an eager cadre making its way into the exhibit hall of an Orlando hotel. In exchange for approximately $1,000, conference organizers had promised not only to “reinforce [our] dream” of retiring abroad, but also to explain “how to make it happen.” We would learn to navigate cross-border legal status, tax laws, property transactions, banking, investment, and cultural attitudes, while acquiring strategies for maximizing profits and avoiding frustrations. We would also enjoy the company of “like-minded people.” Beyond a shared interest in moving outside the United States, the meaning of “like-minded” remained unclear.
Tables lining the hall were staffed by an amalgam of IL correspondents, real-estate agents, attorneys, and financial advisers. A colorful Panama table beckoned us to “Come for the Lifestyle . . . Stay for the Value.” Another large placard announced: “55% Off Southern Spain.” In addition to promoting enticing prices for homes featuring lush vistas, a Costa Rica table boasted of low-cost cosmetic dentistry. Financial advisers peddled special “expat” tips for accessing Social Security and Medicare, and two diamond companies were on hand to tout the advantages of mineral investments: stability, portability, anonymity, and worldwide convertibility. For the spiritually minded, a life-coaching company proffered assistance with “personal growth and transformation” as conference-goers prepared for a “Hero’s Journey” of moving abroad.
While our band of 350 overwhelmingly white, fifty-five-plus, middle-class Americans learned of opportunities in other countries to achieve our dreams, Central American migrants were facing a nightmare. Fleeing gang violence, political corruption, and extreme poverty, record numbers are risking a treacherous journey northward to the United States. Upon arrival, they are detained in prison-like facilities, or find shelter under bridges or in tents. U.S. border patrol has separated thousands of children from their parents and placed them in chain-link enclosures without proper sanitation. Since January 2017, dozens of detainees have died in U.S. custody, and the U.S. government acknowledges that it could take years to reunite immigrant children with their families.
While the U.S. government was kenneling children, IL’s correspondents promised prospective U.S. migrants that their family pets would be afforded easy and safe passage. IL’s Mexico consultant and real-estate attorney, Ernesto Arrañaga, emphasized his country’s friendly and flexible attitude toward foreigners, and his colleague, long-time IL correspondent Jason Holland, emphasized that it is “quite easy” to cross the border into Mexico. We were assured that once there Applebee’s and Netflix can still be enjoyed, and that English is widely understood and never belittled. Neither conference presenters nor attendees appeared unsettled by the fact that while we considered the preeminent spots for U.S. settlement, Trump forged ahead with plans to build a “big, beautiful wall” along the southern U.S. border. No one at the conference ever uttered the word “immigrant.” “We” are “expats.”
These jarring realities went unacknowledged in other international contexts as well. The previously war-torn country of Colombia, for example, was touted in our handbook as an “up and coming expat haven” and “no longer Latin America’s best-kept secret.” Colombia is also a destination for throngs of desperate Venezuelan refugees fleeing their country’s deepening economic and social crisis. More than 1.2 million Venezuelan migrants now reside in Colombia in tent cities or on the streets. Although the Colombian government initially offered the refugees assistance, human rights agencies now report a lack of vital resources and mounting xenophobic outbursts, sometimes violent, directed at Venezuelans.
Presenters also praised Southeast Asia’s “low costs, excellent, affordable health care, and beautiful beaches.” Thailand figured as one of the “coolest countries to retire to,” specifically the “pretty, coastal resort town” of Hua Hin, which features “11 golf courses, near-perfect weather, a huge expat community, an excellent internationally accredited hospital, and hundreds of venues for food.” While thousands of expats savor “all the comforts of home” in Hua Hin, another group of migrants endures a very different existence in the nine camps throughout Thailand that together hold over 97,000 refugees from neighboring Burma. These individuals, who escaped prolonged civil war and brutal ethnic cleansing, are prohibited from leaving the overcrowded camps to seek employment or education.
The conference represented a microcosm of trends that characterize a growing but barely visible flow of migrants from the Global North to the Global South. Numbers are hard to come by, but the U.S. government estimates that 9 million U.S. citizens live abroad, with more than 1 million in Mexico alone. Global developers and real-estate agents market less affluent countries to consumers in wealthier countries as the destination for a better lifestyle at a bargain price. Prospective migrants see themselves as adventurers reconfiguring the contours of their lives, but some also speak poignantly about rising healthcare costs, volatile real-estate markets, declining pensions, and a diminishing social safety net in the United States. IL is one in a growing field of actors who fuel and profit from this migration.
The contrasts between North Americans moving south and Central Americans traveling north, or Western migrants frolicking on Thai beaches while Burmese refugees languish in camps, are numerous and stark. Such disparities should be emphasized for what they illustrate about deep inequalities in the international system. Less obvious, however, are the similarities in the migratory trends. A closer look at why some seemingly privileged migrants from the Global North are moving, and where, exposes the extent to which precarity has been globalized, and with it mobility as a strategy for attempting to mitigate economic and social insecurity.
In recent years, scholars have coined terms such as amenity migration, international retirement migration, lifestyle migration, privileged migration, and residential tourism to make sense of a trend in global mobility that falls outside the more familiar focus on labor migration from less well-off countries to more affluent ones. This alternative group of migrants is reportedly motivated by a quest for lifestyle enhancement: tranquility, adventure, balmy climates, novel vistas, spiritual fulfillment, and a fresh start. Retirees are prominent, but the diverse expat group also includes younger people on self-proclaimed spiritual quests or parents seeking to expose their children to different ways of life.
Describing her daily routine in Guatemala, one North American wrote in June: “Village rooftops, coffee plantations, and historical Antigua cradled in a valley surrounded by forested hills, spread below me. Up here I savored the scenery as I practiced yoga, meditated and sipped tropical smoothies in the warm morning sunshine.” In June 2016, IL correspondent Nancy Kiernan characterized her new life in Medellín, Colombia, this way: “Now that I no longer have my hectic U.S. life, I have time to do the things I did when I was much younger. I can sit in one of the many parks soaking up the ambiance while drinking freshly made juice.” Other expats and IL correspondents offer similar portrayals of life outside the United States: “Laid Back Living in Nicaragua,” “We’re Content in Belize and Don’t Plan on Moving,” “Easy Living in a Tranquil Lakeside [Mexican] Town,” and “Moving Overseas Was My Opportunity for a ‘Life Do-Over.’”
IL’s expansive media network serves as a prime facilitator of global migration driven by lifestyle changes. The flagship magazine was first published in 1979 by founder Bill Bonner as a newsletter about his dreams of living abroad. Today, it is a forty-two-page, full-color publication boasting over 105,000 subscribers. IL also reaches 450,000 readers with its daily electronic dispatch, IL Postcards, and e-newsletters focusing on topics ranging from how to fund your life abroad to finding the hottest real-estate opportunities. The organization sponsors conferences in the United States twice a year and several on-site seminars in popular destination countries. A slickly designed website draws 350,000 visitors per month, 80 percent of whom reside in the United States. IL describes itself as having grown into a “full-blown international community,” comprised of “more than 200 associates, experts, and expats from all over the world,” all committed to “shedding light on a different, better way of life . . . simpler yet fuller, richer, more rewarding, and more affordable than what many of us were born into.”
The affordability claim has become more and more integral to IL’s marketing. IL plugs international living as a pathway to security in a volatile world. Skyrocketing costs of living in the United States are contrasted with remarkable south-of-the-border deals on real estate, taxes, utilities, and, notably, healthcare. In a 2016 Postcard titled, “In Mexico, We Live on Social Security and Life is Good,” a couple who moved from Austin, Texas, to a large home in a gated community in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, gushed: “We were paying property taxes of $12,000 a year and now live comfortably with taxes of $200 a year.” At the IL conference in Orlando, correspondents from different countries routinely assured us that we would pay no tax on our foreign-earned income or savings accounts, and very low property taxes.
Over the course of the weekend, it became clear that prospective migrants were not simply being pulled to other countries by the promise of a bargain; they were also being pushed from the United States by mounting financial concerns, particularly with regard to healthcare. In her presentation on “How to Choose Your Perfect Place,” IL’s Suzan Haskins identified eight key considerations. Affordability was number one, and healthcare number two. Mexico’s representatives also underscored expats’ access to high-quality care at 50 percent of the cost. IL’s Ecuador correspondent recounted that back in the United States she was working in order to have access to healthcare, and doing so was “killing” her. She lauded the quality, efficiency, and affordability of health services in Ecuador when compared to the United States. During coffee break conversations, healthcare was a recurrent theme. One fifty-something man from North Dakota told me that he registered for the conference after watching his dad, who worked hard all his life, die “broke” due to healthcare costs.
The declining value of pensions and other forms of retirement savings also figured as major concerns for Americans pondering a move abroad. One IL correspondent from Ecuador explained his decision to migrate in this way: “Like millions of others during the 2008 recession, Diane and I found ourselves struggling to survive when my executive-level job disappeared and the equity in our home quickly vanished. . . . The global economic meltdown had forced its way into our family and the consequences were painful and very personal.” Tapping into and fueling such financial fears, IL assiduously markets not only destination countries but seminars to help migrants afford the move. Pitching a “Cash Flow Summit” in 2019, IL warned readers, “It is no longer enough to save money, as higher inflation and taxes wipe out your earnings.” The U.S. retirement system is broken, and “a pension crisis [is] barreling towards us.”
This message is directed toward a growing cohort of people who feel uncertain about their financial future but certain that they deserve better options. IL’s marketing reflects this ambiguity. Its website describes readers as “wealthy, educated, investment-savvy and adventurous individuals,” but when one writer invites readers to “Come Join My Tribe of Wandering World Citizens,” he clarifies that “folks often join our tribe precisely because they don’t qualify as ‘independently wealthy’ in their home countries and are looking for better value.” Indeed, the largest proportion (40 percent) of IL’s readership reports an annual household income between $75,000 to $149,000 with only 3 percent reporting income over $250,000. The Orlando crowd included people who had worked in construction, insurance, and education and hailed from Lima, Ohio, and Leesburg, Florida. They had money to shell out for a weekend seminar at an Orlando resort hotel, but not enough to feel confident that they could achieve the American dream in the United States. Despite their undeniable privilege relative to those moving in the opposite direction and to the majority of inhabitants in the places where they settle, these migrants from the Global North are not immune to the vagaries of globalization and face mounting economic and social uncertainties; like other migrants, they have identified border crossing as one strategy for securing a more stable future.
While progressives rightly remind voters that immigrants are not to blame for their woes, broadening the migration lens to encompass these expats could deepen our understanding of the workings of global capital, the power asymmetries that underlie it, and the forms of precarity it begets. And it might heighten compassion toward those migrants for whom no weekend seminars exist.
Sheila Croucher is a Distinguished Professor of Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University and author of The Other Side of the Fence: American Migrants in Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2009).