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1040 Abroad
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Expat or Immigrant, Fugitive or Refugee?

Bruce Joffe talks about why he decided to leave the United States, and how the move changed his self-identity

Published on June 2, 2020

I was wrong.

A subject of white privilege, I liked the sound of “Expat” much better than “Immigrant.” One had panache, cachet, a spirited sense of ennui and adventure; the other conjured up black and white images of poor, huddled masses needing to be purified in the melting pot purée.

When we first arrived from the USA to retire in Portugal and Spain, I self-identified as an expat … assuming it meant nothing more (or less) than an American abroad living in another country for an extended period of time.

From time to time, I was challenged and corrected on my presumption: “Expats are here for a time or a purpose - a couple of months or years, studying or traveling or working. But, they then return home.”

Immigrants, on the other hand, have no plans for returning whence they came: they’re looking forward rather than backward, their feet firmly planted and taking root in another country.

A classic case of denotation v. connotation: it’s all about innuendo and intention!

Travel isn’t just about the destination (immigrants and Refugees). Getting away is a way of life for millions of people who take breaks for self-indulgence, employment opportunities, cultural enrichment, education, and other pursuits (expats).

Personally, we had no intention of returning to the USA when we finally left early in 2018. Retirement and our future now depend on how the European Union (Schengen Area) treats us, not the capricious whims or executive orders and authoritarian decrees resulting from the [s]election of Donald Trump & Company.

What began as a knife cut to our soul soon led to ever more blood-letting - a lethal wound to our morals, values, and democracy. Reading the handwriting on the wall, we fled for our lives.


Under Trump and the GOP, the United States had become a rogue nation, perhaps the world’s most powerful country to possess a massive arsenal of weapons of mass destruction commanded by a delusional despot who flaunts his favoritism, white nationalism, personal profiteering, and cruel inhumanity towards others.

Even before Trump, the United States had long been involved in violating others. In Korea. Vietnam. Chile. Libya. Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. Venezuela. Cuba. Haiti. Panama. Nicaragua. Iran. And elsewhere, when the USA believed regime change to be in its best interests.

The path to “greatness” included savage treatment and banishment of Native Americans; ownership of other people as personal property; denigrating migrant workers who its landowners depended for hard work; establishing internment camps for people with slanted eyes; and, more recently, isolating immigrants from their families—deporting many, while caging children in abominable conditions.

One of the world’s three top carbon-producing countries, the USA’s involvement with the Paris Climate Agreement was rescinded by Trump, while a do-nothing-but-placate-patronage Congress allowed the USA to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council … its commitments to NATO … the nuclear agreement negotiated with Iran … the World Health Organization … and its Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

Meanwhile, through tariffs, sanctions, and boycotts, Trump & Company wreaked havoc with international currencies and global economics. Although the stock market continues to be artificially stimulated by Federal Reserve appointees, the country racked up its largest deficit ever. Unemployment has broken all-time records. Health has taken a back seat to business, whether or not as usual, with profits more important than people.

Dividing the country and decimating its heritage has a questionable president turning his personal paranoia into public policy. Trump and his cohorts in cahoots prosper, as unqualified money-makers come and go through the executive branch’s revolving door … while vital positions remain vacant because of political carnage and lack of loyalty discords.

Manipulating the resources and personnel of the U.S. government, Donald Trump has proven himself to be an accelerating existential threat to the rest of the world and the planet we inhabit. Especially in his irresponsible handling of the international Covid-19 pandemic.

Beyond the World Bank and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wealthy individuals like Lisbon-based Madonna (committing one million euros to the cause), world leaders – from the European Union, as well as non-EU countries Britain, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Canada, South Africa, and dozens of other countries – joined the virtual event, pledging $8 billion to research, manufacture, and distribute a possible vaccine and treatment to protect us from the Covid-19 virus.

But not the United States of America, whose muzzling of people with expertise and shunning rejection of global efforts to conquer the virus have alienated it further and farther from the rest of the world, while creating chaos and confusion from the federal level … leaving states and localities to stitch together a mish-mash of conflicting priorities which, ultimately, boil down to wealth vs. health.

Expat book cover

“Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms,” writes George Packer in June's issue of The Atlantic.

Violence, hatred, and malice are the chalice of communion among fanatics and their fans, flaming the fires of discontent.

Emboldened by the tone and tenor of tweets from the bully pulpit, the ugly American is – once again – rearing its head … with increasing violence, attacks, and confrontations against minorities and the marginalized: Immigrants. Black and brown skinned people. LGBT individuals and communities. Jews. Muslims. Asian-Americans. People who speak different languages. In other words, the “others.”

But the world no longer will stand by, shaking its head and wagging tongues, as Atlas shrugs and walks away carelessly.

New models on how to reopen European travel have no room for American tourists in the foreseeable future. The European Union’s “Europe Needs a Break” guidelines recommend replacing travel bans with what it’s calling “targeted restrictions” based on contagion levels.

International travelers from the U.S. and other countries that haven’t upheld safety standards on par with Europe’s won’t be allowed into the EU anytime soon for anything but essential reasons.

We’re not tourists, but are glad that we left the USA when we did.

Rather than expat or immigrant, we now see ourselves as refugees.

A refugee is someone who, due to a well-founded fear of persecution, war or violence, feels forced to flee his or her homeland. To qualify as a refugee, a person must have solid grounds of a “well-founded fear” that they are facing real danger. Moreover, refugees should fear oppression, hostility, and/or violence so badly that it forces them to leave their country of origin and seek sanctuary elsewhere.

Elsewhere for us is Portugal and Spain.

(Rev.) Bruce H. Joffe, Ph.D. is a pastor, a former PR guru, a retired professor ( Mary Baldwin University, George Mason University, The American University, Carthage College and Kaplan College), a Moderator of American Expats & Friends in Portugal and Spain and a member of People of Faith in Portugal. His book, Expat: Leaving the USA For Good, is published by New Generation Publishing.


Bruce Joffe Bruce Joffe (left) enjoys a new life in Spain and Portugal

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