"We live in a new and exceptional age. America is another name for Opportunity. Our whole history appears like a last effort of the Divine Providence in behalf of the human race." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
Very much like Emerson, during this past week several prominent US politicians proclaimed that America is still the land of opportunity and that "our doors are open", pursuant to the unfortunate and even desperate situation that many would-be immigrants from Central America aiming to improve their lives by coming here now find themselves in.
Reading through the media coverage one might think that anyone wanting to come to the US can do so with relative ease. After all, there is an ongoing debate on providing amnesty to illegals and the system seems to be so overloaded at the border down south that why not just take your chances?
However, for skilled professionals and expats the reality is quite different. These days employment opportunities in the US need to be carefully balanced against subjecting yourself to US laws and regulations, some of which are unique in the developed world and can have serious consequences on your wealth, wellbeing and even personal freedoms.
I will provide some examples as a Canadian living in the US that other foreigners might relate to as well. Let me start by saying that despite what I have to say I greatly appreciate the chance to work here and, if anything, I hope that by sharing some facts and personal experiences this will encourage some reflection on the possible consequences of current immigration policies. After all, going forward Americans might need some help in paying for those burgeoning national debt, retirement and healthcare costs right? ;)
I will only focus on the major differences relative to other countries that I have experienced to date, from the vantage point of someone who has lived and worked in several countries across Europe and Asia in recent years. As such, I will disregard the difficulties in obtaining a foreign work permit, which right now are more or less prevalent across the globe given the general economic malaise.
Alright, so you got your US work visa sorted out. Well done. What can you expect going forward?
Traveling in and out of the US often? Your US experience starts at the border, and it can be a very unpleasant one for many, whether traveling for work or pleasure. In the current geopolitical environment border officials have a very important job to do and they should be praised for that. However, here are some personal examples that may make you question if this is how a person should be welcomed in any country. Clearing passport control in major US airports can take hours, which on top of a long distance flight is unpleasant to say the least. I recently had to wait three hours at Logan airport holding a jetlagged 9-year old asleep in my arms throughout – a grueling experience even if you are in good physical condition. Another time I had to walk to the border crossing in Vermont, where I was greeted by no less than five US border patrol officers running towards me ready to draw their guns (everyone drives through I guess). A warning to all you walking Canadians out there! Extensive interrogations covering every single aspect of your life and intimate searches are not uncommon either. I have never been subjected to any of this anywhere else in the world, quite the opposite in fact. For instance, in (prosperous) Singapore you are greeted with a smile, candy and a satisfaction survey!
What about taxes and regulations, are they worker friendly in the US? This one hits foreigners and Americans alike, but one of the things that amaze me is how high personal income taxes are in the US (and Federal and State deficits are still there). Accordingly, US enterprises must peddle harder to attract foreign talent here. And on top of that there are considerable administrative costs. When I lived in the UK filing tax returns cost me virtually nothing, as I could easily do everything on my own. In the US, having a good tax advisor – a very wise move in my opinion, because you will have to deal with a maze of Federal and State taxes, as well as rules that do not exist anywhere else – can cost thousands of dollars. And there’s also the FBAR, which requires disclosure of all your financial holdings offshore. Unless you're a pennyless immigrant, by definition you will have non-US assets that need to be disclosed the minute you become a US tax resident, otherwise you will be exposed to exorbitant IRS fines and even jail time. Your banker back home might also give you a hard time once they find out that you are a US resident (and I can only feel sorry for the 7.6m US expats who probably get the same reaction by their bankers abroad).
OK, you pay high taxes but you get something out of it right? In most if not all other high tax jurisdictions you have access to good basic education and healthcare at very affordable rates, so at least you can say you are getting something out of the taxes you pay. I personally don’t get this feeling in the US. Health insurance for individuals and families can cost thousands of dollars a month and I still can’t figure out why. OK, hospitals here may be the cat's meow, but I once had a US friend who broke his arm and because he was uninsured he had to pay thousands of dollars just for an x-ray. In Canada and in Europe this costs almost nothing. It's just an x-ray people!
Fine, but this is the land of the free! Let's leave aside all the government snooping which is a highly debated topic at the moment (the US is certainly not alone here) and in my view inevitable in some shape or form in the age of information. Here's a really troubling example of how the US views its foreigners. Unless you're a diplomat, any US visa holder – including green card holders – needs to report a change in residential address within ten days using form AR-11. Failure to do this is punishable by fine, imprisonment and/or removal from the US! So if you file, say, two days late in theory you might actually end up in jail. And that’s another thing I don’t quite understand about the US, namely how easy it is to do jail time here, as evidenced by the fact that about 7% of Americans are or have been in sing-sing.
Hmmm, but if you behave properly as an expat you have nothing to fear. OK, as a foreigner you need to know the laws of the host country. But you also have to know what to look for, particularly as in the US there are a range of post 9-11 laws which are unique in the free world. For all the trouble we get at the border, we could at least get a pamphlet stating that we need to comply with things like the FBAR and form AR-11. Not so unfortunately, which means that you may be treated like a criminal just because you failed to file a form you never heard of. In fact, many expats find out about these rules the hard way, exposing themselves to thousands of dollars in fines and related admin costs.
This may not be the intention of US policies, but it seems that foreigners seeking legal employment in the US are regarded as guilty until they can prove otherwise. A cynic might therefore say that we would be better off by running across the border down south and not dealing with all the hassle, or just stay at home. And he might be right.
Addendum: So why bother coming to the US?
This is actually a great question. Given the foregoing, I suspect that US policymakers take immigration for granted and that people will always want to come here because “the US is the land of opportunity”. That may be true in many regards, but increasingly less so in a globalized world. For one, Americans themselves are renouncing their citizenship in record numbers, which is indicative that something is going amiss.
Therefore, perhaps with all the debate and even outrage going on regarding the current immigration situation, US policymakers and the public in general should all take a step back and reflect on where this is all going. Otherwise the international competitiveness of the US along with its prestige and intellectual capital may greatly suffer as a result.
As for the answer to that question, I can only offer my personal opinion on why I decided to do business here, in spite of opportunities elsewhere.
On balance I believe that America still offers many opportunities indeed. It’s a huge market, complete with an enterprising spirit and institutions that enforce the rule of law. That’s a solid foundation to begin with. Then you have incredible developments in technology and natural resources, like the shale boom, and that are unique anywhere in the world. The US is also catching up on environmental and health & safety regulations, which creates an opportunity to transfer know-how and expertise from other countries in these areas.
On the personal side, the food is excellent and affordable, there is great shopping to do and for the most part the weather is very pleasant (especially coming from Canada!). This is also the land of entertainment, and there's no shortage of fun stuff to do, including visiting the many beautiful cities, villages, beaches and the great outdoors. And the people... well, I really like Americans so I'm biased here. The US has an abundance of enterprising, optimistic, hardworking and fun loving people and it is a real pleasure interacting and doing business with them.
Above all, it is the system and way of life that Americans (and your ancestors coming from all sorts of places!) have created that is the most appealing to me, and perhaps the biggest reason why people come here. However, I get the sense that right now the US is going through a soul-searching period as a nation, on how you see yourselves, your values and beliefs and even your role in a rapidly changing world.
As Churchill once said, "Americans will always do the right thing once they run out of options". I just hope us foreigners will still be around to see it.