Does an American Diaspora Exist?

Americans residing abroad are a diverse group.

They move and live overseas for different reasons, to various countries. The answer to the question “Who are Americans abroad?” isn’t so straightforward.

  • Which terms do we use to define American migrants?
  • What factors into the expression of identity for Americans residing overseas?

Stereotypes of Americans Abroad

Common depictions of Americans abroad tend to glamourize their situation. They’re seen as diplomats, missionaries, celebrities, military personnel, and digital nomads. But when scholars David Conradson and Alan Latham gathered data on Americans living overseas, they found most to be what they’ve termed “middling migrants.” Americans are neither the super-rich corporate business travelers nor broke university students studying abroad. These two groups exist, of course, but they don’t comprise as much of the population of Americans abroad as we think.

Terms to Identify American Migrants

The terms we use to identify Americans living abroad don’t make classification any easier. Expat, migrant, immigrant, emigrant — all are used to describe people who move to and live in foreign countries. But the labels we assign migrants come laden with cultural, historical, and sociological connotations. Furthermore, in the case of Americans, there is no defined, official terminology for describing migrants.

Expatriate

Take expatriate or “expat.” Expatriation is the process of removing yourself from your home country and moving to a new one. It most often refers to professionals who move abroad for work-related reasons. Expats, then, are those who live abroad for usually under two years. Americans who live and have settled overseas for many years may prefer not to be called expats for this reason.

  • the children of U.S. parents who were born and have grown up abroad.

Diaspora

Another complicated term is diaspora. A diaspora is a group of people who were removed from their country by force and who maintain a strong sense of identity with their homeland from abroad. Would it be proper to refer to all the Americans residing outside of the U.S. as a diaspora, then? They’re not typically removed by force, and for some, connections to their homeland might be tenuous at best.

How Do American Migrants Define Themselves?

One of the ways overseas Americans shape their identity is with transnational ties between the U.S. and their resident country. Although they might be socioeconomically integrated into the country where they reside, they still maintain links with the U.S., by joining American associations abroad or sending money back to family in the States. Migration scholars such as Peggy Levitt and Nina Glock Schiller have dubbed this transnational balancing act “ simultaneity “, the act of “living lives that incorporate daily activities, routines, and institutions located both in a destination country and transnationally.”

Socioeconomic Dimensions of Identity

While identity is multi-layered and complex, it can be argued that a significant chunk of identity is tied to socioeconomic status, no matter where you’re living. The same can be said for Americans overseas. Still keeping the diversity of Americans abroad in mind, we can make a few generalizations about their socioeconomic status.

American Retirees Abroad

As of 2019, the greatest share of Americans living abroad is retired, at 26 percent. Many American retirees living overseas are veterans of the U.S. armed forces who decided to stay abroad after their service. Experts have pointed out that retirees can have a higher standard of living with their modest pensions in places like Central America than they can in the U.S. Indeed, the country with the largest population of Americans — by most counts — is Mexico.

Employment Status and Identity

The second-largest employment share of Americans living abroad is self-employed, at 16.3 percent. Those employed by a local company make up 15.9 percent. Many Americans working abroad are in the education sector, usually teaching English. IT and communications, as well as arts and entertainment, are other highly represented fields.

Political Participation as Identity

Another significant means of identity expression for overseas Americans is political activism. Just like socioeconomic activity, political engagement takes on transnational characteristics. Americans abroad are organizing politically by fundraising, writing letters, registering voters, and joining associations. Their activism is often fueled by their own interests, like the right to dual citizenship. But overseas Americans also engage politically with prescient issues back home — most notably through electoral politics.

Political Groups for Americans Abroad

Which means do U.S. citizens abroad use to exercise their civic and political rights? Many groups exist to facilitate their political participation — both the Democratic and Republican Parties have international arms for overseas Americans. There are also many non-partisan groups like the Association of Americans Resident Overseas (AARO), American Citizens Abroad (ACA), and the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas (FAWCO).

Attribution: photo by Chris Devers shared under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Voting in Elections

Since 1976, Americans abroad have been allowed to vote in U.S. elections. Voting is one of the most direct forms of civic participation in a nation-state and is closely linked with citizenship. The U.S. is one of 115 countries that allow their citizens residing abroad to vote in home elections. Since residence status has often been an integral factor for determining citizenship, the notion that overseas citizens can vote in elections challenges the very idea of citizenship.

Americans Abroad — A Difficult Group to Categorize

There are still several facets of identity and the American migrant experience I didn’t cover here, like their reasons for moving abroad, marital status (which is closely related to reasons for moving abroad), cultural practices of host and destination country, religion, and many more. When you start parsing out the strands that make up the fabric of identity, it’s clear that there is no stereotype. A few generalizations can be made about specific aspects, but mostly, Americans living overseas are about as diverse as the countries they’re residing in. As long as this group remains dispersed, it seems unlikely the U.S. government will start keeping better track of them, by means of a census or anything else.

Writer and Blogger. International Relations, Travel, Culture. Find me at courtneywithrow.com or travelabroad.blog.