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The other half of the immigration equation

The large number of Americans relocating south of the border is a quiet but healthy trend.

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For all the heated debate over this summer's failed immigration reform bill, little attention has been paid to the other side of the equation: the flow of Americans out of the United States. Emigration doesn't stoke passions as illegal immigration does, but its scale and impact are significant.

As the US Census Bureau has discovered, attempting to count Americans residing outside the US is prohibitively expensive, assuming they could even be found scattered across the far corners of the globe. That led my global marketing firm, New Global Initiatives, to survey Americans to find out how many are planning to relocate outside the country. If we can't measure the past flow of emigrants, we can try to measure the current and future flow.

The survey results showed that some 1.6 million households, representing nearly 3.5 million people, have actually decided to relocate. Close to 2 million households claim to be seriously interested and likely to relocate. And while the media often discuss retirees as the major source of relocators, we found that Americans in their 30s and 40s are the most likely to relocate – and by a very wide margin.

Where they're interested in going is also significant. More than 40 percent of respondents have chosen Mexico, Central America, or Panama as their destination or are seriously considering the region. In numbers, they may not compare to the millions flowing in the other direction, but one American household moving to Mexico or Panama can have as great an economic impact as dozens of poor Latino immigrants to the US.

The influx of illegal immigrants from south of the border will continue until the economies of their homelands begin providing sufficient job opportunities. US emigrants help to create those jobs. They are America's most effective foreign aid program, but without the bureaucracy and waste. They share more than money. They share themselves. Taken together, they are helping to alleviate the root causes of illegal immigration.

Thus the flow of immigrants in both direction can be positive.

Immigrant labor is critical in helping America compete effectively with low-cost foreign competition. Perhaps it was best summed up by a comedian in Mexico City who quipped that the US was going to drive all the Mexicans out, then build a wall to keep them out. But, he asked, who was going to build the wall?

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