Economic Refugee Expat
Since moving to Mexico I have met a lot of what I refer to be Economic Refugee Expats.
InvestingAnswers.com states the definition as:
An economic refugee is a person who moves to another country in search of a higher standard of living.
These are people who have had their careers completely disrupted for a variety of reasons and do not have enough money or career runway to retire.
These economic refugee expats plan to live on their social security. They may need to earn an income, either above the table or below it until they are old enough to qualify for social security.
Believe it or not, people are leaving the United States for a higher standard of living. If you have not seen the recent Washington Post article The little-noticed surge across the U.S.-Mexico border: It’s the Americans, heading south read it now.
Note: This is part of the How to Move Abroad and Take Your Job With You Series.
The Stress Factors
I have been quite blessed in my career that I have had the opportunity to work all over the world. I can culturally integrate into most places in the world. Most Americans have never left the country as only 42% of Americans hold passports. If they have visited a foreign country it is as a tourist. There is a HUGE difference between visiting a country versus living there.
Moving to a foreign country is stressful and it is even more stressful if you are doing it as an economic refugee. Many of these people move because they have to and not because they want to.
What is stressful? How about the following:
- Understanding visa rules that may be applied differently at different times and embassy locations
- Housing options that are available
- Telephone and Internet options
- Medical and medication availability
- Importation of personal property rules
- Banking and money
- Importing Pets
On top of all of these things you need to learn, the official documentation is written in a language other than English.
As a recovering engineer, I know not to make assumptions about anything. However, when you are stressed, you will make unconscious assumptions at a far greater rate.
When we are stressed, we are more likely to make a bad or less than a desirable decision.
I am going to tell you about Barbara’s story. Barbara is not her real name and is really a composite of several people I have met.
Barbara spent most of her life in an area between New York City and Boston. She has both a bachelors and masters degree but it took her almost 20 years to attain both degrees after high school. She did this on her own which means she perseveres which is a good trait of an expat.
Barbara is creative and loves the visual arts and music. She never married but raised a son on her own and he is off her payroll.
The non-profit sector and public broadcasting are where she spent the majority of her career. The broadcast industry, both for-profit and non-profit is where she made most of her money but that industry has been in decline for years. Barbara was laid off in 2011 and has not worked a steady job since. She has found work as a real estate agent, retail, and a variety of other odd jobs.
These last 8 years have been extremely stressful as she has struggled to retain her house while looking for something that will get her to 62 years of age when she could claim social security.
Does this sound familiar? There are millions more just like her. She is the poster child of an economic refugee expat.
Deciding to Move to Mexico
A decade earlier Barbara attended a workshop given by Focus on Mexico in Ajijic, Mexico only because a friend asked her to accompany her. It was not Barbara’s idea to attend but the seed was planted. At the time, she had a steady job and the economy was good but then the great recession hit. We all know what happened next.
In the fall of 2018, Barbara made a visit back to Ajijic and made the decision to pull the plug and move there. What she did not figure into the decision is how long it takes to prepare.
Mistakes Made before Moving, and More Stress as an Economic Refugee
Let me first tell you that Barbara is a pro with a camera but is not technologically adept. When Barbara decided to leave the U.S. she based her decisions on the advice of many seasoned professionals. She did not go online to verify what she was told and that turned out to cause her a lot of problems.
I completely relate as someone who is extremely digitally literate but I am married to someone who is not. My wife is a Luddite and would prefer to never touch technology.
She decided to sell her house of 20+ years that was filled with a lot of collectibles and keepsakes. We have experienced downsizing twice, first from our home of 28 years to a condo and then to move to Mexico. This takes a LOT of time.
The house sold much faster than she expected and she had to move her stuff out quickly.
Moved Her Stuff to Mexico
Being in a rush Barbara decided to move all of her “stuff” to Mexico. She ended up moving a lot of furniture and other “stuff” to Mexico only to dispose of it there because she did not have space.
All of the expat books I read said do not bring your “stuff” to the new country. You will have to pay a fortune to move it. The odds of it being damaged or disappearing in transit is high. Lastly, you will likely not have space for your “stuff”.
Being in a hurry and not sure what else to do, she caused herself a lot of stress about her decision.
The Visa Conundrum
Based on the recommendation of an immigration lawyer Barbara applied for a Permanent Resident Visa. She was told to apply for this kind of visa because she wanted to work in Mexico. She applied but was rejected because she did not have the financial resources to qualify. In fact, she was not even close. (This is extremely common). If you listen to my interview with Queen Michele, you will hear that she qualified for a Permanent Resident Visa and she did not have the financial resources.
She later applied for a Temporary Resident Visa and prepared to move. The vast majority of people who move to Mexico apply for the Temporary Resident Visa for financial reasons or because they want to bring in a vehicle. I explain this in the podcast The Millers Go Back to Austin and Start the Resident Visa Process.
She qualified for a Temporary Resident Visa and received the appropriate paperwork to turn in, when she arrived in Mexico, to complete the process. You must follow the process exactly or the need to start all over in your country of origin.
Barbara leaves for the Mexican border in her car with her cat and dog. She arrives at the border in Laredo, Texas and crossed one of the many bridges in Laredo. The Mexican side of the bridge has a nothing to declare line that she enters. She is waved on.
She is now in Mexico and no one has looked at her passport. There are thousands of people who cross the border every day to work or to shop. If you stay within 20 miles of the border you do not need to process through immigration. Barbara just drove on and was stopped at the 20-mile checkpoint. This is where everything went wrong.
Return to the Border but Where?
Barbara is one of many people I have met who made the same mistake. I have met people who got through the 20-mile mark only to be stopped hundreds of miles later and told to return to the border.
The next problem was Barbara spoke little Spanish and the police spoke no English. No problem, she would call her friend who spoke Spanish but her smartphone did not work in Mexico. She was assured it would work by her phone company but …. it did not. Barbara did not know where to go so she drove back to Laredo and crossed back into the US.
The FMM Card
The next morning she crosses into Mexico and goes to the IMM office in Nuevo Laredo to start the next step in the visa process. She fills out the FMM immigration card just like she did when she flew in previously. This is a HUGE mistake and a mistake that has created havoc for many. She also paid for a temporary import permit for her car and paid a bit more than $400 deposit. This is refundable when she takes the car out of the country.
She now has 30 days to complete the immigration process. When she goes to the immigration office in Chapala, Mexico, which is the equivalent of the county seat, she is told that her FMM card is invalid. She will need to return to the U.S. within the next 6 months and start all over.
Barbara, who has signed on with a real estate firm, gets many conflicting opinions on how to get this fixed. She goes to Guadalajara, Mexican immigration office and they tell her she needs to go back to the border. She takes the bus back to Laredo and spends 30 hours on a bus, it did not fix the problem.
Next, she flew to Tijuana, Mexico because she was told that going to the immigration office at the border was the only way to fix it. Flights to Tijuana on any one of the discount Mexican airlines are pretty inexpensive. In fact, many economic refugee expats fly back to Tijuana every 6 months, take a taxi to the border, walk across into the U.S., spend the night and return the next day to fly back. Tourist visas are good for 6 months.
When I last talked to Barbara she is hopeful this will get resolved.
Barbara has been under a LOT of stress going through this process. I have stated many times that when we are in stress we tend to make lousy decisions.
Since arriving in Ajijic Barbara is subletting part of a house from a local artist. Her housemate is very supportive which is critical. She has also found a bunch of expats and locals who are helping her both from an emotional and professional perspective. This is critical to reducing stress.
Barbara has one critical aspect about herself and that is perseverance. Through all of this, she has not given up.
Conclusion – What does it take to be a successful economic refugee expat?
You have to be willing to dig, dig and dig some more for information from both professionals, current expats and online resources. I have found blogs and FaceBook groups to be THE most valuable resources. For those of you who disdain FaceBook, and I know there are a bunch of you out there, suck it up and learn how to use it.
Plan on bringing very little with you other than your smartphones and computers. Let go of your “stuff”.
Have a budget and stick to it. When my wife and I came on our initial visits we worked living like a local and not like a tourist. We have done very few touristy things since we have been here. This has allowed us to understand the real costs of living in Mexico.
Test drive the location you think you want to move to. Come for a week. If you like it come back for a month. If you still like it come back for 3 months. You are then able to determine whether it is right for you and your budget.
Have I scared you off from moving to Mexico? I hope not but I did want to give you a dose of reality.