Donald Trump’s chances of winning the presidential election are dwindling by the day, but if you still maybe want to flee the country that elevated a racist snake oil salesman who is also an alleged serial sexual predator to the top of a major party ticket, then I’m here to tell you it’s possible.
I had never met an American who actually left the United States because of an election. Then a friend of a friend introduced me to Michael and Kimberly Bortnick, a married couple who moved from their home in San Diego, CA, to a bucolic little city in New Zealand after George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004.
Their’s is a pretty rarified path out of Dodge—a white couple of relative means who were able to move to the country of their choice—but it may bring you some comfort as you contemplate the portion of the American electorate that does not find Trump’s disqualifying behaviors and general outlook to be at all disqualifying. (Speaking for myself, my 24-minute interview with the Bortnicks, whose enthusiasm for their life in Nelson is incredibly soothing to listen to, felt a little like doing yoga on Xanax.)
“There’s a lot of factors that go into making a move that big,” Michael told me over the phone this week in a tone that can best be described as friendly dad giving you very thorough driving directions. “We had been to New Zealand and fell in love with it years before. If you live in the States, it’s the opposite. The energy is the opposite.”
Depending on which list you consult, New Zealand either ranks fourth or sixth on a global quality of life index. (The United States ranks 10th or 14th, respectively.) The country places 10th on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, while America comes in at 28th.
New Zealand also ranks above average on environmental quality, civic engagement, personal security, subjective well-being, education, and jobs, according to the OECD Better Life Index.
And while the United States ranks first in the world in gun ownership, New Zealand is 22nd. With a rate of 1.5 gun deaths per million, as The New York Times recently noted, you are about as likely to be killed by a gun in New Zealand as you are to die from falling off a ladder in America.
The country is not a utopia by any stretch of the imagination. Structural and cultural racism against indigenous Maori people is one of the many ways that New Zealand is a lot like the United States, and access to housing, much like here, is becoming increasingly difficult for the non-wealthy.
But for the Bortnicks, it felt like the right place to escape to after a majority of American voters said “more please” to the Bush administration.
“When we first went to New Zealand in 1996, we fell in love with it,” said Kimberly, who punctuated her responses with “huns” and other terms of endearment. “It had always been in the back of our minds.”
“Then,” Michael said, pausing to say it again with emphasis, “then, George Bush got elected the second time.” That’s when they began thinking more seriously about moving: “We had been thinking about it for years, so we said, ‘Let’s see if they’ll let us in.’
“This is going to sound terrible,” he continued. “I don’t want to sound arrogant because it’s not that, but we felt that any country that could elect George Bush a second time with that gang of neocons is a stupid country.”
Michael and Kimberly will be the first to tell you that what they did wasn’t easy. It was a series of fortuitous coincidences, and a bit of good timing when it came to selling their California home just before the housing bubble burst, that put them in a strong position to move.
“Everything was just falling in place,” Kimberly said. And with that, she took charge of the slog of paperwork New Zealand requires to begin the immigration process.
In order to immigrate, the New Zealand government requires you to meet some pretty stringent requirements. There’s a points system to rank your interest and eligibility, along with a series of health and “character” requirements. (The country, for example, appears to frown on accepting immigrants who have previously been incarcerated.)
But for the Bortnicks, the country’s age limit presented the real problem.
“I was too old already because there is an age limit,” Michael recalled. “If you’re over 55, unless you’ve got a whole lot of money, they don’t want to know about you. But [Kimberly] was younger than that, so they let her in, and then I got to go with her because I’m the spouse.”
Kimberly was also a registered nurse at the time, a job with its own visa and strong demand in the country. When I suggested to Michael that Kimberly had basically smuggled him into the country, he laughed: “Oh yeah—no question about it.”
That was more than a decade ago. Now, Kimberly, at 61, is a yoga teacher and retired RN. Michael, at 69, spent years teaching in New Zealand and now freelances for local magazines doing travel pieces and movie reviews.
After we got off the phone, Kimberly sent me a bundle of photographs of their life in New Zealand. They hike, socialize, and generally enjoy their new hometown, which looks like something off a postcard.
What they don’t do, they both agreed, is think about coming back to the United States.
“We bawled our eyes out we were so happy” when Obama was elected, Kimberly said. “Oh my God, we thought, maybe there is a chance for them!” At the time, their kids teased them about maybe coming back, but they were content to stay put.
“We’ve watched this crazy circus—this political circus that is still going on, from far away,” Michael said. “New Zealand did not get involved in the Iraq war, they refused to be part of the Coalition of the Willing or whatever the heck Bush called it.
“And this latest wave with this Trump thing,” he continued. “Everyone is—like we are—they can’t believe it.”
But Kimberly has her absentee ballot ready to go, she said: “It does affect us, it will affect the entire world. I think Trump is dangerous, a very dangerous loose cannon. I’m a little nervous.”
And what if Trump does get elected, I asked, a little nervous myself. “Well, then you have two more friends in New Zealand,” she laughed.