Monday, April 30, 2012

Mailbag: Moving to South America with a felony?

I'm going to start posting "mailbag" questions if the person who has contacted me gives permission. All email will be anonymized (unless they request otherwise) and edited to focus on the main question. Here's a very interesting email from someone who wants to move to South America.

Hi Curtis,

I just came across your very interesting blog while doing some research and am wondering if I might bother you with a question:

I had a felony conviction for [a nonviolent crime] 20 years ago here in the U.S. I would like to relocate to South America. Is this an impossible dream?

Many thanks,

Additional information from our email exchange: the "Bob" in question is a highly skilled professional, but he's an older worker. He's mentioned two countries he is particularly interested in. He probably has another 10 to 20 years of work left. Despite his felony conviction, he does not wish to pursue the Chilean immigration loophole. If he were twenty years younger and had no criminal record, I suspect he would have no trouble moving abroad with his profession.

Dear Bob,

This one is hard, but it's not insurmountable. It is, however, going to take a bit more effort than usual because I assume you want to minimize your chances for failure.

Consider the average person working for the government and processing plenty of work permit/immigrant visa requests. They usually have two things to consider:

  • The benefits of your professional skills.
  • The drawbacks of your personal situation.

I've been to your Web site and assuming your background can be easily verified, you have strong skills that I assume would be highly desirable. So what are the drawbacks?

  • You're close to retirement age.
  • You have a felony conviction.

Both of those are pretty serious. So the overworked, underpaid civil servant who evaluates your paperwork may very well glance at your application and say NOPE. They often have plenty of applications to process and the more they get done, the better they look and it's pretty easy to justify saying "no" to a convicted felon.

A twenty-year old non-violent felony is not an automatic bar for many countries, but if you don't work harder to maximize your chances, you're running a real risk of being denied. You have some very positive things on your resume, including suggestions that you benefit the community above and beyond just your normal profession, but all it takes is your application winding up in the hands of the wrong civil servant and you could be sunk.

So what do you do? I recommend a multi-pronged strategy partly aimed at ensuring that your visa application gets more attention than normal rather than a routine assessment by a clerk.

First, if you don't already know the language of your target country, learn it fluently. From the countries you mentioned, it's clear that Spanish is your first choice. If you can communicate effortlessly in your target language, it's a huge benefit. Also, if you have existing clientele with whom you communicate in that language, I would include this information (even if you can't mention who they are) to make it clear that you can hit the ground running.

Second, you live in a large city which is very likely to have cultural groups affiliated with your target countries. Go to those groups, meet the people, make it clear you have a genuine interest in their culture and start making contacts. You never know when you'll run into someone who says "my cousin works for the Director of Immigration for country X". Networking, being honest and open, and helping out where you are able can work wonders. Further, having a demonstrable interest in the culture can help.

Third, research immigration lawyers in your target country. There are two benefits here. The obvious one is that you want solid inside advice on how to enter their country legally. The less obvious one (and this is where strong research will really pay off) is finding one that has contacts. If you can work with a politically-connected lawyer, they can whisper into someone's ear and this can dramatically improve your chances. Yes, this is going to cost you money. It might cost you more money than you are willing to part with. You'll have to judge whether this risk is worth it. Be careful, though, as you could spend a large amount of money on someone who isn't able to help beyond normal legal advice. Even if you don't want to find a politically connected lawyer, make sure you get a lawyer anyway. I have a friend who recently entered the US and due to contacting a lawyer, managed to avoid a huge immigration mess about a particular situation they weren't aware of but the lawyer was.

Fourth, research your target countries like nobody's business. If you wind up chatting with an immigration official and he asks you what you think about the current government, not being able to name the President isn't going to help. You need to be completely reassuring that you're familiar with the culture. Also, if that happens, try to sidestep issues with politics and religion unless they make it very clear what their leanings are (and don't argue against their point of view!) I would probably try refocusing the conversation on how you want to help the country (and given your background, you have some strong assets there).

On a final note, since you've mentioned more than one country as a possible destination, be aware that just because one country turns you down doesn't mean that all of them will. Many countries will occasionally accept people with criminal records and often they will judge based on how long ago the crime occurred (a bonus for you) and the seriousness of the crime. You have an unusually strong strong post-conviction resume that will help tremendously. You're going to have to do a bit more work than usual to make this happen, but if you're determined, I'm sure you can.

Good luck and let me know how it turns out!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Retiring in Ecuador

Basilica de Voto Natcional, Quito, Ecuador
Basilica de Voto Natcional, Quito, Ecuador
Photo by Rinaldo Wurglitsch
I write a lot about moving abroad when you're young, but what about when it's time to retire? It's not just for adventure; it might be a savvy financial move on a tight retirement check and Ecuador may be your new home. International Living magazine, for several years running, keeps voting Ecuador the number one retirement country.

In fact, the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, has a thriving American community. Imagine lovely fully-furnished apartments for $300 to $400 a month, utilities included.

You'll need the 9-I Pensioner Visa. The main requirement for the Ecuador 9-I Pensioner visa is demonstrating a stable $800 a month income (PDF from the Ecuadorian Interior Ministry). If you don't have that income, you can deposit five years worth of that income ($48,000) with their central bank or demonstrate that you already have a trust with that amount in it.

You'll find Ecuadorian Expat boards very busy and not just filled with retirees.

View Larger Map

The weather's great, the country is stable, the cost of living is cheap, and they welcome immigrants. You won't have a hard time meeting English speakers (largely other immigrants), but speaking Spanish is a definite plus. If you're near retirement age, start taking a look down south.

Here's a description of how to retire to Cotacachi, Ecuador, on $1,000 a month.

Update: this is my second entry on this topic. I keep getting bombarded with information about this that I didn't realize it.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Romania is making it harder to get a work permit

Romania, Bucarest, Ostello Manuc
Wikimedia Commons
Romania is tightening their education requirements for work permits. You must have a full academic transcript for every university-level degree and you must submit every degree ever earned, including a high school diploma, with an apostille (sort of like a international notarization) or other legalization.

Romania has also set tight 2012 work permit quotas, though they are allowing the European Blue Card. As long as the economic malaise lasts, expect many countries to restrict immigration.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Singapore: a bad time for expats?

Singapore's financial district
We've had a few posts about Singapore in this blog. There's been discussion of Singapore being the "soft landing" in Asia and how to get a passport in Singapore. This is because Singapore is a hot destination for expats. The Web site has a great discussion of five reasons expats love Singapore. All things considered, it's a very attractive destination for those seeking another country.

Unfortunately, Singapore is trying o make itself a touch less attractive. In a Telegraph article, Singapore becoming 'less attractive' for expats, three recent changes targeting expats are covered:

  1. Added 10 per cent hike in stamp duty for any foreigner wanting to buy property in the city
  2. Ended a program that let graduates of foreign universities stay in Singapore for one year while they look for work
  3. Due to a strong Singapore dollar, Singapore is now more expensive for expats than Hong Kong

Obviously, Singapore can't necessarily control how expensive it is relative to other expat destinations, but points 1 and 2 are clearly aimed at expats. For those who stay, more money will be extracted. Otherwise, it may be a slightly less attractive option compared to other destinations (were it not for my family and great job, I'd be tempted).

Expats aren't experiencing fewer options on where they can go, but those options are changing, particularly as the popular destinations tighten their borders a bit. So stop with your excuses and just go!

Monday, April 23, 2012

Le Pen and the Fear in France

The results from the first round of the French Presidential Election are in, with Sarkozy and Hollande making it to the second round. Polls invariably show Hollande, a socialist, beating Sarkozy handily in the May 6th final round.

French flag
Vive la France, pas le racisme!
Photo by François Schnell
Just a quick recap: in France, the first round of voting for Presidential candidates was yesterday. Since none of the 10 candidates won more than 50% of the vote, the top two candidates, Sarkozy and Hollande, will face on on May 6th. At the present time, barring Hollande getting caught with a live boy or a dead girl (old US political joke, sorry) it looks like the next French president will be a Socialist. I can't say that Hollande makes me particularly happy and I hope that there will be enough power in the government to put the brakes on some of his more radical ideas.

What worries me, though, is Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front. She took 18% of the vote with more than 80% of the French people voting. There is simply no way that Sarkozy can win without courting her voters and he's quite ready to do so. From the article:
Sarkozy had run a rightwing campaign from the outset, chasing voters on the extreme right by focusing on immigration, saying there were too many foreigners in France and following Le Pen's lead in claiming unlabelled halal meat was a key concern of French voters. He had recently stressed conservative family values and the Christian heritage of France. His strategists will now have to decide whether he lurches even further to the right.
At this point, there's really no choice for Le Pen's supporters, but I'm curious to see Hollande's response. He's already made anti-immigration comments and I suspect that just a few more well-chosen comments here and there might pull enough Le Pen supporters to his side of the line to seal Sarkozy's fate. Will he go there? I seriously doubt that he will be as blatant as Sarkozy has been, but there will be hints of it in the next couple of weeks.

Le Pen may have lost the first round of the Presidency, but her quiet message of hate is working its way through the country. It's fashionable to express concerns about Muslims. It's fashionable to talk about cracking down on immigration. It's fashionable to pick an external enemy to rally internal support. And while Marine Le Pen may have toned down her father's pro-Nazi rhetoric (he has stated that the Nazi occupation of France wasn't particularly inhumane and has referred to the Nazi gas chambers as a mere detail of history), she is still running as the candidate for his party.

To my knowledge, Marine Le Pen has never publicly repudiated her father. She's even been courting Israel, apparently thinking that in having a common enemy withe Muslims, the Israelis might forget her past. In fact, I think they might actually be cautiously optimistic about her, but it's hard to know. All I know is that there are two types of people who are voting for her: those who vote out of fear and try to ignore the bad signs and those who know exactly what they are voting for. Either way, it's a disgrace.

Lest you be smug and think "it can't happen here", I submit that it can happen anywhere.  It's the structure of the French Presidential election system that allows people to initially vote for "third party" candidates without fear that they'll throw the election to the enemy. Currently, the rallying cry is against Muslims, against immigration, a "law and order" crackdown with little thought as to right or wrong or examination of root causes. We see this in many political parties, not just Le Pen's National Front. We see this in many countries, not just France. As long as the economic climate remains bleak and cultural tensions are high, there will always be opportunists ready to prey on those who give in to fear. This is a human thing, not a French thing.

What worries me is that Le Pen's failure to make it to the second round might actually be worse than the alternative. A long, slow rise in the polls with a careful cultivation of support is what she's looking for here. Getting to the second round and being decisively defeated may have focused too much attention on her and ended her chances of making another serious run. Now she has credibility and a future. Don't count her out.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Pictures from my walk to work.

Today I am running late and have little to say. Thus, you get pictures from my walk to work here in Paris. I also did this last year for my walk to work in Amsterdam.

Rue de Jourdain

Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Belleville

A small grocer near our offices

A fromagerie. The French do love their cheese
Lilly-Rose enjoying our back garden (back in February)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The French Presidential Election

Most of you are doubtless unfamiliar with France and French politics. You've perhaps heard of Nicolas Sarkozy, but that's probably about it. On April 22nd, the first round of voting in the French Presidential election will begin. It's going to be very interesting.

The French Presidential election is a direct vote (they abandoned the electoral college in 1962). The people vote for candidates who qualified for the election and, if no candidate receives a majority, a run-off occurs between the two candidates who received the highest percentage of the votes.

The Contenders

Nicolas Sarkozy, the current President of France, despite trailing in many early polls, has now pulled into a slight lead, polling at 28% of voters staying him as a preference. He leads the UMP, France's center-right party. He's not terribly popular, but then, there aren't many terribly popular candidates in this election
François Hollande is the primary contender. Polling at 27%, he was nominated for the Presidency by the French Socialist and Radical Left (who are, curiously, moderate center-left) parties. Unlike some other countries I could name, being "left" is France is normal and people have no problem with the idea that others may have different points of view.

Hollande's major problem is that he's somewhat perceived as the Mitt Romney of France: he's so boring that paint watches him dry. 

The Spoilers

Moving back to the right, we have Marine Le Pen, who has desperately tried to hide her neo-Nazi credentials. She's been successful enough that she's now polling at 16%.

You may recall that her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, made it to the second round of the French Presidential election in 2002. This led to the curious situation of even socialists campaigning for the right-wing candidate, Jacques Chirac. Chirac won with 82% of the vote, the largest Presidential electoral win in the history of the French Fifth Republic.

And finally on the left, we have Jean-Luc Mélenchon, trailing at 13%. The candidate of the Left Party, he's possibly doing better than one might have expected. He appears to be one of the more electrifying speakers on the campaign and he's getting very interesting press.

I suspect he's going to a force in French politics.

Along with: Nathalie Arthaud 1%, François Bayrou 10%, Jacques Cheminade 0%, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan 1%, Eva Joly 3%, Philippe Poutou 1%

For quite some time, people said that Hollande was going to be the next President of France. The polls, however, have now tipped slightly in Sarkozy's favor, but well within the margin of error. In fact, enough people report themselves as undecided that this race is very much in the air. In particular, many French have expressed a concern over a repeat of the 2002 debacle, where the left candidate ran such a weak campaign that Jean-Marie Le Pen managed to make it to the second round. This wasn't because he French liked Le Pen, but because they were protest voting the major candidates.

If, somehow, Marine Le Pen made it to the second round, she would get trounced by her opponent. After all, pretty hate-mongers are still hate-mongers. However, she's toned down some of the hate speech, is trying to make friends with Israel, is rallying French around Islamaphobia and an anti-immigrant platform. Unfortunately, people often turn to extremists in times of crisis. There's less than a week to find out if France is going to shame itself on the international stage again.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A Day of Rugby in France

Last Saturday, our friend Thomas (pronounced toe-mah), bought us tickets to a rugby match in Colombes, a commune to the Northwest of Paris. Leïla and I went there with Thomas and his friend Jeremy, a gentleman from Leicester who's lived in France for twenty years and speaks fluent French with a strong English accent — and whose French was easier for me to understand than many French people.

Fantastic seats, 2nd row back.
Rugby, for those who are not familiar with is, is a game similar to American football, played in two halves of 40 minutes each. The players do not wear protective gear and many of the hits they take are brutal. Passing the ball forward is not allowed, so the only way to make ground is to kick the ball forward or run with it. Turnover of possession seems to mostly involve accidentally losing control of the ball and the other team picking it up (hey, I'm not exactly a sports guy). At one point, possession appeared to turn over when an opposing player picked up the ball carrier and carried him out of bounds!

I did enjoy this bit of rugby history:
Rugby football developed from a version of football played at Rugby School and was originally one of several versions of football played at English public schools during the 19th century. 
The game of football that was played at Rugby School between 1750 and 1859 permitted handling of the ball, but players were not allowed to run with it in their hands towards the opposition's goal. With no limit to the number of players per side, hundreds would participate in an enormous rolling maul, sometimes resulting in major injuries.
Frankly, I would have loved to have seen that.

Thomas is a supporter of Racing Métro 92, a Parisian rugby team. They were up against Brive, a team based in Brive-la-Gaillarde in central France.

This made Leïla very happy.
This was an important match for Thomas because apparently, Racing needed to win this to go on the finals (or semi-finals, I wasn't sure). Fortunately, they won decisively, 40-19. Naturally that called for a celebration after.

The players are, in a word, enormous. At one point, a huge, rather buff official ran onto the field and he was dwarfed by many of the players. They do not wear padding and I don't want to think of the pounding they take to leave many of them limping during the game.

After the game, everyone is allowed on the pitch.
I found Rugby very enjoyable. I was at a very minor football (soccer) match outside of London and the crowd was rowdy, ready for a fight and police were everywhere. I almost got into a fight after the football match when I was so fed up with a jerk's racist comments that I turned to his son and told him "your life doesn't have to be like this". Not one of my smarter moments, but there was no way I could keep my mouth shut.

And players pose for pictures with their fans.
Rugby, despite its reputation for brutality and aggression (one man wore a shirt which said "Rugby: Men. Soccer: Women."), was very civilized. No matter which team someone supported, people applauded good plays, particularly if a team scored a try (a goal). In fact, the only time I heard anything negative was the crowd booing at one player taking a cheap shot at another (my video of the fight after wasn't very clear).

Leïla, Thomas and Jeremy.
After the match was over, everyone was allowed on the pitch and many players stayed behind to greet their fans and pose for photographs. There were children everywhere and there were no signs of the hostility I saw at football matches. We're going to have to do this again.

Sadly, all good things must come to an end.
On a more personal note, something's happened to me in the last couple of weeks: my French has improved tremendously. I can actually hold conversations with people now. I still struggle, but I'm not translating in my head and people are very supportive, helping me with words when I get stuck.

All in all, a fabulous weekend.

Friday, April 13, 2012

American Fast Food in France

Starbucks in Leeds
Starbucks in Leeds. Please ignore the
accidental caption in the lower right. 
My wife has a guilty pleasure: hamburgers. When we were living in London, she would sometimes buy herself a Quarter Pounder as a treat. So I introduced herself to the Burger King Whopper. Personally, I feel the flame-broiled taste is much better and she agreed. However, Burger King went out of business in France and McDonalds is thriving.

Why? Because apparently, the Burger King slogan in France was "you'll have it our way". They did nothing to adjust their menu to French tastes and the French said non. You might have heard that the success of McDonalds is based, in part, on the fact that no matter where you travel, you're guaranteed of getting the same quality and taste of product. That's not true:
According to Nawfal Trabelsi, senior VP for McDonald's France and Southern Europe, "For the first 15 years, from 1980, what we did above all was offer people a slice of America." However, in 1995, McDonald's started using French cheeses such as chevre, cantal and blue, as well as whole-grain French mustard sauce. By changing the recipes in France, McDonald's started executing a multidomestic strategy and winning the hearts of French consumers.
Interestingly, Burger King is now returning to France. It remains to be seen if Burger King has learned their lesson.

Unsurprisingly, Starbucks is here, too, but all 63 of their stores are losing money. So what are they doing to turn things around?
La décision a donc été prise de lancer une nouvelle campagne européenne pour gagner des parts de marché. Le plan comprend, entre autres, un rebranding (relooking pour ceux qui ne parlent pas la langue de Shakespeare) complet des magasins: une déco plus personnelle, plus agréable, plus cosy, enfin plus frenchie quoi! Parce que nous, Français (fidèles à notre réputation), nous sommes des clients plutôt exigeants!
That translates as:
[Starbucks decided] to launch a European campaign to win market share. The plan includes, among other things, a rebranding (a "makeover" for those who do not speak the language of Shakespeare) off all of their stores: a more personal decor, more comfortable, more cozy, finally more frenchie! Because we, the French (true to our reputation), are rather demanding customers!
I read constantly about US businesses who decide to operate in Europe, transport over a bunch of American management, and fail because they don't respect the culture. The extremely direct style of US business communication can sometimes offend the British. The Dutch often work in a more consensus-oriented manner than Americans.

It's good to see American businesses finally working with other cultures rather than simply assuming that people will love everything American.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Expats in the Caymans

This is a quick "off post" on a day I don't normally post, but I found this post, Cayman’s Expats – 57 Varieties, And Counting - Gordon Barlow, to be absolutely fascinating.

It seems no matter where you live, there are inevitable tensions between expats and locals, but as I discovered here in Europe, much of that is closely tied to skin color.

Not so in the Caymans, apparently. The post describes a wonderful, lush, multi-national culture where, while there's still tension between expats and locals, it has little to do with skin color. Given that many Cayman locals are not "white", it makes for an intriguing story. Go read it..

Monday, April 9, 2012

Get passport seized by a bureaucrat's accusation

Passport 1
Not as useful as you thought?
Photo by The Wide Wide World
Could you imagine having your passport seized because of an IRS error and suddenly you can't return home any more? I have a wife and daughter here in France and the thought of not being able to return to them (not to mention having my life destroyed) is a nightmare. Unfortunately, this may become a very real scenario for some.

One of the problems with being an expat, particularly a US one, is that your government really doesn't give a damn about you. There is widespread ignorance about expats and we have to face silly things like Congressman Tierney (an otherwise great guy) trying to bankrupt expats by removing our earned income exemption. To a certain extent, many laws surrounding expats are passed in ways that many laws surrounding computers are: by men and women who have no idea what the actual impact of their laws would be.

Now here's another one. A bill in Congress would allow suspension of your passport on there mere accusation that you owe taxes. From the article:
Senate Bill 1813 (Highway trust fund), which was passed by the Senate last week and is now pending in the House of Representatives contains a provision that would allow the IRS to order the State Department to refuse to grant, refuse to renew, revoke or restrict the passport of any US citizen which the IRS certifies owes the IRS $50,000 or more in unpaid taxes. There is no requirement that the tax payer be guilty of or even charged with tax evasion, fraud, or any criminal offense - only that the citizen is alleged to owe the IRS back taxes of $50,000 or more.
How does anyone think that punishing expats without due process is a good idea? Imagine you're an expat living in South Africa and some bureaucrat at the IRS has decided that you owe $50,000 in back taxes. If the bill passes, you don't even need to be charged with any crime or have any proof presented: you can simply lose your passport and effectively be "stateless" unless you have a backup passport.

For further reading of the implications, I recommend Passport Restrictions in Highway Bill, a short article by Charles M. Bruce, a partner at Moore & Bruce LLP (Washington, D.C.) and counsel at Bonnard Lawson (Lausanne, Switzerland).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Gun Ownership in America for Non-Americans

That title is a lie. This is for Americans, too.

This blog is largely a "howto" blog in regards to being an expat, but I often explain cultural issues that might seem strange to outsiders. I've been doing a rotten job of explaining the USA to foreigners who might want to emigrate there (I really need to explain the H1-B visa and other issues), so I figured I should cover one of the things Europeans ask me about the most: why are Americans a bunch of gun nuts?

Civil Disobedience

First, let me clear up a few things up front. I support our right to bear arms. This shocks the hell out of a lot of my non-American friends (not to mention my wife), but there you go. In fact, I used to have a concealed weapons permit. I had it for a very specific (legal) reason that I don't want to go into, but there was a time I didn't go anywhere without a gun under my coat.

You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead mouth.
Photo by Olegvolk.

Second, I believe that, as a general principle, you work to change laws you don't like, not ignore them. However, sometimes popular laws are so heinous and offensive that civil disobedience is appropriate. For example, not many people know this, but I'm an ordained minister (let's just forget the fact that I'm an atheist, shall we?). So when Multnomah County in Oregon started allowing gay couples to marry back in 2004, I went down to volunteer my services and I officiated at 17 gay weddings over two days¹. I also found out that I could be arrested because Oregon law makes it a crime for a minister to knowingly officiate at a ceremony where the couple cannot be legally wed. There were threats that those who officiated at the weddings would be arrested but I suspect that the anti-gay-marriage bigots realized that arresting ministers would be a stunningly bad PR move.

So why did I risk arrest? Because sometimes civil disobedience is appropriate when you're not harming anyone but respecting the law is too offensive to one's conscience — assuming you are willing to face the legal consequences.

Civil disobedience can be a powerful tool to overturn laws you disagree with, but what does civil disobedience mean in the face of our right to bear arms? Are you going to throw away your gun? Are you going to protest outside a National Rifle Association meeting? Those people have guns!

There's really been no strong recourse to protesting private gun ownership aside from various jurisdictions passing anti-gun laws and the issue going to court. But before we go there, it's time for a bit of history.

This History of the Second Amendment

Before the Colonies revolted against England, they were busy reading John Locke. Locke, in his social contract, made it extremely clear that people have a right to organize as they will, including forming their own government, and Locke's writings were heavily influential on the Founding Father's (peace be upon them) justification of their break with England (though they conveniently ignored that Locke was anti-slavery). However, when the Constitution was finally ratified, this also meant that the citizens of the colonies would have every right to break with their new country. In fact, Americans were going to break with the United States before it was formed because the new Constitution did not explicitly guarantee individual rights that people thought they were fighting for. Thus, the Bill of Rights was born. Amongst other things, the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that you weren't born in the 18th century and you may not be aware of what the phrase a well regulated Militia means in this context.

First of all, there was no professional military when the US Constitution was signed. There were only guys with guns (lots of them!) and they were expected to take up arms to defend their country if needed. We didn't have the Village People singing "In the Navy" because it wouldn't make much sense. So a well regulated militia of citizens was necessary to protect the rights of the people.

Our Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) would have been confused on multiple levels

So the founders of the US felt that people had a right to overthrow their government and they clearly did not feel that singing Kumbaya outside of Parliament was going to do them much good (and they were right).

Present Day

Every American schoolboy and schoolgirl has the story of the American Revolution drilled into them again and again. I didn't really explain much about the reasons for the Revolution, but I covered the bits which impinge on the Second Amendment: the belief in the right to disassociate yourself from an unjust government and the conviction that this probably cannot be done outside of violence. You cannot begin to understand the American strident insistence upon the right to keep and bear arms without understanding that this bit of US history is drilled into us again and again and again.

But what does the phrase "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State" really mean? Is that an exemplifying phrase (an example of why we have this right) or a qualifying phrase (the reason we have this right)? Unfortunately, if you read through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights you don't find many examples of exemplifying phrases (to the best of my knowledge, the Declaration of Independence is not a legal document per se and thus has no bearing on this) and thus, the US courts have often ruled that the "well regular Militia" is a qualifying phrase. That means it's the reason we have a right to keep and bear arms. However, since a militia, in the sense that the Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) wrote, does not exist, strictly speaking, the reason for the right to bear arms is called into question. (However, read this fascinating article explaining why this argument is wrong). US courts have repeatedly either side-stepped the Second Amendment question or ruled in favor of the qualifying interpretation. Thus, the US right to bear arms is called into question by the courts. In fact, I argue that it's called into question because the authors of the Bill of Rights didn't realize this would be controversial and were a bit sloppy in how they phrased things.

And you know what? There are some serious questions here. I think, if you understand the history of the US, that our Founding Fathers (peace be upon them) would have strongly objected to our government stripping our right to bear arms, but as one comedian (whose name I cannot recall) explained, when asked with modern-day America, Thomas Jefferson may have said "holy shit, planes!" What would they have said about grenades, chemical weapons, landmines, tanks, or nuclear weapons?

Surely the right to keep and bear arms shouldn't extend to mustard gas, should it?

The Culture

Today, the US is sharply divided between those who believe in an unassailable right to own guns with few restrictions and those who would ban that right,or at least ask "why do I need a license to drive but not to shoot?" (A powerful argument is always put forward about what would have happened had Jews in Nazi Germany been allowed to own guns.)

This I believe: if the US banned the ownership of private weapons as the UK did in 1997, the Second Civil War would start as soon as people started showing up to collect weapons. It would rend the USA in two and this is the reason why no politician would dare to propose repealing this amendment. They might try to restrict gun ownership in various ways, but outright repeal? No, they wouldn't dare. Virtually all Americans have been taught since early childhood that guns are their last defense against tyranny.

Today, many right-wingers have said that Obama wants to take their guns, but Obama has done nothing to restrict gun ownership while President. Of course, these are the same people who don't understand that Obama is not a Socialist. Obama doesn't dare touch this issue and neither will any other high-ranking politician. It's part of the US culture and it's not going away. If you want to take away this right, you'd have to pass a Constitutional Amendment and there's no way that you can get three fourths of the states to ratify a repeal of the Second Amendment. The Open Carry movement only reinforces this.

Please note that none of this is meant as a justification or condemnation of the right to keep and bear arms. It's only an all to brief explanation of the history that has led to current US culture on this matter.

1. When my wife found 17 wedding certificates with my name on them, she was understandably a bit freaked out until I explained what was going on.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Awesome French Skills and Talent Visa

France has an interesting visa named the Skills and Talent visa. The visa is good for three years and can be renewed once (six years should be enough to let you apply for permanent residency). What's great about this visa is that you do not need a work permit. Work permits are notoriously hard to obtain in France, but the French government knows that they need skilled workers.

The castle in Carcassonne, France
Carscassonne, France
Photo by Jondu11 (click the image!)
The Skills and Talent visa was introduced in 2009 and is designed to attract skilled workers in a speculative fashion. By "speculative" I mean "speculative on both sides". The French assume you will be good for the economy and you assume you can get a job. Actually, you need to submit a specific "project" to qualify for the visa and that project may be employment related, or perhaps you intend to write the next great American novel. Either way, if you have enough experience and can demonstrate the competence to carry out your project, a 3 year French visa may be waiting for you.

So let's say that your project is to start an expat employment agency. If you get the Skills and Talent visa, you are still at liberty to take a job in a café. So long as you can convince the French government that you have the intent and the means to pursue your dream in France, this is a great opportunity.

You don't need to speak French for this visa, but it is probably a good idea to state your intention of learning it. Also, if you have a spouse and children, bring 'em along! They will receive a Vie Privée et Familiale card, allowing them to live and work in France, too.

Update: Honestly, if you think you could be successful in France, why not apply for this visa? You will have to pay $129 for a Long Stay Visa application, but if you know you could pull this off, what do you have to lose? There's absolutely no barrier to applying (unlike, say, a work permit). If you're crafty enough to put together a smart application, this could be your ticket to Europe.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Note About Shortage Lists for Expats

I finally got off my lazy tail and purchased The old links still work and will likely continue to work for a long time, but please update your bookmarks, RSS readers, whatever. Initially the was redirecting to, but for some reason, that stopped pretty quickly. I'll take a look when I can.

In the meantime, I had an interesting email exchange with someone hoping to move to Europe. In the process of explaining a few options to him, I realized that my previous mentions of "shortage occupation lists" didn't really do a good job of explaining what they are. Understanding them is very important to understanding how to get a job abroad.

Take the United Kingdom's National Shortage Occupation List. It lists a huge number of jobs for which there is a labor shortage in the UK. And while I didn't mention the term, yesterday's discussion of Australia's skilled labor shortage deals with jobs that Australia needs filled. So what do these "shortage" occupations mean for the job seeker?

Gratuitous picture of our beautiful daughter
The basic process of getting a job in a foreign country usually entails the employer having to demonstrate that they could not find a suitable worker domestically. This can easily mean advertising for months for a job they need filled yesterday. This can mean showing their applicant's CVs, if any, to the government and justifying why they didn't hire any of them.

A shortage list (under whatever name a country wishes to call that) generally means the company can skip the justification of not hiring a local worker. The government already acknowledges the problem, so they make it easier for the employer.

So what does this mean to you, the job seeker in exotic lands? Even though your chosen profession is not on the shortage list for your country of choice, you can probably still get work there. The shortage list is not an exclusive list. For most countries, if a business can't hire locally, they're still going to let that business hire a foreigner. Your job is to convince them that you're the foreigner they can't do without.

So go back to Part 1 of my 5 part "get a work permit" series and get busy!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Australia Actively Seeking US Workers

Sydney Opera House
Photo by Fernando Nunes
Imagine the following scenario. You've been unemployed for months, you're desperate for work, you get a job offer from Australia and decide "screw this, I'm off". You get to Australia and then find out you still can't work. They have to assess your skills first, a process that could take months. If your skills are found wanting, you get sent packing. That would be a  nightmare.

It's no longer a nightmare. An Australian Senate inquiry found that Australia is producing less than half the engineers it needs, with many projects simply not getting started due to the worker shortage. So Australia came up with a cunning plan.

The US is in very bad shape. Right now, half of all Americans are low income or in poverty, the US unemployment rate, while improving, is still disastrous, and the Australians have a skill shortage.

The word you're looking for is synergy.

Australia is now trying to attract America's skilled workers. Instead of going to Australia and waiting potentially months to work while your skills assessment is taking place, you can get your assessment in the US and fly over after it's done.

You can read about the new "points tested visa" process (pdf) and check out the Australian government's "Immigration and Visas" website.

And an HSBC survey found that Australia is the number one destination for expats.