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'Huddled Masses'? Not Necessarily; US Gets Europe's Success-Seekers

North America beckons, though many may eventually go home

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 1997



BRUSSELS

Some 60 Belgians pack the room at the Quebec Liaison Office. All want to settle in Canada's French-speaking province. A promotional videotape tells of life in Quebec - describing "les hivers froids" and "le success a l'Americaine."

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Success is what these would-be emigrants are looking for.

Unemployment has been rising in Belgium, and hopes for the future falling.

Quebec, right next door to the United States, looks good, despite the cold winters. The Quebec Liaison Office here has stepped up its information meetings and yet still cannot keep up with the rush.

The applicants "think here in Europe it's too small, and the mentality is too straight," says Lucille Horner, the office's immigration officer. "They think we have a better life in North America."

Traditionally, most emigrants to the US have come from poor countries in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. Now a new phenomenon is becoming visible - wealthy West European emigrants. It's not yet a wave, but a gentle rumble.

Nor does leaving these days necessarily mean forever. Unlike impoverished emigrants, many Europeans want to live in North America only for a few years before returning home.

Over the summer, the French-Belgian newsweekly L'Express ran a cover story entitled "Leaving to Succeed." It reported that 120,000 French applied to emigrate last year - up 17 percent from the year before. Paris Match, also well distributed here in Belgium, ran a summer-long series on French expatriate success stories in Argentina, Singapore, Canada, and the US.

Twentysomething Romuald Paillez has come to the office with his girlfriend, Catherine. He has a job at a car-rental firm. She is finishing her studies to become a kindergarten teacher.

They don't see much chance of finding a job in Belgium. An astonishing 25 percent of Belgians and French younger than 25 years old cannot find work.

"We think it will be quite easier to find a job overseas than here in Europe," Mr. Paillez says. "I don't want my fianc to be unemployed for two years."

'We want to live in the States'

But many of the potential emigrants are already employed. They just see more opportunity abroad. Antoine and Isabelle d'Overschie have decent jobs in Belgium. "We have three children," they say in unison. "We want to offer them a different life."

Compared with Quebec, which actively recruits French-speaking immigrants, entry into the US is much tighter. "We want to live in the States," Mr. d'Overschie says. "But it is difficult to go there."

At the US consulate in Brussels, first consular officer Ted Halstead has seen an uptick in applications from Belgium. But he adds that the total number involved - several hundred - remains small. "There certainly are cases that fall along the lines of ... people who are having trouble finding work, people who are looking for better opportunities," Mr. Halstead says. "But of the total number of Europeans traveling to the United States, it's a vanishingly small percentage of 1 percent."

Another trend is also visible - instead of leaving, some Europeans are heading back to their homeland, particularly to Ireland. Newfound prosperity in the Emerald Isle is tempting many well-educated workers, who in the past went to England or the US, to return.

"The Irish actually have the highest take-home pay in the European Union," Halstead says. "It's astonishing. And the Irish are working hard to get those people to come back home."

Frustrated entrepreneurs look west

But here on the Continent, opportunities to get ahead are diminishing, so emigration has become a hot subject. It's not necessarily traditional emigration. Like most West Europeans, Belgians don't need visas to visit the US. So Halstead admits that many emigrants travel to the US and stay on.

A Belgian schoolteacher is moving this month to New York to start a business importing Belgian chocolate. He only has a tourist permit. "I'll go and see how it works out," he says. "If I succeed, I'll stay. If not, I'll return."

At the Quebec Liaison Office, many potential emigrants are frustrated entrepreneurs. "We have many who want to start a Belgian chocolate business or a restaurant serving mussels and French fries, the Belgium specialty," Ms. Horner says. "Many want to open a small hotel."

France Van Lancken plans to open a retirement home north of Montreal. She says taxes are too high to make the investment in Belgium. But what about the family she is leaving behind? "It's only six hours by plane," she says. "The world is small these days."

Unlike the untrained emigrants of yore, these potential emigrants boast impressive skills. Mr. d'Overschie is a computer technician. All the others at the Quebec Liaison Office have graduated from college. They range from their early 20s to grandparents.

But one thing unites them with traditional emigrants to North America - the desire to get ahead and carve out a more prosperous and satisfying life. At the end of Horner's presentation, the questions pour forth.

"What is the cost of living in North America compared to Belgium?" one person asks.

"Cheaper by half," Horner replies.

"What about finding work?"

"It shouldn't be much of a problem," she says.

In a country mired by high taxes and unemployment, it all sounds attractive. Belgians long have thought that they enjoyed an admirable lifestyle at home. Many say they still believe that. But a growing number are questioning whether they may do better across the Atlantic.