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Monday, March 16, 2015

Immigrants versus Expatriates

“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad."

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad

One of the most asinine acts of those who go abroad from developed countries is this attempt to dodge terms. People who come from less exalted nations are immigrants; we are expatriates.

A recent article in The Guardian by an African journalist made that point in no uncertain terms, and it was about time, too. There is nothing neutral here; "immigrant" and "expatriate" are loaded with meaning.  Reflecting on why one would choose one or the other (or why we allow other people to use one or the other when referring to us) reveals not just global hierarchies that promote privilege for some, but also our relationships with both our home and host countries.

Distancing Starts at Home:  Mawuna Koutonin challenged developed countries and their migrants on how they use these terms as distancing tactics: "Africans are immigrants. Arabs are immigrants. Asians are immigrants. However, Europeans are expats because they can’t be at the same level as other ethnicities. They are superior. Immigrants is a term set aside for ‘inferior races’."

As hard as that it is to hear, he's right.  The starting point is the attitude toward immigrants in the country of origin;  the world in which they were the natives.  In developed countries there is always an archetype of The Immigrant - usually someone who comes from a developing country.  Talk about immigration in the US, and it's all about people from Central and South America  In France, it's the image of someone from North Africa.

The general perception is that immigrants are a problem to be solved and that is just as true of the citizens who are ostensibly pro-immigration as it is of those who are adamantly against letting them in in the first place.  This position of privilege is taken for granted and is justified by any number of questionable rationalizations of which the most common is simply the "we were here first" argument.

Signalling the Host Country:  When a first world person moves to another country, all the images and perception of immigrants informed by the home country debates travel with him.  On top of those come the host country attitudes toward immigrants which may be hauntingly familiar: debates about integration, the burden on the social service networks,  and competition for jobs.  What the developed country migrant is trying to convey toward host country citizens when he uses words like "expatriate" and "guest" is:   I am not a problem and your internal immigration debates have nothing to do with me.

It is one group of migrants agreeing with the native citizens that immigrants are a problem and then trying to get themselves put in a different category in order to get better treatment. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't. Koutonin talks about certain groups enjoying "the privileges of a racist system" and he's right that this happens.  However, the granting of such privileges remains in the hands of the host country nationals and can be something of a crapshoot.  Strenuously insisting on superior difference can be a sign of insecurity - having left the relative safety of the home territory, all migrants are unsure how they will be treated in the destination country.

Signalling the Home Country:  There is another reason why someone from a developed country might prefer "expatriates" to "migrants" and this comes from the fact that the home country is developed and relatively powerful in the world.    Powerful enough to reach into another country and make demands of its nationals there.  Some of these countries are not happy at all with citizens who leave and they try to discern if these migrants/expatriates are just sojourning abroad for a time or if they really have immigrated and are living permanently in another country.  Home country government and citizens tend to react badly to the latter;  it calls into question their own superiority in the hierarchy of nations.

In this context "expat" sends a very different signal than "immigrant".  It implies that the migration is a temporary thing and that the individual has some intention of returning at some future time.  It has an open-endedness that is very different from the term "immigrant" which is used in a lot of countries (especially in countries of immigration like the United States)  to mean permanent settlement and the path to citizenship.  It is the rare developed country expatriate/migrant who wants to openly tell the home country, "I am migrating and I am not planning on coming back."  There is a hint of danger in that, and fear that a powerful country might decide to act against the emigrants in some way.

It's hard for citizens of developed countries to be stripped of citizenship but that does not mean that the home government cannot indirectly force the issue by making policies that encourage its emigrants to give it up or return home, more or less voluntarily.  And there are other repercussions that are entirely within the power of a powerful nation-state to inflict on people whose behaviour it doesn't like.  It is a delicate dance and it might surprise Koutonin to know that citizens of developed countries are very wary of their own governments and feel the need to hide their true intentions behind ambiguous language.

 Koutonin pulled no punches in his piece which generated over 2000 comments.  This is just the beginning of the conversation and let's hope that it continues. If those of us from developed countries living abroad started eschewing the term "expatriate"  and started using "migrant" instead, we could do a lot to challenge home and host country assumptions about immigrants and strike a powerful blow against racism wherever we live. The next time we hear someone claiming something about "those damn immigrants"  tell him or her that you are one and quietly ask him what his problem is.  Do not let him or her off the hook when he replies, "Well, I'm not talking about you."

Oh yes, sir, you are.

Flophouse post from July 2013 about this very topic  Expats, Exbrats and Guests.


Unknown said...

Personally, I have never considered or referred to myself as an "expatriate" and I hate being called an "expat" (as in "package"). "Migrant" brings to mind the person who has moved and will move again, which I am all but certainly not. And I didn't "emigrate" - I just came to France on a scholarship - any more than I "immigrated" - I just stayed.
"Overseas American" does it just fine for me: I'm an American and I live abroad, and that's the way it will (all but certainly) always be.
But I have most definitely always thrown my hat in the basket of the "immigrants", reminding people that the tall blond who speaks their language is the same as the illiterate Moroccan woman who just arrived - the biggest difference is that the latter longs to become French and does everything to become so, while I remain an "overseas American". One would think the discrimination would rather be against me....

Inaka Nezumi said...

Interesting perspective in that Guardian article. My experiences with those terms are different from those of the author -- I'd have considered "immigrant" the higher status term than "expat," but then having grown up in a self-styled nation of immigrants, some differences in perspective should be expected relative to the author's current milieu.

The way I see the terms (perhaps similar to Lucy above) would be:

Immigrant = someone who moves to a country on a permanent or indefinite bases, at least as far as intent goes. The immigrant is defined by where they come to live.

Emigrant = Someone who is defined by where they choose NOT to live, on a permanent or indefinite basis.

Migrant = someone who moves around frequently, perhaps following climate or economic prospects. Probably less than one year in one place at a time.

Expat = Someone abroad on a temporary (one to several years) basis, with intent to return home eventually. Even if that intent is foiled, the expat will always define him/herself by where they are FROM, not where they ARE.

Lots of shades and variations, of course.

Inaka Nezumi said...

And then there's Victoria, who might simultaneously be an immigrant to France, and an expat from France in Japan? (Or is that from the US?)

Actually, how do you see that, Victoria?

Like I said, lots of shades and variations.

Arun Kapil said...

On "expat" implying "that the migration is a temporary thing and that the individual has some intention of returning at some future time," this is also true of immigrants (or "immigrants") from poor countries, the majority of whom migrate with the intention of returning to their country of origin after they've accumulated sufficient resources and/or achieved their migration goals. Immigration is rarely a one-way ticket in the minds of most immigrants. Life and other circumstances do willy-nilly change those plans, of course, but many immigrants in developed countries do nonetheless ultimately end up returning.

I have never viewed myself as either an expat or an immigrant in France, though, objectively speaking, there is no reason why my experience should be considered differently from that of migrants from Africa or Asia who have a Carte de résidence or have taken French citizenship. But while these are viewed in France as "immigrés" – and even their children born and raised here – no French person has ever referred to me as such. I'm simply a French citizen (d'origine étrangère, of course).

Sauve said...

Hmmmm..... I would tell the journalist that the dictionary is his/her friend.

1.a person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.
2. an organism found in a new habitat.
An Immigrant is defined as a person who leaves their country to live in another country without seeking to become a citizen of the new country. The term immigrant implies a reluctance to change their citizenship, a hesitancy to integrate, a determination to import their culture and their languages to the country they are settling into, thereby infusing the host country with a foreign culture, morals, dietary habits, and prejudices, that they must accept. This is why immigrants have a bad connotation. Nobody wants their home changed without they permission. Wars can be an example of this.

verb (used with object), expatriated, expatriating.
1. to banish (a person) from his or her native country.
2. to withdraw (oneself) from residence in one's native country.
3. to withdraw (oneself) from allegiance to one's country.
verb (used without object), expatriated, expatriating.
4. to become an expatriate:
He expatriated from his homeland.
5. expatriated; exiled.
6. an expatriated person:

Meanwhile an Expatriate has left their country to begin a new identity in another culture. They are leaving the one country and culture for another and not because they are fleeing war but more often because they can not find a comfortable fit in the country they have left.

I am an expatriate and not an immigrant. I left the USA with the intention to return only to visit family and friends. My intention was to forfeit my American citizenship until my son, a military careerist, told me it would cause irreparable harm to his career. All that I'm waiting for is for his retirement which will arrive within the next couple of years. If the USA should ever decide that I must be exiled I wouldn't have any objections nor would I feel any great hardship. I don't wish the USA any harm but I certainly don't consider the USA my home country any longer nor have I for the past 30+ years. I suppose that is what working in patient health care for 35 years will do to a person who sees their country's disregard for their citizens on a daily basis.

Maria said...

In Spain we don't consider people from other European countries as immigrants. They're considered as expats or simply "comunitarios" because of the freedom of movement there is now. We consider people from other countries outside Europe and the U.S. as immigrants when they come for economic purposes and as refugees when fleeing for other reasons.

In Boston, where I grew up, my parents and I were considered immigrants, even though my parents one day wanted to return to their home country, as they did. I remember that people who moved to the U.S. to live from other countries were all considered as immigrants, except for people from the U.K. and northern Europe who were almost considered as siblings who were in the U.S. on a long visit. Except for them, everyone else was seen as people in search of a better country to live in because every country outside the U.S. had some type of flaw.

Of course, this is not true and quite subjective, because Spanish people consider the immigrants in their country as running from some type of oppression in their homelands. Oppression, which of course, we consider doesn't exist here.

I consider myself a hybrid. I was born here, grew up in the U.S., and feel American. But I can also feel the roots I have here and that they are just as strong as the American roots.

Tim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim said...

There are also two other terms that have fallen out of vogue but were once popular, guest workers and bracero's. Both used to refer to "temporary" lower skilled migrants.

Tim said...

Technically as a matter of US immigration law guest workers/bracero's still exist under the H2A and H2B visas. As a matter of law these people are different so to speak from the much larger population of green card holders or "illegal" immigrants.

Tim said...

UKIP and Nigel Farage are totally out to lunch on their latest statements about their latest statements on the US immigration system.

"Pressed on whether he was saying that even highly skilled people would not be bringing their families with them, Farage said: “Not to begin with. Sometimes they do. If I got a work permit in America for two years and I went with my family, I would have to pay for education and health.”

Asked whether Ukip would want to replicate that system, whereby immigrants would have to pay for both private education and health, Farage said: “To be honest, most countries in the world do. This is not unusual.”

Farage is totally out to lunch. I know of no place in America where children of immigrants are prevented from attending public schools or preventing from signing up for Obamacare like any other American. The leftwing press though continues to glorify Farage and M Le Pen for taking on big bad Angie Merkel and the austerians at the ECB.

kermitzii said...

As a Botanist I prefer to be a "transplant". That is when a plant is planted somewhere else. It says nothing about motives or gains, but implicit is survival of the plant. I have put plants many places in my yard and illegally in natural places, and normally they do not survive. I have!

Anonymous said...

I like the term transplant, thank you for that, kermitzii!

I moved from the US to Canada more than 20 years ago to marry my husband, with the intention of staying here. I gained Canadian citizenship as soon as possible. I've always considered myself an immigrant and not an expat because I've never considered myself an American in Canada or an American abroad, I've never made a point of seeking out and spending time with other Americans in Canada, and I have no plans ever to return to the US. Canada became my permanent home as soon as I moved here.


Allou said...

I think it has to do with the purpose of one's move. An expat is a (more) temporary move with the intention (of least at first) of returning to the "home" country. An emigrant/immigrant moves and does not have the definite intention of returning to the "home/original" country. I have never considered myself an expat - I am an immigrant and moved to where I have now lived for decades with the intention of becoming part of a better country - learned the language, got a local job and all of my friends are friends because of common interests, not because they happen to have lived in the same place I once did. Some of my friends are also immigrants - from other countries. Sometimes a person starting out as an expat becomes an immigrant - but for me I was an immigrant from the start. Looking back on it, maybe I would even say I was a "cultural refugee"

Victoria FERAUGE said...

It was wonderful to see your comments and your thoughts made me think again about this debate. And that led to the follow-up post the next day.

@Lucy, Was thinking about these words in the context of advocacy for the American diaspora. There are the words we use to describe ourselves and then there are the words we use to describe us as a group when talking to the US government. Is that why the terms Overseas American or Americans abroad were coined?

@Nezumi-san, That's very close to my definitions though I see "migrant" as a general term that covers everyone. Susan Ossman uses "serial migrant" for someone who goes from one country to another.

I definitely think of myself as an expat from France.

@Arun, Excellent point. In the US God help a migrant who is honest about his intention to stay for awhile and then leave. The US expects people it calls "immigrants" to be 100% in the game. So whatever the intentions in the US it's best to just agree that you are an immigrant and imply that you will be staying.

@Sauve, There is the dictionary and there is common usage. Those terms are all over the map these days. All the more reason that we need to be very clear about what it means to us and not just assume that the other person shares that meaning.

A good example fo this is the way "expatriate" seems to infer "rich" in the US. That's one we have a very hard time fighting.

@Maria, very interesting. Spain is now a country of immigration, correct? "Spanish people consider the immigrants in their country as running from some type of oppression in their homelands." Is this about immigration from Latin America?

@Tim, Oh yes. That's why "guest" in some places is not a good term to use. I think other countries had similar programs and so the words has connotations that make it laughable when used by, for example, a foreign high-level manager.

@Kermit, Flophouse motto: Love where you're from and bloom where you're planted. :-)

@Allou, I think so too. But we also choose terms with the intent to confuse and confound. We are not sure of our intentions (or there is some danger is being too open about them) so we opt for something ambiguous.

Maria said...

Not just Latin America, but also sub-Saharan Africa. So many people have arrived on boats or tried jumping the fences in Ceuta and Melilla. So many have been thrown back on the other side of the fence and so many have drowned. While obviously not all are escaping war and persecution, many are and many others are escaping debilitating poverty and hunger. Immigrants from Latin America are a special category. As descendents of Spanish colonies, they have preference in immigration and eventual naturalization. They are more likely to be taken in and sheltered. However, some people consider all immigrants from poor countries as parasites that take away the few jobs Spanish semi-skilled or unskilled workers aspire to. It's a complex subject here.

But in any case, Spaniards tend to think their country is now a haven immigrants seek out. The irony is that we ourselves are seeking out other countries as economic havens at the same time. More and more Spaniards are emigrating internally in Europe or externally all over the world.