Names build worlds. They are vessels of reputation, a means of categorization, and a code of identification. Nomenclature serves a system — in scientific, public, and political discourse by which we distinguish difference, signpost narratives, and draw meaning from the world around us. Attending to the ways we delineate thing from thing and group from group is an important endeavor that allows insight into the perceived nature, story, and function of objects, processes, and, most relevantly to this piece, people.
Here we ask: What is the difference between an immigrant and an expatriate? Scratching the surface, we find that both terms are rife with notions of difference, division, and hierarchy. The differences between immigrant and expat aren’t fundamental to how or why each would move. An immigrant is one who moves from one nation to another for reasons of work, family, education, or escape. An expat does so for exactly the same reasons. So why the distinction? The difference is drawn from who these individuals are, where they’re coming from, where they’re going, and how easily they travel across those borders.
The barriers that divide nations are often rigid, moving through the infrastructures that monitor and control them rigged in favor of those bearing “more powerful” passports. The ease with which one finds passage by land, sea, or air is dependent upon the documents, materials, and capital that facilitate such travel. The political ties between the nations one aims to travel between; the beliefs, cultures, people, and materials one travels with; and the intentions for settlement serve as the deciding factors of success or failure as a migrant.
It is easy to think that this contemporary world is small. Cheaper, more accessible travel and global communication have made moving between nations an opportunity that is more available than ever before. In practice, however, this notion holds up most often when those “powerful” passports are moving away from their country of origin. As such, it is far easier for a shipment of H&M t-shirts to move into the U.S., for example, than it is for the laborer who made them.
Upon entry to the U.S., such an individual would be grilled with a battery of questions and procedures, designed to assess the “threat” they might pose to national security and solidarity. The fact that this process is often harsher on minorities and people of color is telling of its underlying intention: to assess how well new immigrants will assimilate.
If they are deemed deserving of a visa, they are granted immigrant status. Then, they join the ranks of a contentious social class, subject to being treated as either scapegoats or subjects of scaremongering, or characterized in politics, media, and conversation as “milking” the benevolent welfare states and contributing to high crime and social division. Their continued “settled status” is dependent on their assimilation into the nations they move to. Assimilation comes with pressure to leave one’s past life and identity behind, and whether or not immigrants do so, their position continues to be precarious both in their eyes and the eyes of “native” citizens.
Expats from the West, on the other hand, are seen (or see themselves) as contributing to the local economies into which they move, taking nothing from national resource pools, and creating jobs for their new neighbors. In the words on one American expat in Italy, “The expat retains a feeling for life in the homeland, either as a kind of golden age or in an attempt to retain its customs and standards — and possibly to try and impose them on the new environment.” “Expat” denotes more than intention and national sentiment upon settlement, however. It’s a term wrapped in a history of hierarchy, coming to align with its current use during the colonial era, distinguishing the colonist from the colonized. As sociologist Peter Matanle puts it, “expat” bears allusions to “the days of empire… sipping gin and tonic in the shade while the locals toil beyond the fence.”
For an illustration of how these categories diverge in our popular understanding, I turned to where everyone looking up the difference would begin: Google. A search for “immigrant” provides the definition, “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country,” the example sentence being, “They had found it difficult to expel illegal immigrants.” Below this were news articles of immigrants linked to crime.
Searching “expat,” the definition is much the same, except it now appears alongside guides to becoming an expat, expatriate community-sharing websites, expat magazines, and a litany of blogs and pages making the case for distinguishing expatriates from immigrants. From this, we see how immigration is seen as something to be controlled, whereas expatriation is to be “dreamed” about.
It is apparent that the differentiation between immigrant and expat is one of capacity, power, and perspective. An expat bears a standard of cultural and economic wealth abroad, while the immigrant is seen to dilute that same quality “at home.” This distinction is one drawn down lines of ethnicity (in a sense, the cultural background and history one brings with them as they move); class, as constructed in Western society; and power, in a sense, that one might bring the social and cultural ideals and prosperity of the West to nations that might lack it. At its core, the division seems to be between those who move to the West to better their quality of life and those who have the capacity to move out in search of better weather.
We must remember that we are a movable species, having crossed land, sea, ice sheets, mountains, and deserts in our relatively brief time on this planet. We have settled just about every habitable corner of the earth. We have come and gone, bearing gifts, gods, goods, arms, ideas, hopes, and pain — our collective journeys weaving into a vast tapestry of human mobility. All of us are migrants of a kind, no matter how far, near, long, or short our daily or lifelong paths might be. Let us then be better aware of the categories we apply to each other’s movements, as they inevitably shape our understanding of difference and serve to legitimize our sense of who belongs where.
Header image by Ben White