Last updateFri, 06 May 2016 1pm

VIEWPOINT: Expat or immigrant? Good or bad? Exploring nuances

Is there a strong argument for the Reporter to stop using the word expatriate and replace it with immigrant or migrant?

This is not an insignificant matter of semantics at a time when the issue of migration is front and center in both the United States and Europe.  While “immigrants” are ostracized in many countries for supposedly poaching jobs from native-born citizens, overrunning their borders and ruining their economies, predominately wealthy and white “expat” communities in foreign lands are lauded for their value to their host nations.  

Both words essentially mean people who are residing in a country other than that of their citizenship.  But we instinctively refer to Mexicans moving to the United States as immigrants or migrants, and the million or so Americans who choose to live abroad as expats.

The same is true of Asian and African immigrants in Europe. The Brits and Germans living in Spain, however, are all expats.

Many sources define an expat as a person living abroad temporarily, while an immigrant is someone who moves to a foreign country to settle there permanently.   However, American, Canadians and Brits working abroad in professional jobs are always expats, but Mexicans who go to the United States for manual work – and clearly intend to return home at some stage – are migrants or immigrants.

This newspaper, perhaps out of laziness, tends to use the word expat to refer all foreign residents of the region, whether they have lived here for two years or 20 years.   It’s easier to lump everyone together under one roof – especially when writing headlines.  But shouldn’t we also refer to foreigners who have made their homes in Mexico and have no intention of returning to the country of their birth as immigrants or migrants, even though they may be aged over 65 and not have come here to work? What’s the real difference between them and the hundreds of thousands of Mexicans who have moved north of the border.  Aren’t both groups just seeking a better life, in one way or another? 

An expat should never be considered superior to an immigrant.  In fact, immigrants have far more invested in their new countries and customs, while an expat can pack up and leave on a whim.  And taxpaying immigrants probably offer greater value to a country in the long-term, being more likely to immerse themselves fully in the society and culture.

Mexico recently revised its immigration laws and now calls immigrants (formerly inmigrados) permanent residents, and non-immigrants (formerly no-inmigrantes) temporary residents.   The change neatly skips around the issue, as foreigners here are no longer tarred with the negative immigrant brush.

In the end, does it boil down to a question of race, class and economic status?  If we’re being honest and this is so, maybe it is time for us to be more PC and ditch the expat label.  

Keep your eyes on these pages.  And possibly look out for headlines such as “85-year-old immigrant/migrant/permanent resident/former expat wins the lottery”  –  space permitting.                       

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