Home Expatriates ‘Expat’ vs. ‘Immigrant:’ Why Rhetoric Matters

‘Expat’ vs. ‘Immigrant:’ Why Rhetoric Matters

'Expat' vs. 'Immigrant:' Why Rhetoric Matters
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Rabat – “I was a taxi driver for eight years. I worked 16 hours a day. When I was driving that taxi, I was treated not as a human being, but as part of the car… I was spoken to as the taxi, as the machine,” says Adnane. 

Adnane is a native Moroccan who moved to the United States in 2001 with the intention of studying for several years, then returning home. He worked as a cashier, a taxi driver, at IBM as a contractor, a journalist, and as a translator for the United Nations: resulting in a 13-year stay.

While abroad, Adnane found that no matter what job status he had, he was often considered, first and foremost, a foreigner. “Some people were nice, some were not. [Internationals] had to deal with it, because we were there as guests,” he says. The way he was treated hinged on many factors. “It depends on the color of your passport, the language you speak, the way you look. If you’re dark, white, light, whether you have a beard or not – it all changes how you are perceived.”

Throughout his time in the States, Adnane noticed that he was never considered an expatriate, despite efforts to avoid negative attention aimed towards Middle Easterners by dressing well and working hard. “I was an alien. That’s what they called me – alien. It felt bad,” he says. “It’s very categorizing. As if we are not people. As if we are a different species.”

Adnane’s experience as an ‘alien’ is not a rare one. As global immigration increases and international travel becomes more accessible, the rhetoric aimed at those who cross national borders has the power to define travelers. Conflict over the use of ‘expatriate’ and ‘immigrant’ brings the connotations of each to light: the difference is key to how we define people who cross borders to work.

Because both categories include those working abroad, the line drawn between terms becomes muddied. ‘Expat’ is often used to exclusively refer to Western workers moving abroad for upper-class business ventures, and carries connotations of wealth, higher education, and privilege: while ‘migrant worker’ and ‘immigrant’ bring about assumptions of the opposite.

According to the BBC, today’s simple definition of ‘expat’ is a person sent abroad by their employer, and who temporarily lives outside their native country to work. The term is often used to refer to professionals or skilled workers sent abroad by companies, governments, or NGOs, but may also encompass any employed person temporarily living in another country.

An ‘immigrant,’ ‘alien,’ or ‘foreign worker’ is someone who moves permanently to a foreign country for any number of reasons, including better economic prospects, to escape danger in their host country, or to be near family.

However, these aren’t the definitions most of us rely on, says Mehdi Alioua, a sociologist and associate professor at the International University in Rabat, who specializes in globalization and migratory movements. “People who work abroad are separated along two registers,” he says. “First, common language aims to separate poor, often ‘racialized’ or ‘ethnicized’ migrants coming from countries of the South, from rich migrants: former settlers in the memory and coming from countries of the North.”

Alioua says that second, at a sociological level, the distinction between expats and migrants is based on care. “Poor migrants have to manage their path, pass the border tests and police checks, integrate, and so on. Rich migrants are more or less taken care of throughout their journey, settlement, administrative papers and so on. The latter do not need to control their migration, hence their feeling of control and that they are not migrants, but expats.”

This contrast may be partly attributed to the fact that expats are, essentially, people hailing from former colonial powers – giving them a special status in former colonies. “Those who come from Northern countries have behaviors resembling former colonists with whom they often study or work,” says Alioua. This superiority complex, combined with the fact that the stay of expats is more or less taken care of, reinforces the power divide and, Alioua says, “frees up free time, or at least liberates expats from many injunctions to which other foreigners must submit to.” Expats do not need to spend valuable socializing or integration time working extra jobs, seeking aid, or completing paperwork at foreign offices.

The ultimate characteristic defining someone as an expat or not lies in the motivations behind their decision to move abroad. An expat may live in other countries as a lifestyle choice rather than one borne out of economic necessity, oppression, or persecution. These factors play into whether or not the traveler has a high paying job, can adopt the self-proclaimed superior status of a Westerner, and navigate the trip easily.

The rhetoric surrounding these terms matters – language can be used as a political tool in the debate around migrants. This becomes particularly relevant in an age when Western powers (such as United States President Donald Trump) use immigrant-related terms to target unwanted and illegal residents. Alioua says that of the 1.3 million Moroccans living abroad, “many of them feel that they live without the rights they deserve… It is a fairly widespread feeling.”

“In the long run, ‘expats’ and ‘immigrants’ are just titles. In reality, everyone is coming to another country to work. Depending on your status, people label you,” says Adnane. “If we are to be treated equally, we have to give value to ourselves. People don’t realize that one word, one label, can change the life experiences of millions of people, but it does.”

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