Expat Or Immigrant?

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NPR is wondering about the difference between “immigrants” and “expats”:

    Project Xpat: When Do You Become An ‘Immigrant’?

Indeed, what is the difference? Opening the piece, NPR asks a Mr. Horn for his definition; he is a 35 year old American in Kazakhstan “teaching a course called Global Perspectives.” Clearly he would have a view, and it includes, curiously, this observation:

“all immigrants are expatriates, and all expatriates are immigrants.”

Hmm. The first part of that statement is reasonable in this sense: immigration may have begun with expatriation. But I feel his second assertion is decidedly inaccurate. Why?


Let’s start with a dictionary. First, β€œexpatriate,” as defined by the Cambridge Online Dictionary:

    someone who does not live in their own country

Next, from the same source, β€œimmigrantβ€œ:

    a person who has come to a different country in order to live there permanently

I have written about this previously elsewhere. That NPR piece having caught my eye, I figured it is worth re-offering my two cents/ pence/ centimes here.

“Expat” or “immigrant” is actually not as complicated, or blurry, an issue as it is often assumed to be. Based on my experience and observations, “permanence” in the mind, and actions, of the individual in terms of “settlement” is what most underscores the distinction between the two words.

The American who dwells in Britain or France “temporarily” is an “expat.” However, the moment he moves to take British or French citizenship and embraces life and roots himself there to the extent he entertains no serious notions of ever returning to the U.S. to reside, he has now become an “immigrant.” Likewise for British or French, or anyone else, in the U.S.

That is the fundamental difference. The “expat” may admire and even love the country where he is domiciled, but he recognizes, and accepts, it is not his country. On the other hand, you become an immigrant the second you decide (for whatever reason) that your life is and will be lived permanently in your new land. In fact, you may well have made that decision the moment you had stepped onto the ship or plane and departed. You could well be an immigrant from the outset, without first being an expat.

Essentially, when Mr. Horn in Kazakhstan chooses to seek Kazakh nationality, begins to “feel” himself Kazakh, and, above all, abandons serious plans to live permanently in the U.S. again, he has then crossed the line to an immigrant. Not before. Until then, he remains an American teaching in Kazakhstan: an expat.

Further thoughts?

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