Are Americans Living Abroad Immigrants or Ex-Pats?

Sometimes the go-to “immigrant” and “ex-pat” labels carry the wrong connotations.

By Joy DiazOctober 12, 2015 8:30 am| ,

The question of how Americans define friends living in foreign lands – and how Americans define people who’ve migrated to the U.S. – has been on Sheila Croucher’s mind for the last decade or so. She teaches Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University of Ohio, and says a word as seemingly straightforward as “immigrant” is anything but.

“I think it absolutely is politically charged and I think it is racially charged,” Croucher says. “I think it is charged in a number of ways.”

In 2006 Croucher went to the colonial city of San Miguel de Allende in Central Mexico, to study a large community of Americans living there. She noticed something interesting: no matter what their legal status, none of them called themselves immigrants.

“When I would push on the issue of terminology I would be told ‘look, I’m just an American living in Mexico,’” she says.

“I don’t refer to myself as an immigrant,” Russell Henson says.

Henson lives in San Miguel – the city Croucher studied years ago. He’s a retired engineer and pilot who now teaches aviation in Mexico.

“We are called temporary residents on our immigration status but socially we identify with our tribe,” he explains.

They identify with other Americans living abroad, who call themselves ex-pats or expatriates. Professor Croucher says the term ex-pats could carry a negative connotation – as in ‘renouncing one’s country’ – but it rarely does. On the contrary, the term often carries a certain cachè, and it’s mostly used by Americans and Europeans living abroad.

“There have been some recent studies and I think an interesting article in the Guardian within the past year or so about why do the Brits in Southern Spain get to be expats when everybody else going in the other direction are immigrants,” she says.

It may be because immigrants are often thought of as people who leave their homeland for economic reasons.  But it clearly isn’t that simple since most of the Americans she studied in San Miguel fit that profile.

“They were absolutely moving for economic reasons and motivated by economic concerns, whether it was declining pensions in the United States or the rising cost of health care,” Croucher says. “I think it would be politically interesting as a move for Mexican immigrants to say, ‘OK, I’m an ex-pat too’ and vice versa. I think it would be an important political move for the increasing number of Americans and Canadians living abroad to start calling themselves immigrants.”

More American civilians now live abroad than ever before. Census data from host countries puts that number at around eight million.

At the same time, patterns of migration into the United States are shifting. In the last 5 years, fewer arrivals say they have come for financial reasons. The Pew Research Center says almost half are highly educated.

Juan Wah is one of them. He’s a marketing expert from Mexico. His father is Chinese, and his mother Mexican. He was educated in the U.S. and once lived in Germany. Now, he lives in Texas.

So how does he identify himself?

“I don’t know, it depends on who is asking,” Wah says. “But sometimes I just describe myself as a ‘foodie’ or ‘a happy person.’ I don’t think customs will take foodie. I don’t think there’s a box for foodie yet!” 

Croucher believes the terminology is likely to change because millennials like Wah are the most racially diverse, gender non-conforming generation so far – and their identities often don’t fit into neat little checkboxes on official forms.

For them, “immigrants” and “expats” are just people.