aybe someday “immigration” will be a dirty word. “Immigrant” already comes close, with proof in the contrast between how the words “immigrant” and “expatriate” are used and viewed. How often do you hear your American friends talk about their “immigrant experience” in Italy? No, they speak instead of their “expat experience.” And if you heard the Bengali rose seller go on about life as a “Bengali expat,” you’d most likely correct him mentally: he’d be a “Bengali immigrant.”
Looking up the words in the latest American Heritage Dictionary (2011), I see the definitions vary only in level of permanency. An expatriate is someone who lives in a foreign country while an immigrant is someone who permanently settles in one. In other words, all immigrants are expatriates and not all expatriates are immigrants, but many are.
Yet our current usage defines immigrants and expats based on their country of origin and implied social and economic status. “Immigrant” is burdened with connotations that “expat” avoids.
With “immigrant” there is usually race involved, as well as a beyond-the-border expectation of a better life. Sometimes “illegal” is attached, or the politically correct “undocumented” (and while there are certainly “illegal expats” the combination never pops up). “Immigrant” conjures up boatloads of people crossing the Mediterranean, shanty structures under Trajan’s baths in Rome’s Colle Oppio, vans moving from Mexico into Texas at night.
Yet whatever word you assign to the experience of shifting from one country to another, of trying to make a living and make a life, the actual process of doing so — wherever you stand on the sliding expat-immigrant scale — is almost never easy.
I’ve been trying to get my husband into the United States for more than a year. Once he’s there, his background will probably make him an expatriate rather than an immigrant — though for now we’re face down in the dirty snow pile that is immigration bureaucracy.
The American immigration process is a perfectly insane mixture of drudgery and absurdity that Franz Kafka got entirely right in his novel “The Trial.” The process is a masterpiece of endless paperwork that has much in common with the fictional bureaucracy that Kafka conjured up based on his experience in clerk-dominated, early 20th-century Prague. In “The Trial” a man named Josef K. is arrested by an unknown authority for a crime that is never revealed but which his accusers consider very serious. The novel unfolds as his persecution intensifies, but neither the reader nor K. ever knows what he’s charged with or why he might be going to trial.
In the same way, the reason behind specific obstacles in the immigration process may have fallen away long ago leaving only the obstacles themselves. Attempt to apply reason to the process only heightens its absurdity. It’s a slippery, twisting process in which one mistake can ruin all forward progress, undoing all the waiting, the money spent, and the fretting. It’s difficult not to feel that your own government is taking advantage of the dirty-word side of “immigrant,” focusing only on the most menacing possible scenarios.
While filling out forms, paying fees and waiting, listening to the plight of others has become a constant. Some have married and simply want to be together, which is the basis of any relationship. Yes, of course, a married couple can live together in any nation. But why shouldn’t they be able to live in the country of a spouse’s citizenship? What should stand in the way of newlyweds living in the United States if one of the spouses is American? Why is it so difficult?
One story went like this:
A man in his early 20s entered the U.S. illegally but he eventually met and married an American woman. After the marriage and because the couple wanted children, and the man wanted to work legally, they began the immigration process. Years of paperwork and heaps of money eventually brought the couple to the immigration interview. But the official told the couple that the man was “inadmissible.” He was ordered to leave the country. The couple was separated. (One can waive inadmissibility by proving Extreme Hardship, a vague term in the continuing spirit of Kafka.) Humanity means nothing when the wrong boxes are ticked, another piece of the immigrant definition.
The way the U.S. now handles legal and illegal immigrants is strikingly ironic considering that the country today is the sum of its 250 years of immigrants. The “tired and poor” of all nations — in both mythology and reality — is the backbone of the United States.
Carrying such thinking a step further, “expatriate” and “immigrant” aren’t the only two words for those who’ve landed in a new place. A third might be the word “American,” if only bureaucrats had the imagination to reflect on the history of the nation they represent.