My grandfather was an immigrant, I married an immigrant, and am now one myself. At first glance, the circumstances behind each of our immigrations look different, but in reality, each of our decisions to emigrate from our places of birth was based on the desire for a better life. The national discourse surrounding immigration over the past 18 months, and more specifically the last few weeks, has had me thinking deeply about my relationship with immigration and immigrants and how that coincides with the term that most people would call me and my wife — expatriates.
For the life of me, I can’t figure out the “real” difference between an expat and an immigrant. According to the Oxford dictionary, an expatriate is “someone who lives outside their native country” while an immigrant is someone who “comes to live permanently in a foreign country.”
If that is the case, the P ew Research Center report published this past fall, which stated that more Mexicans are no w leaving the U.S than arriving, should encourage Americans to refer to Mexicans in the U.S. as expats and not immigrants . And, a closer look at my family’s history has left me e ven more confused about the two terms.
My grandfather’s immigration to the United States in 1921 from the small village of Oughterard in Galway, Ireland fits neatly into the narrative that many have of what it means to be an immigrant. In my grandfather’s case, he, his widowed mother, and two of his three sisters left their life as tenant farmers in an increasingly dangerous and fractious Ireland for the U.S. Though, a closer look at documents from the time suggest otherwise. When my great-grandmother arrived at the immigration gate, she told authorities that she and her three children intended to stay in the U.S. for about ten years, which would have seemingly made her an expat. While this might have been a ruse to get by authorities, her intentions are bolstered by fact the for four years, she lived and worked as a domestic worker for a wealthy family in Boston before returning to Oughterard for 13 years.
While my wife’s immigration to the U.S. from England in 2008 was not done under the same economic and political duress as my grandfather’s, taking a position in Boston with a consulting company allowed her to work with more established biotechnology companies and build her knowledge-base of the industry more quickly. In simple terms, Vicky’s move to Boston was, like my great-grandmother’s…