“Immigrant” (and “expat” and “migrant”) and proud

There’s a lot of racism in this world. Some are clear-cut: Recent events at Oklahoma State are a clear example; others such as Ferguson, the Tayvon Martin saga and the rise of UKIP and similar nationalist parties in Europe require a more nuanced label, but clearly suggest there is work to be done to achieve racial equality. Which is why pieces such as this article about race and immigration in the Guardian are so stupid and counter-productive. Calling out racism where most intelligent, educated people can see that none exists harms those that are actually fighting against discrimination and unfair treatment.

Labels such as “immigrant”, “migrant” and “expat” have real definitions that differentiate between distinct groups of people. They have NOTHING to do with race, and any suggestion that they do is offensive to a lot of people who are not racists. I’ve been an “expat”, a “migrant” and an “immigrant”. And I’m fairly sure my skin colour didn’t change between them.

I grew up in Hong Kong, the child of an expatriate couple who had moved there from India. I moved to the United States to study and work on “temporary resident” visas, where I was generally considered an immigrant. And my wife and I immigrated to the United Kingdom.

Lets start with my first label: expat. An expatriate is someone who is temporarily living in a country different from their home country. They have typically been brought there but the country or their employer to fill a skill gap in that country and the expectation is that they will return to their home country at some point in the future. My Indian parents were expats in Hong Kong. As were hundreds of other Indian families. My secondary school, which catered to expat children, included students from 84 different countries, and after graduation almost 90% of us left to return to our home countries (or to immigrate elsewhere). Many of these students were white. Many were not — Africans, South Americans and of course Asians were all represented.

At the age of 18, I chose to go to the United States for university, rather than return to India. As anyone who has endured it will testify, the U.S. immigration system is one of the most convoluted and ridiculous systems in the world. My student visa (the F-1) and first work visa (H1-B) were both migrant/ expatriate visas — in theory you could lose your visa if you expressed an intent to stay in the country permanently. I was a migrant.

“Migrant” is the most difficult of these three terms. While it definitionally applies to both other labels, the colloquial use is typically more judgemental. A “migrant” typically refers to something less than an immigrant or an expat. Someone who is typically allowed in to the country to temporarily fill a skill shortage, but in an area that the country (and the company hiring them) decides does not deserve a full route to residence and the benefits that accompany being an expat. Often these workers aren’t allowed to bring families with them, and if they do the family members cannot work. The immigration policies that don’t treat these Mexican “migrant workers” in California, Filipino “domestic workers” in Hong Kong, or Indian “migrants” in the UAE are definitely morally questionable. But there is a clear difference, and applying different labels to each is not.

An immigrant, on the other hand, moves to a different country seeking a permanent or semi-permanent home. Immigrants leave countries where they perceive a lack of opportunity (be it for economic, social or political reasons) and move to countries where they expect they can make a better life for themselves and their families. It is something, when done correctly, to be celebrated: the human experience is all about striving to improve your life and society. Immigrants have always played a massive role in the success of the countries that take them.

These countries benefit greatly, but also deserve a lot of credit for providing a route to “naturalisation” — a great many countries are racist and don’t provide the same. India, China, and many of the countries that provide the bulk of immigrants to other states fall into this bucket. I lived in Hong Kong for 15 years, but since I don’t have an ethnically Chinese grandparent I can never become a citizen — I don’t have a route to be an immigrant. I moved to the United Kingdom as an immigrant specifically because of the opportunity to become “British” — an opportunity I finally availed myself of last year.

We should be celebrating the opportunities these countries provide, we should be fighting to improve the lives of these immigrants to make it a better experience (because it undoubtedly is harder in many cases than it should be), we should be working to improve the opportunities in the countries that are losing some of their best and brightest talents that don’t want to deal with the corruption, the bureaucracy or the multitude of problems that simple daily life poses. Instead, The Guardian and the author from SiliconAfrica would have us think that the problem is that we use different terms for white people. “Immigrant” is not a derogatory term. The U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada, India & China (to name but a few) and far better off for the contributions that immigrants have made over the course of their respective histories.

Racism exists. Lets focus on pointing it out and correcting it where it does, rather than feeling slighted by completely rational terms. If you want to protest in Sacramento about the treatment of our farm workers, if you’d like to march on Government House in Hong Kong urging a fairer deal for our cleaners, maids and nanny’s, send me a ticket and I’ll be right beside you. Otherwise, shut the hell up and stop taking attention away from the people with actual problems.