How is an expat different from a “migrant worker”?

Kerry Howley of Reason recently brought up a fascinating point about how our use of language might reflect some of our subconscious prejudices. She writes:

“If you picked up, moved to Paris, and landed a job, what would you call yourself? Chances are, if you’re an American, you’d soon find yourself part of a colorful community of ‘expats.’ If, while there, you hired an Algerian nanny– a woman who had picked up, moved abroad, and landed a job– how would you refer to him or her? Expat probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind. Yet almost no one refers to herself as a ‘migrant worker.'”

In my experience, she’s right. Having lived abroad a few times, I never once thought of myself as a “migrant worker” or even an “immigrant.” I was always an expat. But why? What is the distinction? It seems the word “expat” is mostly used when referring to Westerners living abroad, but how would our perception of immigrants– and “migrant workers”– in the U.S. change if we thought of them as expats? Or if, when we lived abroad, we called ourselves “migrant workers?”

Laura María Agustín, author of a new book about human trafficking, addresses the question thusly in her Reason interview: “‘The crux of the difference concerns autonomy; whether travellers are perceived to have quite a lot versus little or none at all.’ Theories of migration portray migrants as unsophisticated and desperate people who are “pushed” and “pulled” along a variety of dimensions. ‘The tourism and pleasure-seeking of people from ‘developing societies’, rarely figures, as though migration and tourism were mutually exclusive,’ she writes, ‘Why should the travels to work of people from less wealthy countries be supposed to differ fundamentally from those of Europeans?’ ‘Migrants’ travel because they are poor and desperate, ‘expatriates’ travel because they are curious, self-actualizing cosmopolites.”

Over at his blog The Fly Bottle, economist Will Wilkinson reacts: “First, prior to reading her [Kerry’s] interview with Laura María Agustín, it had not occurred to me to think of a Mexican gardener as an “expat” or that relatively poor people might also be interested in traveling across borders out of curiosity or a sense of adventure. That really is shameful. My inner Kant, my inner Christian, recoils at my failure to see persons as persons as persons, all with reasons worth taking seriously, all very like my own.”

The point of this post is not to have a referendum on the relative merits of immigration and guest worker programs, but just to point out a bit of a double standard in our language when discussing people who work abroad.

As always, I’m eager to hear what people think of this idea– that the “expat vs. guest worker” distinction reveals some implicit, often unfair, assumptions about people who travel to other countries to work. Let me know your thoughts in the Comments.