My Two Colones

Are you an Expat or are you an Immigrant?

The first time I heard the word expat was when I was working at Fragomen, one of the largest Immigration Law Firms in the world. Fragomen is mainly dedicated to corporate immigration, which means that they charge an arm and a leg to multinational corporations to transfer their employees worldwide. It makes sense that the word expat would be used in such a setting, since “transferred employees” only remain in the host country for a few years, so there is no intention to engage in a permanent relocation. Anyhow, the word “expat” was new for me, which was odd I since I had already been practicing immigration law for over five years.

Having been an immigrant myself, as well as being very familiar with the history of the Americas, the term immigrant seemed very comprehensive to me. I did not know that there was a fancy word for immigrant.

I started doing immigration work with the International Institute of Buffalo, in Buffalo New York. From that point on, I was involved in different projects and programs related to Immigrants in Western New York. We did everything: removal proceedings, withholding of removal, family petitions, asylum cases, so on and so forth. At the Volunteer Lawyers Project we did workshops in a Federal Detention in Batavia, where we taught detainees about their rights during deportation proceedings. That was a great experience, I was very fortunate to assist people from all over the world. We helped people from Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, China, Bhutan, Somalia, Iraq, Angola, England, Canada, Poland, you name it.

At the International Institute of Buffalo, I worked under the direction of Michele Henriques; she was from Buffalo and went to law school in Ohio, later married a Portuguese man and  lived in Portugal for over ten years. My mentor was Eugenia Ruiz, an excellent cavalier attorney from Colombia; she went to law school in Buffalo and had been living in the US for over seven years. The executive director was Pam Kefi, who had lived in Tunisia while in the Peace Corp, now living in Haiti. The International Institute had people from all over the place, Daniel from California, Joao from Brazil, Annette whose parents were from Macedonia, Mrs. Frenette from the Philippines, May from Lebanon, etc. At the Volunteer Lawyers Project, my boss was Sophie Feal from France, her parents were immigrants from France and Spain. The executive director was Robert Elardo, a third generation immigrant from Italy.  They were all immigrants, we were all immigrants.

Buffalo, like many other cities in the US, is full of people from somewhere else. People generally take that for granted. The initial European settlers in Buffalo were French who referred to the area as beu fleuve or pretty river in French which later evolved into “Buffalo”. When the French arrived to Western New York, there were already native tribes located in the area, primarily by the Senecas, and more to the east by the Mohawks and the Onandagas and other tribes.  After the French – Indian wars, the Niagara region became part of the British Colonies, which brought an influx of immigrants to the area. Once an independent nation, the US had an immigration policy open to Europeans and in the turn of the century, waves of immigrants from Europe arrived to the US. Buffalo experienced a significant change in its demographics. There were Italians, Germans, Irish and Polish. Later on, the new millennium saw an influx of people from Sudan, Buthan, Irak, India, Croacia, Thailand, and plenty of other places.

The history of the US is a history of immigrants. So it is the history of plenty of other countries. While growing up in Costa Rica, you quickly learn that it was a former Spaniard colony, and as such, a lot of people are of Spaniard descent, or so they say. So you can find a lot of González, Rodríguez, Álvarez, Martínez, Sánchez, López, Fernández, all Spaniard last names. Needless to say, it would give you the idea that there are a lot descendants from Spaniard immigrants.

Later in Costa Rican history, you learn about the arrival of Afro-Caribbean cultures to the Limón area to build the railroad, primarily from Jamaica, in addition to the influx of European immigrants by the turn of the century, arriving primarily from Italy, Poland and Germany.

Similar trends were noticeable in other countries in Latin America like Brazil and Argentina, Mexico, Perú, Chile, so on and so forth. The remainder of the 20th century saw a diverse mix of immigrants to the Americas, including people from Asia. You can find a sizable Japanese community in Perú and Sao Paulo, Lebanese in Central America and Colombia, and Chinese all over the Americas.

The dictatorships in Spain and Chile, civil unrest in Peru, the conflicts in the Middle East, poverty in China, war in Central America and Colombia, the Chavizmo in Venezuela, all of these have been catalysts prompting people to relocate to Costa Rica.

Traditionally, immigration was the result of an insecure state of affairs that motivated people to find better pastures. The potato famine forced thousands of Irish to migrate to the US and recently, we have seen waves of immigrants from the Middle East arriving in Europe. But in more recent years, different reasons have motivated people from all over the world to find a better place to live. Everybody is entitled to their own interpretation of a better place to live, of a dream.


When I started working at Fragomen, soon I realized that immigrant was not the appropriate word to refer to those employees being transferred by the companies that hired us. They preferred the term expat.

Some of the definitions found in the dictionary for an expatriate include: to leave one’s country to live elsewhere, or living in foreign land; while the definition of an immigrant is a person who comes to another country to live there. There is not much difference between the two, but traditionally, immigrant has a different connotation.

If you are from the US, when you think of immigrants, you think of Mexicans working in your gardens, cleaning your pool or cooking your tacos; or you think of what your great grand parents did. You do not think that being an immigrant is something you would become. The latter is particularly applicable to transferred employees of multibillion dollar companies.  When you are transferring the VP of Marketing for a multinational company to Chile, that person is not a starving Sicilian arriving into Ellis Island, certainly he would not think of himself as an immigrant. The most appropriate connotation would be that of an expatriate, particularly if the transfer is for a few years and not permanent.

These companies’ transferees think that they are better than the average immigrant. They are not. They are people of flesh and bones living in another country, which sounds like an immigrant to me. There is certainly a difference between the American Exxon Mobile executive living in Buenos Aires and the Bolivian serving tables in San Telmo. The former makes a lot more money; but, is that the way we are going to keep measuring the quality of people? Being called an expat does not make anybody a better immigrant.

I have been providing immigration services in Costa Rica for over six years. Funny enough, I have noticed that Canadian, European and US immigrants in Costa Rica calling themselves expats and not immigrants. It appears that in the expat community, the only immigrants are the Nicaraguans and nobody else. Even Colombians and Venezuelans have a hard time acknowledging that they are immigrants. They are just foreigners.

Humans are interesting, they believe that euphemisms can change the reality of the human experiment.


I have an issue with the word immigrant in the sense that people do not immigrate. In my opinion, people migrate. Just like many other species of animals, people move from one place to another. Swallows migrate from North America to South America and from Africa to Europe, back and forth every year. They are considered migratory birds. You never heard an European ornithologist talking about immigratory birds, they refer to them as migratory birds. So why did we decide to call other people immigrants instead of migrants?

In my opinion, the word “immigration” is ethnocentric and nationalistic, it is the result of the mentality of “us versus them”, where “them” refers to the foreigners coming into “our land”. Go ahead and do some research for the origin of the word immigrant, and you will find that it is not very easy to determine where it comes from or when and where it was first used, but a number of dictionaries allocate the origin in the US in the late 1700s. Merriam Webster places the origin in 1789, It makes sense since it is the year that the US Constitution became effective.

The founding fathers understood that the new nation was created by immigrants. After all, the colonies fighting for independence where constituted by Europeans, but they could not see themselves as an European colony any longer, but as a whole new nation. It was a different scenario for Ontario, Quebec and Mexico, where they still claimed allegiance to European powers. As such, they were not immigrants, they only were coloners, they were not inhabiting a new nation, instead they were just occupying a foreign land in representation of the mother land back in Europe.

Article one of the US Constitution sets forth the requirements for being a representative in Congress, including having been a citizen of the US for at least seven years, which allows the option for immigrants to have a seat in Congress. This is unprecedented. The concept of allegiance was interpreted differently in the old continent. There was not a chance that a French subject could have a seat in the English Parliament. Those rights were reserved only for British, particularly of a certain class. Traditionally in Europe, the rights of people were granted based on their relationship to the king as subjects. The US Revolution change that notion, as there were no subjects after independence, now there were citizens.

Since the dawn of humanity, the notion of “us versus them” have persisted. From the alleged territorial disputes between the Cro-Magnons and Neanderthal, to the modern Israeli-Palestine conflict, we humans have been very loyal to the idea of distancing ourselves from other groups that were somewhat different. Europe has had a long lasting history of conflict. From the wars of the Hellenistic period of the Bronze Age, to the Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Imperial conflicts with Russians, Prussians, French, British, and the World Wars. Present day Europe has not seen a rest from conflict, recently, we have seen the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and the chaos of the Syrian refugees. The belligerent nature of humans has been present in any time and space. “Us versus them”.

The new nation was no different. The lack of empathy to other cultures was inherent in the American tradition. Understanding that the new country was a nation of immigrants translated into having an open door policy for immigrants, but only “as long as we receive the immigrants that we like”. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to white persons only. The new free country did not restrict the rights of black people because they were black, it was because they were not citizens, but there was a catch, only white people could be citizens. Tough luck. Subsequent Naturalization laws increased the restrictions for becoming a citizen. But these were naturalization laws, not immigration laws. One of the first immigration acts in the US was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. From that moment on, the US created a laundry list of exclusionary immigration laws. The “us versus them” was already ingrained in American Culture.

Exclusionary immigration laws are the result of sense of superiority, from the perspective that we do not want those people into our country because we believe that they are inferior, which permeates the concept of immigrant with undesirability.

So if immigrants are beneath us, why would we consider ourselves undesirable when we become immigrants. Easy, let’s not call ourselves immigrants, instead, we will be called expatriates.

Segregation and Immigration

I like the immigration tradition in US history, but there are a number of wrong things in the immigration context, and as we have reviewed,  the perception of Immigrants in American culture is one of them, and those perceptions are imported by American immigrants into Latin America and other countries. Americans do not arrive to the host countries with the mentality of an immigrant, but that of an expat. This attempt to distant themselves from immigrants is a result of a segregationist and discriminating mentality against immigrants in their home countries. Canadians and Europeans are also culprits of this practice. The primary issue here is not whether you call yourself an immigrant or an expat, the issue is the mentality of segregation. Not too long ago I was having this argument with an immigrant from the US telling me that we should stop the immigration of Syrians into the US. I wonder what makes her believe that she has a better right to be in Costa Rica than a Syrian has to be in the US.

Segregation and discrimination is not exclusive to Americans.  It is not my intention to install the idea that Americans are narcissistic bigots, because in reality every culture is. I believe that the US is the most tolerant and sensitive country when it comes to accepting different cultures. More languages are spoken in New York city than in Europe alone.

Europeans have a sad history of intolerance. Italians are terrible to immigrants, the way that they treat African immigrants from Ethiopia and Somalia is embarrassing. Similar behavior can be found in France towards Algerian, German towards Turkish, Swiss towards anybody. Outside of Europe, the same behavior is common place. Costa Ricans against Nicaraguans, Dominicans against Haitians, Argentineans against Bolivians, Saudi Arabians against Filipinos, Kenyans against Sudanese. And the behavior is not only against foreign nationals, discrimination is also against domestic groups, white Mexicans against natives, the same situation happens in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. In Africa, discrimination from Arabic Sudanese against Bantus resulted in genocide and the creation of the new country of South Sudan. In Bhutan, Buddhist nationals have pushed Bhutanese Christians into exile in Nepal. In recent decades, we have seen genocides in Zaire, East Timor, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and currently the disgrace in Syria among so many other conflicts.

The aforementioned tragedies are a result of the mentality of “us versus them”, which persists in expat communities. I find it interesting how immigrants segregate and ostracize themselves.  I went to law school at the University of New York in Buffalo. It was, or is a very liberal school, with students from all over the world. At the same time, it was very segregated, you will see these clusters and groups of different nationalities, ethnicities and religions mingling only with themselves. People do not try to integrate. I like the saying “when in Rome do as Romans do”. In other words: integrate. I like to celebrate diversity, and I think that people should embrace their heritage in a positive and progressive manner, but when you relocate to another city or country, you should also embrace the host culture and traditions.

Life and work has allowed me the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, and I am proud of that. It is certainly easier when you speak another language. I know plenty of people in Costa Rica who are from another country, and Latin Americans have an easier ride adjusting to Costa Rica since they speak the language. However, I see people from the US, Canada and Europe being more distant from Costa Rican culture. I understand the various factors as to why that happens, but as long as you keep calling yourself an expat, you are then not ready to embrace your new home, which will make it more difficult for you to adapt, particularly considering that Costa Ricans do not have a progressive mentality towards foreigners.

Where ever you decide to move to, it is your new home. There is no reason for you to call yourself an expat, or an immigrant for that matter. Now you are from Costa Rica. Embrace it.


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