When Does an Expat Become an Immigrant?

As Congress considers the comprehensive immigration reform plan introduced last week, it is helpful to remember that the United States is not the only country that is dealing with the related issues of an aging population with a declining birthrate on the one hand, and on the other a large number of foreign-born people who want to enter to the country to work, with varying degrees of commitment to staying.  I’ve paid special attention to the way Japan has approached these issues, because a friend who went to high school with me in Littleton is now a permanent legal resident of that country.  He is part of a trend, because Japan, which has traditionally been far more hostile to immigrants than has the United States, has found itself needing to become more open to allowing migrants to live in the country.Like many industrialized nations, including the United States, Japan has experienced decreasing birthrates in recent years.  Couple that with a stagnant economy, and there has been pressure on the government to liberalize its immigration policy.  This has happened, but only grudgingly.  Although in 2005 Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that chronic labor shortages were not a reason to ease immigration restrictions, Japan has opened its doors slightly to immigrants in recent years.  There are now approximately 2 million legal immigrants in Japan, mostly from the Koreas, China and Brazil, but also including 2.5% (approximately 50,000) who claim the United States as their homeland according to the Migration Policy Institute (xls file).  And almost one in twenty marriages in today’s Japan involves a non-Japanese partner.

Debate over immigration policy in Japan has been depressingly similar to that in the United States.  Foreign immigrants are blamed for crime with little or no evidence, national policy favors immigrants with some claim to Japanese ancestry on the theory that they will be more likely to assimilate to Japanese culture, and brutal treatment of visa overstayers is justified on the ground that those who break the law have no right to complain.

You might wonder why a person would want to live in a country where there is so much hostility toward foreign-born residents.  I think it is something that just creeps up on you.  My friend from Littleton went over there, like many other Americans, just to teach English for a couple of years after college.  But after he did well in that role, suddenly the career opportunities were better in the new country than they would have been upon repatriation to the old one.  Twenty years later, he is married to a Japanese citizen and raising a family over there.  There wasn’t any plan to pull up stakes and become an immigrant to Japan.

I think this isn’t terribly different from the situation faced by a lot of people who move to the United States looking for work.  We call them immigrants, but in their own minds they often are just expatriates who plan on staying here for just a short while.  Of course, there are differences.  The typical person who comes to the United States for work has much gloomier employment prospects back home than an educated American living in Japan.  Also, American immigration policy makes it very difficult for a foreign worker to go home, even for a visit, once they get here.  But the psychological journey from expat worker to permanent resident is probably very similar, and really quite different from the paradigm of nineteenth century Europeans who came to America knowing that they would have little or no chance of going back in that less mobile era.

One insight I get from having this perspective is to be skeptical of a guest worker program as part of an immigration solution.  That type of program is pitched as a win-win for Americans who want foreign laborers to work and then leave, and for workers who tell themselves they only want to work in this country for a couple of years and then move back.  But, totally separate from the open question whether a guest worker program could be run in a way that would not undermine American workers, this pitch for a guest worker program misunderstands the psychological journey of a foreign worker from expat to immigrant.  And frankly, it underrates the appeal of the United States as a place to live — guest workers may come to love America and regret having agreed to give up the chance to make a new life here.

The other insight I get from studying Japan’s approach to immigration is that the United States is far ahead of the rest of the world in forging a new national identity that is not based on biological ancestry.  If Japan, which is notorious for having a narrow biological definition of what it means to be Japanese, can find itself having to open the door to immigrants as a way of keeping its economy afloat, how on Earth can people in America, famous for blending cultures from around the world, fear immigration for cultural reasons?  In our increasingly mobile world, countries we used to view as ethnically and culturally homogenous will come to look more and more like our multiracial, multicultural, multilingual United States.  Our ability to bring people of different cultural heritages together is our greatest strength as Americans, and it may also be the reason we have so far avoided a long economic downturn like the one Japan has experienced.  Let’s hope our leaders don’t forget that.

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About the Author

Luis Toro

is a veteran Colorado lawyer and ethics rabble-rouser who’s director of Colorado Ethics Watch. His email is LuisToro87@post.harvard.edu.

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