I read this really interesting post today at Shakesville about the who gets to be "immigrants" or "expats."* I really have experienced that good immigrant, bad immigrant dichotomy (with Liss's post assuming that "expat" is good, "immigrant" is bad). All the time I lived in Spain, there would be a lot of grousing about immigrants, which is, admittedly, a relatively new phenomenon (compared obviously with here and the UK to a certain extent - we're talking last 20 years rather than 50-400). When I would point out that I was, too, an immigrant, I'd get some variant on "oh, they're not like you, you're different/fine."
It would drive me mad. Do you point out that the cheap food, the amazing new buildings, the nannies, these are all underpinned by the immigrant class that they're so willing to dismiss/scorn/denigrate? Is it even worth it, when the response is so often "yes, but they're thieves/immoral / dirty/blah blah blah."
I would never, ever, ever use the term "expat" to describe myself. My aversion is based on the involuntary shudders of horror at the connotations the word has for me, those of sweaty Englishmen on the southern Spanish coast who refuse to speak Spanish, only eat baked beans, and refuse to take part in la vida there. That is, it's based on snobbery. At least in part. But the other part is that I see immigration as integration - you contribute to the economy, society and culture, you become part of that country, even if it's temporary. I met an expat when I lived in Barcelona who had spent her entire life in Spain, yet spoke virtually no Spanish. It makes no sense to me. Expats, to me, are simply those who want their own lives, their own culture and society, just with better weather/lower taxes. They go for the jobs and nothing else. People rail at Mexican and other American immigrants taking American jobs, but it's not that - they come here not just for work but to build a better future for their families and their kids, whether at home or in the States. For some, it is the dream of being estadounidense, for others it's being able to send their kids to decent schools and clothe and feed extended families.
Why would someone would label someone else one of these two things. It's simple class snobbery. We (the hypothetical, not me) hate the peasants, but the educated folks, they can come over here all they want. It's fear of a grasping, swarming underclass that lives in a way we don't understand. Whereas the white upper middle classes, they're so like us. You can hear it in the language - flooding, invaded, overwhelmed, "those people." They find poor people utterly infra dig. and graceless in general - they are embarrassed and ashamed of their own compatriots who are poor, so what chance is there for these highly visible people - visible targets because they speak differently and are darker skinned, in general. Yet, invisibly, the poor people grow and harvest our food, they tend to our children for only $200 a month (we wouldn't want it interfering with spending sprees at J. Crew or on a meal), they bring us food, they wash our dishes, mow our lawns, and do everything else that makes America so great - not the Americas, obviously, but the US of A.** In contrast, someone who could be educated at home, but elects not to, there is an elegance and element of liberty and freedom to that that we understand.
For me, I've always assumed that it's an obvious choice you make as to whether you're an expat or an immigrant, at least in mindset. Sadly, in terms of labelling, it is generally only those of (white) European descent who get the privilege of labelling themselves, rather than being labelled.
* Update: This is actually an entire series. On the term "illegal," read this. On the arrest of Ingmar Guandique, read this (the post that started the series).
** Note: This bitter tirade also applies to the UK and our complete ingratitude and ignorance about immigrants and "asylum seekers." I'm not just getting at the US - I'm getting at the people who think like this, wherever they are.