THIS HAS NOT BEEN A GOOD FEW months for the world’s immigrants. Donald Trump, one of the leading candidates in the nascent 2016 U.S. Presidential election has based his entire platform on slurring immigrants while another Republican, Scott Walker, is ludicrously suggesting that the country just surround itself with walls. In the meantime, all of Europe is in an uproar over whether or not to accept refugees that are fleeing from their war-torn countries in droves. Thousands of these refugees have died en route to Europe, either because they’ve crowded onto unseaworthy ships which have then sunk, or because they’ve been exploited by ruthless human traffickers. At the same time, Europe’s tabloid press is describing the flood of refugees as an “invasion,” as if it’s an intentional act of aggression rather than a humanitarian crisis.
I’m watching all of this unfold from a strange vantage point. A few years ago, I worked as the web guy for an immigration non-profit, where part of my daily job was to wade through all of the nasty, xenophobic comments on our blog and social media about immigrants “invading” the cities of the U.S. and Europe. Now I work for Matador, where I am constantly seeing the same cities, states, and countries bill themselves as “destinations” in an attempt to welcome tourists and backpackers to their shores.
Visit Britain, the Great Britain’s tourism authority, is currently using the tagline “You’re invited,” and is bragging about how the first half of 2015 saw the highest amount of tourism ever for the UK, while government ministers are simultaneously decrying the arrival of Syrian refugees. Sometimes, this contradiction even plays itself out within the same person: Donald Trump, for example, once owned an airline, and still lends his name to the string of hotels and casinos he founded. How, I wonder, can people be so welcoming to travelers, but so hostile towards immigrants?
I’m sure Trump and others who think like him would jump to make the distinction between tourism and immigration. But the line between the two is murkier than you might think.
Immigration and travel are both manifestations of the fundamental human urge to move. Scientist and educator Carl Sagan believed this urge was a result of human evolution.
“For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy. Unfulfilled.” he once said. “Even after 400 generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten. The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood… Your own life, or your band’s, or even your species, may be owed to a restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds.”
Humanity’s adaptability and willingness to explore has been a central reason for our survival over time. We move for countless reasons: out of necessity, out of boredom, out of a desire for material gain, out of desire for personal freedom, or out of desire for adventure. But no matter what, we move.
In the modern world, we’ve made distinctions about the different types of movement, though. Movement that’s temporary, where we visit a place and then leave, we’ve named “travel.” Movement that’s permanent, where we move somewhere with the intention of staying for the long term, we’ve named “immigration.” But as it turns out, this division is actually kind of bullshit.
Travel is called different things depending on your race.
Earlier this year, Mawouna Remarque Koutonin at the Guardian pointed out something that many of us had never noticed: white people who live abroad are the only ones who are referred to as “expatriates.” If you are not white, the term applied to you will be “immigrant.” Expatriate has a classier, Hemingway-esque vibe to it. It sounds dashing and adventurous, while immigrant sounds needy and impoverished. The two terms mean the exact same thing, but they are not applied as synonyms. They evoke very different images, and we associate “expat” more with the idea of travel than we do with “immigrant.”
These linguistic flips are incredibly common in the discussion of immigration and travel. Refugees become “asylum seekers,” the citizen children of immigrants become “anchor babies,” a wandering Australian working his way around Southeast Asia while on gap year is a “backpacker,” or a “nomad,” while a traveling Mexican worker in the U.S. is just an “migrant worker.” In part, this is because the language of travel has for so long been dominated by white, often colonialist men. This colonialist tendency has an innate white supremacy to it: the presence of the civilized white man in another society is always a gift, as he elevates the society by his presence, whereas the uncivilized brute’s presence in the white man’s society is corroding white civilization’s very fabric. You can still see this in the very premise of a lot of modern travel writing: why, you might ask yourself, is the author more qualified to write about this foreign culture than a native of that culture would be?
Virtually all of the arguments against immigration are myths.
The other distinction that’s made between the two types of movement is that immigration is perceived as “bad” for the local economy, while travel is “good.” But, as it turns out, the argument that immigrants — even undocumented ones — are bad for the economy is a myth. Research shows that immigrants don’t “steal jobs,” that they do pay taxes, and that they significantly contribute to local economies. Immigrants are even — despite myths to the contrary — less likely to commit crimes than citizens.
In the U.S., immigration is often caricatured as a constant flood of immigrants across our southern border. While the border is a source of a lot of undocumented immigration, it’s also only part of the story: by some estimates, nearly 40% of the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants are here because they overstayed their work, student, or tourist visas. The beloved “tourists,” flying in legally through our airports, often become the dreaded “illegal immigrant.” Politicians tend to not focus on this because it’s much easier to stoke fear with the image of a barbarian horde flooding over our borders, and because work, student, and tourist visas are generally seen as a good thing, because they’re good for the economy. No politicians wants to point out that every visiting tourist is a potential undocumented immigrant.
In point of fact, the lines between the two categories are fuzzy. How long must a traveler stay in one place before becoming an immigrant? If an immigrant moves with relative frequency, but within the same country, do they cease being an immigrant and start being a traveler? And to what extent do race and class determine which category a person falls into?
The divide only really, concretely exists in a legal sense. And the laws that made these lines are changeable and are often arbitrary. The divide between an immigrant and a traveler is just a social construct.
Travel for leisure is not more valid than travel for necessity.
If you remove the elitist and racist elements of the divide, if you ignore the legalise, the only difference between travelers and immigrants is that travelers are moving because they’re bored or restless or just want to do something fun and exciting, while immigrants and refugees are moving because they need to, or because they want something better. So you could very easily make the argument that immigration is a much more noble act than travel.
So why are we so excited about visiting tourists, but so dismayed about arriving immigrants? Is it because we prefer house guests to new neighbors? Or is it because we just don’t like people who aren’t like us?
We can be a society that values travel, but only if we’re a society that also values immigration. They are one and the same.
Featured photo: Paul Sableman