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Travel for All: The Ex-pat vs. Immigrant Debate

Central Americans help the community in Virginia
Central Americans help the community in Virginia.

I asked my friend from Honduras why she left her country to work abroad. I knew it wasn’t easy for her: walking 30 minutes every day to her shift at a fast food restaurant; standing for eight hours without break; walking home to help her 7-year-old son with homework she didn’t understand; feeling hopeless when her son refused to speak Spanish. I knew she agonized over the separation from her oldest son still living with his grandmother in Honduras. It was never easy, but still she chose to move.

“I came for the opportunities,” she replied. “It will be a better life for my children.”

I went to another friend of mine: a U.S. citizen living in Costa Rica working for a study abroad program. “Why did you leave your home and everything familiar?” I asked him.

He had lived and worked in San José for over 20 years and had even considered getting dual citizenship. He was a Tico at heart, spoke flawless Pachuco street slang, and had a large Liga flag over his desk.

“I was tired of my life in the States,” he said. “I wanted something refreshing. I wanted better opportunities.”

When I compare these two friends, their stories don’t end differently. They both want a feeling of security or purpose that seems unobtainable in their home countries. Both have made sacrifices for their new lives. However, the way they get to their new homes and how they are perceived when they arrive are hemispheres apart.

When I look at my first group of friends — Spanish-speakers from Central America working in the United States — I hear many labels: immigrant; undocumented; alien; illegal. I have other friends from countries like Burundi, the Congo, and Iraq. I hear these words used to describe them: refugee; asylum-seeker; foreigner; stranger. These terms are technically correct, with the exception of calling someone illegal. Actions are illegal. People are not. However, these terms can get lost in a jumble of misinformation and historical "othering" that leave my friends floundering in a sea of semantics.

Central Americans learn new skills in the U.S.
Central Americans learn new skills in the U.S.

When I look at my second group of friends, I see these labels: ex-pat; wanderer; explorer; adventurer. My group is encouraged to travel. We spend one week in other countries to teach Bible schools or play soccer with local children. We’re usually successful when we apply to teach English abroad or receive a visa. In fact, a visa may not be required; we might not need more than a passport to travel for a short time.

Recently, I was sitting in the office of a congressman with two undocumented friends known as DREAMers. The girls came to the United States when one was 9 and the other just 6 months old. They speak perfect English and graduated from high school with honors. They are now studying law, journalism, criminal justice, and forensics at a private university in Virginia. They have achieved much in their short lives, but they still don’t enjoy the rights of their classmates or even younger siblings.

One friend told the congressman’s aide, “We know this is our home, but at the same time it doesn’t always feel like home. It’s hard to love a place so much and not be accepted.”

My other friend added, “I want to visit my birth country someday even though I can’t remember it. A part of me wants to go back. I want to see my grandmother.”

One friend is from Guatemala. The other is from Nicaragua. I have visited both of their countries: first as a volunteer, second for a study trip in college. I have seen the cities where they were born. I have tasted their local delicacies and danced in their festivals. I have delighted in opportunities these friends have been denied.

The privilege of travel is a life-changing and formative process. I would never trade my experiences studying and working in other countries. However, we often don’t consider the shadow side of travel: the struggle and sacrifice that comes with leaving everything to work abroad. The stories some of my friends share about crossing the border seem right out of a horror story or adventure novel. There are accounts of walking one by one in the desert, the coyotes cautioning them to keep the next person in front of them for they will not stop. My friend talks about the people who couldn’t make it without resting, who fell into crevices or died in the desert, leaving behind their dreams in the scrub brush and dust.

Another young man speaks about leaving his homeland because of gangs and ending up in New York, addicted to drugs. While in New York, he contracted AIDS from infected needles. When my social worker friend finally caught up with him, there was nothing she could do except ask how she could help him.

“I just really want to talk to my mom,” he told her. “Can I call my mom?”

The social worker asked if he would still leave his country again, knowing he would eventually get AIDS.

“Yes,” he said. “I would still come. I had nothing. This is better. Even AIDS is better than what I was living through.”

Ex-pats or Immigrants?

A recent Wall Street Journal blog post by an American ex-pat living in Hong Kong strived to define the differences between ex-patriates and immigrants.

“Anyone with roots in a Western country is considered an expat,” Christopher DeWolf writes. “Filipino domestic helpers are just guests, even if they’ve been here for decades. By contrast, a native Cantonese speaker earns an automatic right to belong, even if she spent most of her life in Sydney or Vancouver.”

DeWolf goes on to say a Filipino worker might live the rest of her life in Hong Kong but probably won’t get permanent residency, while he, a Canadian, is granted all rights and privileges after just seven years.

“A more current interpretation of the term “expat” has more to do with privilege,” DeWolf says. “Expats are free to roam between countries and cultures, privileges not afforded to those considered immigrants or migrant workers.”

How to Work Abroad: Comparing and Contrasting the U.S. and Costa Rica

When hearing the similar but divergent narratives of my two groups of friends, I decided to do some research about the process of working abroad in the United States compared to a Central American country like Costa Rica. When I visited Costa Rica to study abroad, I didn’t need anything more than a passport and a plane ticket home. I was allowed to stay in the country for three months. Meanwhile, Costa Ricans need a visa to visit the U.S. even as a tourist. The visa application fee is mandatory for all persons including children and even victims of human trafficking. It is nonrefundable even if the applicant is denied entry. This has deterred many of my Costa Rican friends from applying or reapplying for a visa since they often don’t have $100-200 to spare if they are denied.

Students work abroad on farms in Costa Rica
Students may work abroad on farms in Costa Rica.

The legal processes to achieve temporary residence in Costa Rica or temporary work visas in the United States can be complicated but are achievable. Both countries have different visas or residencies to consider before applying. Some are specifically for retirees, religious workers or students. The U.S. has a visa for extraordinary persons or for seasonal migrant workers.

Four most common types of residencies in Costa Rica

  • Family relationship to a Costa Rican
  • Pensioner — must show evidence of a monthly pension of $1000 or more
  • Rentista — must show evidence of a permanent monthly income from a source outside Costa Rica of $2500 or more
  • Investor — must invest $200,000 in an approved sector of the Costa Rican economy
Temporary Residencies in Costa Rica

You can also apply for special permits to study, do research, volunteer, and work abroad. Apply for these using the General Office of Migration in Costa Rica.

Work abroad: Costa Rica vs U.S.

Types of Work Visas to the United States

H-1B: Person in Specialty Occupation:

Requires a higher education degree. Examples: government-to-government research and development, or co-production projects administered by the Department of Defense.

H-1B1: Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Professional 

Requires a post-secondary degree involving at least four years of study in the field of specialization. Does not need a petition.

H-2A: Temporary Agricultural Worker

For temporary or seasonal agricultural work. “Limited to citizens or nationals of designated countries, with limited exceptions, if determined to be in the United States interest.”

H-2B: Temporary Non-agricultural Worker

For temporary or seasonal non- agricultural work. “Limited to citizens or nationals of designated countries, with limited exceptions, if determined to be in the United States interest.”

H-3: Trainee or Special Education visitor

To receive training in the education of children with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities. (If training is not available in your home country)

L: Intracompany Transferee:

To work at a branch, parent, affiliate, or subsidiary of the current employer in a managerial or executive capacity, or in a position requiring specialized knowledge. 

O: Individual with Extraordinary Ability or Achievement

For persons with extraordinary ability or achievement in the sciences, arts, education, business, athletics, or extraordinary recognized achievements in the motion picture and television fields, demonstrated by sustained national or international acclaim, to work in their field of expertise. Also includes persons providing services to the extraordinary person.

P-1: Individual or Team Athlete, or Member of an Entertainment Group

To perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete or as a member of an entertainment group.

P-2: Artist or Entertainer (Individual or Group)

For performance under a reciprocal exchange program between an organization in the United States and an organization in another country. 

P-3: Artist or Entertainer (Individual or Group)

To perform, teach or coach under a program that is culturally unique or a traditional ethnic, folk, cultural, musical, theatrical, or artistic performance or presentation. Includes persons providing essential services in support of the above individual.

Q-1: Participant in an International Cultural Exchange Program

For practical training and employment and for sharing of the history, culture, and traditions of your home country through participation in an international cultural exchange program.

Applying for U.S. Work Visa vs. Costa Rica Temporary Residency

When I started my search, I couldn’t find any information on work visas to the U.S. Every single site was for Americans who wanted residency in Costa Rica. After digging a little deeper, I found the step-by-step requirements for getting temporary work status to the U.S. on the U.S. Department of State-Bureau of Consular Affairs website.

Before you can even apply for a U.S. work visa, you usually need your employer or agent to file a petition that must be approved by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (UCIS). After it is approved, you can begin applying for a work visa.

Note: the work abroad infographic doesn’t deal with legal residency or citizenship but details the process of obtaining temporary residency in Costa Rica for U.S. citizens and temporary work visas in the United States for Central Americans. 

Since each applicant is considered on a case-by-case basis, visa processing time can take up to a few weeks or months—usually under 60 days. Being processed for permanent residency or citizenship can take years or even multiple decades.

Travel for All

After researching the process required to work abroad, the debate about who qualifies as an expatriate and who is an immigrant seems to come down to a question of semantics and socioeconomics.

As Andrew Kureth writes in the Journal of Poland:

“Our usage of these words reveals a certain double standard. Whether you’re an expat or an immigrant depends not on your residency plans, but on the relative wealth of your native country.”

In the end, both groups of friends are seeking better opportunities for themselves and their families. The magic and movement of travel cannot be reserved only for people from specific countries and lifestyles. Opportunities to learn, serve, and work abroad must be extended to all cultures. Sometimes crossing borders means arriving in another destination. But other times, it means moving past preconceived social and economic barriers to see others in an entirely new light.

For More Information

Working Abroad in Costa Rica

U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica

Obtaining a U.S. Work Visa

Worker Visa Information

Applying for a U.S. Visa in Costa Rica

Working in the United States | USCIS

More by Ashleigh Bugg
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Working in Spain with the Language and Culture Assistants Program

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