New World Borders

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto BY Suketu Mehta. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 320 pages. $27.

In 2009 Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, the island nation sinking into the sea, put on a wet suit and an air tank and, along with several of his ministers, held a cabinet meeting underwater. Nasheed hoped to give the world a sense of its collective future. At an event at Columbia Law School he later said: “You can drastically reduce your greenhouse gas emissions so that the seas do not rise so much. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can let us in. Or when we show up on your shores in our boats, you can shoot us. You pick.”

The rest of the world has long warned the West of the perils of colonialism, war, and climate change, but these warnings have gone unheeded. This inaction stems not only from self-interest, arrogance, and racism, but also from the massive disconnect between the Global South’s historical experience and our own. The victims of the industrialized world carry a lived history, both causes and effects, and an understanding of the past and future; those from wealthy countries have lived in an everlasting present, ignorant of the past and, for a long time, immune to the future. The global migrant crisis is the most potent manifestation of the collapse of that eternal present, and with it comes all the confusion, fear, and rage of millions of privileged, supposedly educated people, who can no longer make sense of the world.

Nasheed’s quote comes from a new book by an immigrant attempting to make sense of it for them. When the writer Suketu Mehta’s Indian grandfather was sitting in a park in London in the 1980s, a British man sneered at him, “Why are you here? . . . Why are you in my country?” His grandfather replied, “Because we are the creditors. . . . You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” Almost forty years later, Mehta writes in This Land Is Our Land, “We are here . . . because you were there.”

The book is a defiant manifesto of human rights for all immigrants, a category that includes Mehta’s own family. It is also an extended, angry plea directed toward President Trump and all who mimic him. This style of desperate argumentation is evident across many recent works about immigrants. In multimedia magazine pieces, novels like Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, and the latest season of Orange Is the New Black or the mind-boggling British series Years and Years, there is a sense of urgency to convey the humanity of anyone crossing borders. These projects are up against the prejudice, cynicism, and thrilling childishness of the right-wing media. What works best against the anti-immigrant propaganda of outlets like Fox News? Showing the inner lives and emotions of migrants, or the harrowing details of their trek across a desert? Offering the most gruesome depictions of violence—or portraits of innocence and resilience?

Border Field State Park, San Diego, November 15, 2018. Mani Albrecht/U.S. Customs and Border Protection

What does not seem likely to convince them are Mehta’s pro-immigration arguments: the benefits for a country’s economy or to one’s otherwise boring life from being exposed to a diverse culture. “For many countries, immigrants are, literally, the future of the nation,” Mehta writes. “Diversity isn’t just a nice thing to have; it is actively essential to attract the kind of people who create wealth.” It’s hard to imagine someone who hates immigrants being persuaded by the joys and benefits of multiculturalism, no matter how many thoughtful statistics Mehta deploys. The true challenge that remains is to explain why worldwide migration is even happening, that it is not some deranged demon conspiracy as conceived by Tucker Carlson, and how elastic, if not open, immigration policies are a just and moral response to what is in fact a global, existential necessity.

Here is where Mehta’s most authoritative and undeniable argument unfolds. The huge worldwide shifts of the twenty-first century—which have a long history but seem quite new, thanks to the immediacy and visibility of the internet—are impossible for many people to comprehend. Mehta fills in the blanks. He tells a bloody, traumatic story, and one no Western reader will feel proud of, though there can also be a strange comfort in understanding the logic of the present. History might be the best weapon against fear.

Mehta’s narrative proves that mass migration has long been inevitable, even encouraged by its very detractors. He begins with British colonialism: “The rich countries have always claimed the freedom to move around the planet, not just to sightsee or seek employment, but to invade, conquer.” This might seem like old news, but it isn’t even conventional wisdom anymore that colonialism was bad; popular thinkers like Niall Ferguson have spun narratives that have become commonplace on both sides of the aisle, offering self-aggrandizing notions that imperialism brought the benighted countries of the world “Western norms of law, order and governance.” Mehta points out that colonialism first meant the devastation of livelihoods, communities, and economies, which has naturally led to the mass movement of peoples. In one section of the book, he gives a step-by-step breakdown of how imperial endeavors ravaged lands from the Middle East to China: by looting the riches of kings, imposing extortionate taxes, preventing the establishment of national industries, and conscripting foreign men to fight in Western wars. The British East India Company “increased the taxes it forcibly collected on crops, and 10 million people, a third of Bengal, starved to death,” Mehta writes. “Another 29 million Indians under British rule died of famines in the nineteenth century, partly because India was forced to export 10 million tons of food a year.” The wealthy European countries became wealthy only because of this unending access to other peoples’ sustenance and means of providing for themselves. He quotes the comedian Frankie Boyle: “We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them.”

The relative poverty into which these countries fell is not the only reason so many of their citizens would eventually migrate to more prosperous places. The Western powers themselves moved people so they could use them as cheap labor. “The French,” Mehta writes, “recruited more than 200,000 laborers from North Africa, Indochina, and Madagascar during World War I to work behind the lines”—in other words, “to work in their factories and at low-wage jobs that their own people didn’t want to do.” The failures of imperial rule would have long-lasting consequences, as the generations that endured oppression found themselves compelled to move to wealthier countries, but then couldn’t survive in the “modern” marketplace. Mehta points out that millions of Algerians moved to France because their own economy had been destroyed by war and colonization. But when they arrived, he writes, they were disadvantaged thanks to the French colonial rulers who had failed to educate them—and were then blamed for their illiteracy, could not find work, and wound up stuck in ghettos. Forced migration during and after Western wars created much of the world as we know it. Mehta reminds us that the haphazardly drawn nation-states of the twentieth century demanded the movement of millions of people in the former Ottoman Empire, a trend that would continue during World War II and then the Vietnam War, throughout the wars of the 1980s in Latin America, and in today’s war on terror, especially in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.

Imperialism would eventually, to some degree, be replaced by corporate greed. Mehta turns to Africa for many of his most searing examples of the plundering of vulnerable nations by transnational companies. “Guinea’s population lives in extreme poverty, but it is not a poor country,” he writes. “It has from a quarter to half of the world’s bauxite reserves, and gold, and diamonds. A series of Western corporations, including Rio Tinto and a hedge fund named Och-Ziff Capital Management, have systematically exploited the country’s enormous mineral wealth by ‘negotiated’ contracts with the country’s leadership that siphon off an extortionate share of the profits.” Fans of progress like to tout statistics proving that people’s lives largely improved in the twentieth century. But Mehta puts this myth into perspective. In 1960, the world’s wealthiest people were thirty-three times richer than the poorest, he writes. “By 2000, in a globalized world that was supposed to lift all boats, they were 134 times wealthier.” The obvious inequality pervading the planet naturally inspires the disadvantaged to seek out new sources of prosperity—or new ways to simply survive.

The book actually begins in the United States, Mehta’s adopted home, and it is clear that the author has been motivated by the horrors of Trump. His prose sometimes flails before the incomprehensible menace and absurdity of the president’s rhetoric and actions, his hateful blathering that Haitians “all have AIDS” and that immigration is like “vomit,” his grotesque Muslim ban. When Mehta writes something like, “I am not calling for open borders. I am calling for open hearts,” it can’t help but feel inadequate. But Mehta remains strong and convincing when he methodically plots his historical argument. “How often has the United States gone over the southern border or into the Caribbean or Southeast Asia?” he asks. He tells the old story of the Chiquita fruit company, managing, with his attention to detail, to unleash surprising and damning statistics. “In much of Latin America, the United States functioned, and still does, as a colonial power,” he writes. “As late as 2007, Chiquita Brands . . . pleaded guilty to supporting a paramilitary and drug trafficking group, the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, to which it gave $1.7 million and three thousand AK-47s to fight union organizers and extort farmers into selling only to Chiquita.” This ignominy happened fifty years after the US staged a coup in Guatemala in part to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company. That the current migration situation at the American border is often treated as if it were unconnected to this long imperial history is one of the failures of politicians and the media in framing the crisis. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have not only been invaded by the United States, they have become, in a way, part of the United States. They are here because we were there.

Many Americans, however, are not global citizens; they don’t share the Mehta family’s international life experience, which has involved moving “from India to Kenya to England and the United States and back again.” They do not actually know how the rest of the world lives. Many of them do not travel outside of the United States or know any foreigners. It would come as a shock for them to realize, even though they take their superpower status for granted, that the American passport is unique in the world, that so many other people must endure various bureaucratic affronts simply to take a vacation. And yet of course these same Americans can go wherever they want, anytime, free of hassle (until very recently, at least). Even though so much of the admirable post-Trump domestic conversation in the US focuses on white privilege, there is still little recognition of American privilege in the world. Mehta wisely drills down on this: “In the twenty-first century, your humanity is defined by your nationality. And those who have no nationality—the Palestinians, the Rohingya—are fucked. They will wander the earth, powerless.”

For many Americans—especially white Americans—immigration is somehow about “fairness.” Mehta discovers a particularly Christian-American idea of justice at the Mexican border when he meets a US border cop. “I believe that my job is my calling,” the man says. “I ended up here for a reason somehow.” When Mehta asks him how he can reconcile his faith with his job, for which he separates children from their mothers, he replies, “I go back to the original sin, to the Garden of Eden. There were consequences: they got deported out of the Garden of Eden, and God created a border around it.” This is a great summation of a certain messianic Christian-American mentality, one that extends as far back as the nineteenth century and has been echoed by presidents both conservative and liberal. The American project has been built on exclusion as much as inclusion, on a Darwinian economic system as much as on opportunity. The popular mantra that “Americans are all immigrants” is not convincing, because long ago white European immigrants became something else: white Americans, the top of the heap. The last thing many of them want to do—they with their hard-won whiteness—is lose out in a system that appears (to them) to be more inclusive to brown people. Underneath their bravado is a violent insecurity, the fear that, as Mehta writes, nonwhites will do better than them. This insecurity, this emasculating jealousy, reached its peak with the election of an educated black man as president—or so we thought. Because now, with the election of an uneducated white one, the rage has become much worse.

The August shooting in an El Paso Walmart, in which the gunman explicitly stated he wanted to kill Mexicans, was rightly linked to the white-supremacist rhetoric of Donald Trump. Appearing on MSNBC two days later, Princeton professor Eddie S. Glaude Jr. went even further, telling Americans that we shouldn’t put all the blame on Trump, because so much of the hatred and prejudice in Trump lies in all of us, in our desperate need to believe in American myths and in our own innocence. One of the few hopeful by-products of this terrible time in American history is that the new intellectual maturity that Glaude and Mehta and Mehta’s grandfather espouse is finally being widely disseminated in the United States. But Mehta’s book also warns that we are still many steps behind in our intellectual understanding of the crisis. Even if we do manage to reckon with migration in some civilized, openhearted way, we haven’t begun to tackle all of the crimes that are destroying countries in the first place. Americans haven’t confronted climate change, they haven’t stopped their wars, they haven’t revolutionized their foreign policy, they haven’t reined in transnational corporations. Elite Americans, and even many ordinary ones, seem to like the world this way, because they have all the advantages. They may vehemently reject a white-nationalist fantasy world, but they seem content to live in the American-nationalist reality. As Mehta writes, rich nations are so hypocritical that, “having robbed the poor ones of their future,” they now have the audacity to argue “against a reverse movement of peoples—not to invade and conquer and steal, but to work.”

Suzy Hansen is the author of Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.