In Praise of Migrants—And Jackson Heights

(A Review: This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Suketu Mehta)

Suketu Mehta is an immigrant. And he’s not apologizing for it.

These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But as the migrants see it, the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities….

Having built up their economies with our raw materials and our labor, they asked us to go back and were surprised when we did not. They stole our minerals and corrupted our governments so that their corporations could continue stealing our resources; they fouled the air above us and the waters around us, making our farms barren, our oceans lifeless; and they were aghast when the poorest among us arrived at their borders, not to steal but to work, to clean their shit, and to fuck their men.

Still, they needed us. They needed us to fix their computers and heal their sick and teach their kids, so they took our best and brightest, those who had been educated at the greatest expense of the struggling states they came from, and seduced us again to work for them. Now, again, they ask us not to come, desperate and starving though they have rendered us, because the richest among them need a scapegoat. This is how the game is rigged today.

Mehta’s book is a clear, engaging explanation of the global, national and personal dynamics of immigration. It’s based on his own experience, and that of his family, which has migrated all over the world. But it’s also grounded in research, informed by righteous indignation, and fueled by a desire for justice for migrants, especially those less fortunate than himself. As the author puts it, “This book is being written in sorrow and rage—as well as hope.”

This Land isn’t a “movement” book. It doesn’t delve into the various strands of the immigrant rights struggle, analyze immigration legislation or lay out a strategy for defeating Donald Trump. But nevertheless, it’s definitely a political book. What Mehta does is to try and change the popular discourse about immigration, using facts, experiences and exhilaratingly blunt arguments. He approaches migration in various contexts and from various angles, always reinforcing the value, humanity and dignity of migrants.

Mehta, who lived in Jackson Heights as a young immigrant, combines pithy arguments with devastating real-life examples. One of his most memorable examples is an extended description of a “friendship park” between San Diego and Tijuana. For many years, this was “the only place on the two-thousand-mile U.S. Mexican  border where you could meet your family face to face…a small patch of land adjoining the Pacific Ocean.” Mehta describes in agonizing detail how this tiny park, where families were once allowed to mingle freely, was suddenly fenced in, then double-fenced, so that people could barely touch pinkies. Today only ten people at a time are allowed in from the U.S. side. They are forbidden to take photos or videos, or even record the voices of their loved ones. Mehta spent two days at the park, absorbing the poignant and tragic stories of separated families, who travel for hours and days to see their loved ones across the border fences. Meanwhile, Border Patrol officers he interviewed exhibited open disdain for the park’s visitors.

Some of Mehta’s most potent writing is dedicated to exposing the realities of imperialism. He doesn’t pull any punches:

Before you ask other people to respect the borders of the West, ask yourself if the West has ever respected anybody else’s border. How often has the United States gone over the southern border or into the Caribbean or Southeast Asia? How often does it keep doing so, going over the borders of Iraq or Afghanistan? The United States has not acted lawfully with other nations, including the Native American nations on its soil, through most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. How can it now expect the human victims of that enormous illegality to obey the laws of the United States and stay home or wait thirty years for a visa to rejoin their families?

Mehta makes it clear that this imperial hypocrisy doesn’t just apply to the U.S., but to all the colonial powers. For instance, he spends some time examining the history of British imperialism in his original homeland of India. He also describes how brutal French colonialism in the Caribbean and North Africa has resulted in massive migration.

In recent decades, as Mehta explains, colonialism has taken new forms. Many former colonies have gained legal independence. Now it is primarily multinational corporations and global banks that control the world economy, not Western governments. But the effects on ordinary people are largely the same. As he puts it,

They looted us for centuries, and they took whatever was worth taking, and they continued taking after we became ‘independent’—of their governments, but not of their corporations.” Trillions of dollars in wealth is still being transferred from the poor countries to the rich countries….

This has a direct bearing on the ethics of immigration. Between 1970 and 2010, Mexico lost $872 billion in illicit financial outflows, and most of the money ended up in American banks. Around this time—from 1965 to 2015—16 million Mexicans immigrated to the United States. They weren’t doing anything wrong; they were just following the money. Their money.

Besides the economic injustice of imperialism, Mehta discusses how imperialist wars trigger mass migration. He discusses not only classic armed conflicts, such as proxy civil wars and invasions, but also the phony “war on drugs,” which destroys nations while fattening the wallets of Western bankers. Together, all of these wars generate refugees by the millions.

Another major source of migration discussed in This Land is climate change. More and more nations are experiencing droughts, floods, and severe weather of all kinds. Crops are dying; heat-related deaths are skyrocketing. And so people are leaving their homes.

And where should they move to? To their former colonizers, or to the country most responsible for the heating of the planet? Americans are only 4 percent of the world’s population but are responsible for one-third of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Next comes the European Union, which put another quarter of the existing CO2 in the atmosphere. America creates a third of the world’s solid waste and consumes a fifth of the world’s energy. The average American uses as much energy as 35 Indians, or 185 Ethiopians, and consumes as many goods and services as 53 Chinese. But America was the first and only country to walk away from a global attempt at a solution: the Paris Agreement. The Trump administration is an existential threat to life on the planet today. The most damning indictment against Americans: we ruined the planet and then elected a government that will stop any last chance we have of saving it.

Mehta emphasizes that anti-immigrant sentiment, especially in the U.S., is closely tied to racism. White citizens often feel a sense of entitlement, coupled now with the feeling that they are losing privileges that used to be automatic. White citizens also, at times, feel jealous. Many immigrants are better educated than white U.S. citizens, and make more money after arriving here. (For instance, the median income for Indian Americans was over $110,000 in 2016.) Donald Trump, of course,has amplified false white nationalist narratives about crime and about immigrants draining resources from the U.S. His open appeal to white grievance and betrayal has helped increase and intensify an onslaught of racist attacks on immigrants. As Mehta says, “the conversation about immigrants in America…is approaching incitement to genocide.”

Mehta makes it clear that this racism isn’t random or disorganized. It’s actively encouraged by wealthy capitalists. The billionaire class and giant corporations have profited from globalist outsourcing,while simultaneously disinvesting from the U.S. Now the capitalists are eager to redirect outraged white resentment away from themselves and onto scapegoated immigrants.

One of Mehta’s most controversial assertions is that immigration should be understood as a form of reparations for the sins of colonialism. This is an attention-grabbing argument, but it turns out to be one of his less rigorous ones. After all, as Mehta argues at length, immigration has been good for countries like the U.S. Not just good: indispensable. It seems like an odd kind of “reparations” that comes free of cost to the offenders. This Land struggles with the contradiction, finally concluding that: “A huge bill is coming due to the West. And it is one that the West is not only morally obligated to pay, but one that it should also look forward to paying.”

This part of Mehta’s analysis, while it may be somewhat confusing, is also pretty thought-provoking. Mehta is putting his finger on a sensitive spot. Doesn’t the U.S. in fact owe reparations to the countries and peoples it has undermined and ripped off? Isn’t migration a human right, whether it helps the receiving country’s economy or not? These are some of the most important questions in front of us today.

This Land is full of revealing data. For instance, did you know that there are now 9 million U.S. citizens—migrants—living abroad, up from 4 million in 1999? Or that Turkey took in more than a million refugees in 2014, while the has U.S. allowed in just 50,000 refugees per year for decades? (Trump wants to reduce that to 30,000.) Mehta’s book is not only interesting and easy to read, but it’s also chock full of ammunition for immigrant rights fighters and supporters.

This Land includes many heartbreaking and hopeful stories of migrants—those who he calls “everyday heroes”—in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. They are people who often end up doing the hardest work in our societies, after risking their safety and freedom to migrate because they are driven to help their families or are fighting to escape intolerable situations. In many cases the migrants Mehta profiles show tremendous insight, courage and initiative.

Ultimately, This Land is a cautiously hopeful book. Bringing things right home, Mehta upholds Jackson Heights as an example of the advantages of migration and multiculturalism. Mehta is aware of the divisions here. And in fact, he argues that multiculturalism doesn’t depend on everybody instantly loving each other. It’s more of a process. He remembers that, in his youth, Jackson Heights had to cope with some deeply rooted ethnic antagonisms, which had migrated right along with people.

My neighbors were Indians and Pakistanis, Jews and Muslims, Haitians and Dominicans; the building was owned by a Turkish man but the super was Greek. Many of them had been killing each other just before they got on the plane….

But we were in a new country now, making a new life. And we could live side by side and interact in certain demarcated ways. We could exchange food; our kids could play together; they could go to school together. We discovered that we are more alike than different. South Asians in the West, for instance: Indians and Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who have been warring at home discover, in Jackson Heights, that they are “desi,” and share a love of samosas and Bollywood. If we still didn’t like our neighbors, we would not burn and riot as we might at home; we would suffer them…. Because no one ethnicity dominates, no one community gets blamed if the economy goes south.

And now, diversity has become a point of attraction for all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds. As Mehta puts it, “Creative people want to live in the kind of city where they can hear many languages spoken on the street, and have a choice between pupusas and parathas for dinner.”

Mehta is inspired by Jackson Heights, and by New York in general. He notes that the city has been thriving because of the huge waves of immigration that arrived in recent decades. The author’s moving hope is that New York can serve as an example to the world.

But as Mehta knows only too well, there’s plenty of racism and inequality in New York. And there’s a vicious anti-immigrant storm raging all around us. Many residents of Jackson Heights are living in fear, while ICE thugs swagger around like modern-day Brownshirts.

Woven together with his sadness and rage, This Land’s moral clarity and expansive vision do give us cause for long-term hope. Mehta’s manifesto is important for that reason, among many others. But it’s pretty obvious that the author’s optimistic view of Jackson Heights isn’t something we can take for granted. On the contrary, it’s something we’re going to have to fight like hell to live up to, and to defend.

 

 

One comment on “In Praise of Migrants—And Jackson Heights

  1. rose theron on

    wonderful to read this book review. I now want to read this book.
    a white, 3rd generation american, choosing to live in jackson heights.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.