Suketu Mehta offers a personal account as well as a forceful argument for immigration
It is hard to somehow escape seeing the racist and xenophobhobic nature of the dog-whistling that US president Donald Trump routinely engages in at his political rallies. In July, in front of a North Carolina audience, Trump launched a broadside against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Within seconds, rally-goers—ordinary Americans, really, worried about jobs and wages—would chant “send her back”. The chant is a barometric reading of America’s simmering, misfounded, anti-immigrant rage. Just days before, Trump, in a tweet, had asked Omar and three other Democratic Congresswomen—all women of colour—to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came…” Omar emigrated from Somalia, and is a naturalised citizen of the US. The three others— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib—were all born in the US. “Go back…” has links to the infamous Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist hate group with a history of unspeakable crimes against Black Americans. Racism and xenophobia no longer need be distilled out of the dominant narrative in the American mainstream, because, starting with the Trump presidency, it is the American mainstream. How else does one explain the fact that the American public is not revolted enough by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement cages holding, in appalling conditions, immigrant children separated from their parents?
It is not just the US; the British Social Attitudes survey, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research, unambiguously established that 73% of the respondents, who expressed anti-immigration/immigrant sentiments, voted ‘Leave’ in the Brexit referendum. Absurd and a historical nativist sentiments are brimming over elsewhere, in all kinds of violent forms; it doesn’t matter if the failings of globalisation are at the root, the discontent is harvested by bigotry and hate.
Suketu Mehta’s This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto is an important book for our times, when hundreds of thousands of immigrants are risking drowning or dying of dehydration or death in other unmerciful forms to reach the developed West and even middle-income nations, wherever the latter have pretences of being a regional safe haven, and when those who already people these countries willingly or passively participate in the dehumanisation of these vulnerable hundreds of thousands. Mehta’s book is both a personal account, of his own family’s history and experience of immigration, and, universally, a forceful argument for immigration itself, as reparation for colonialism, oppression in the garb of globalisation, the armed assault on states, often in the name of promoting democracy, while the intent is old-school resource loot, and even climate change.
It is an unabashed ode to multiculturalism and unrestrained criticism of contemporary right-wing politics in most of the West, most particularly in Trump’s America, that has demonised immigration and immigrants. It looks at history, where all the answers are, to tell the West that “They are here because you were there.” An anecdote he shares in the first few pages of the book explains this quite well. Mehta’s grandfather, who had migrated to the UK, told a British man who had asked him in a London park why he was in the UK, that “you (colonial powers) took all our wealth… now we (the colonised) have come to collect”. Mehta echoes his grandfather in the book: “Before you ask other people to respect the borders of the West, ask yourself if the West has ever respected anybody else’s border.” The US may not have had colonies, at least not in the sense that most European nations had through the 18th and 19th centuries – and right up to WW II. But, its invasion of west Asian nations, its hegemony carved into the terms of world trade at the cost of developing nations, its swallowing up of large chunks of the world’s carbon budget at the cost of the room for growth for other nations—neo-colonialism of the worst kind—puts it squarely where Mehta says it must be placed in the immigration debate. Between 1970 and 2010, $872 billion in illegal financial outflows left Mexico, through American corporations doing business in the country, and landed in American banks. Almost concurrently, 16 million Mexicans entered the US.
The fact that Mehta is an American of Indian origin is striking when juxtaposed against how he articulates the right of the immigrants to migrate to the West. The Indian American is the stereotypical ‘good immigrant’, entering legally and making high-value contributions to the knowledge-driven economy and one that ‘integrates’ well. The ‘model’ immigrant, so to speak. On ground, of course, the stereotype is shattered by the experience of racism and also in the fact that the descendants of immigrants from India may not have contributed the same way. Mehta’s personal stories complement matchless understanding of the experiences of the stereotypically hated immigrant communities.
‘Illegals’ is a label that most who have fled war, hunger, corrupt and oppressive regimes, find themselves saddled with if the nations that they have fled to never sought them. Yet, it is these ‘illegals’ that form the backbone of legitimate economic activity that unwilling, even intensely antipathic host nations have no qualms benefiting from. Mehta makes the reader acutely aware of this contradiction, as he lays a compelling case for immigration, showing how badly the West needs immigrants. Much lies in how the public narrative talks about immigrants. “Etymology is destiny,” Mehta writes. You may be holding up the American service economy every day, 9-5 or even longer, but you can also be illegal, discarded without rights. That injustice is not just of the present, why you severed the umbilical and landed in the West to clean toilets and ferry white officegoers in taxis is also rooted in the fate that your home country met with, and because of how, the West marched on to development.
This Land is Our Land is the immigrants’ answer to the rank populists, many of whom have descended from the beneficiaries and custodians of oppression at home and abroad, spouting toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric to once again bring to their fold those who shared their culture but not the spoils of colonialism or globalisation.