Expat, Immigrant, Migrant, Refugee: Why ‘This Land Is Our Land’ No Matter the Label

An Immigrant’s Manifesto
By Suketu Mehta

In almost any other country on earth, Central Americans attempting to reach our southern border would be considered refugees, a designation that would guarantee them protection under international law. But in the United States, they are mere migrants who must, as a result of this label, fight desperately for a chance to cross over and to stay.

Such tricks of language abound in the contemporary war against migration — and against migrants themselves. Is it a border wall or a border fence? Are the teenagers who flee gang violence victims or criminals? Did the chain link separating children from their parents constitute a cage or a cell? “Etymology is destiny,” Suketu Mehta writes in “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” his searing new book about migration past and present. The category a person is assigned at a border — asylee, refugee, forced migrant, economic migrant, expat, citizen — is determined by where she comes from, and will in turn decide her fate, and even, at times, whether she lives or dies.

In an age of brutal anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, “This Land is Our Land” offers a meticulously researched and deeply felt corrective to the public narrative of who today’s migrants are, why they are coming, and what economic and historical forces have propelled them from their homes into faraway lands. We are, and always have been, a planet on the move, Mehta observes. Yet migration tripled between 1960 and 2017, and, with war, climate change and income inequality, mass migration will only get worse.

“In the 21st century, your humanity is defined by your nationality,” Mehta writes. So, too, your mortality. Mehta’s own family immigrated to New York from India in 1977, when he was a boy. In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, he found himself part of a so-called “model minority” class of Indian-American engineers and doctors, yet this didn’t spare him and his family the indignities of being new (and brown-skinned) in the United States. A teacher called him a pagan, and, during the Iran hostage crisis, a fellow teenager yelled, “[Expletive] Ayatollah,” as he and the only other Indian student in his high school walked by. “We’re Indians,” Mehta replied. “[Expletive] Gandhis!” the kid shouted.

Mehta introduces us to migrants who weren’t as fortunate as he was: people who fear death in the desert, on a small boat in the Mediterranean or even high above the city of Tangier, jumping from roof to roof to evade the police: “One of them didn’t make it; he fell into the alleyway and died,” Mehta writes. To migrate is to risk everything.

He takes us to the ironically named Friendship Park on the California-Mexico border, where family members can meet one another through thick wire fencing — that is, when the park is open. “There’s a semi-hidden place,” Mehta explains, “where a section of the mesh ends, next to a supporting pole, big enough for part of a whole palm to slip through, four fingers all the way up to the knuckle.” Week after week, a girl meets her boyfriend on the other side of the fence. One day there’s a ring on her finger.

“This Land Is Our Land” reads like an impassioned survey course on migration, laying bare the origins of mass migration in searing clarity. To the question of why a migrant left home yesterday or last month, one such person might answer: gang violence, drought, floods, war, lack of income. Mehta travels back further, to deeper, more distant causes; the global North’s fingerprints are everywhere.

The book makes a convincing argument that contemporary migration is a direct descendant of colonialism. Europeans and Americans stole gold, silver, cash crops and human beings from the places people are now fleeing en masse. People migrate, Mehta says, “because the accumulated burdens of history have rendered their homelands less and less habitable.” Put another way, “They are here because you were there.” (Though one might wonder who this “you” is — the assumed reader of this book. Do migrants not also read?)

How to quantify what is owed? Mehta offers some numbers to get us started. The amount of silver shipped between 1503 and the early 1800s “would amount to a debt of $165 trillion that Europe owes Latin America today.” This pattern of extraction has not waned with time, nor has the mass violence it facilitates. Mehta reports that every day 700 guns cross the United States border into Mexico, where they are sold for triple the price back home. To say nothing of climate change: Wealthy countries’ enrichment is destroying the planet, hitting the poorest countries hardest of all.

“This Land Is Our Land” is, in large part, a case for reparations. Between 1970 and 2010, Mexico lost $872 billion in illegal financial outflows, most of it going from corporations doing business in the country to American banks. In nearly the same time period, 16 million Mexicans came to the United States. “They were just following the money,” Mehta writes. “Their money.” He points out that “forty percent of all the national borders in the entire world today were made by just two countries: Britain and France.” Why shouldn’t there be a formula, like a carbon tax, by which wealthy countries would be required to take in migrants in numbers proportional to those countries’ wealth theft and contributions to climate change? “If the rich countries don’t want the poor countries to migrate, then there’s another solution,” Mehta suggests. “Pay them what they’re owed.”

He began this book in the wake of the 2016 election; he confesses that it was “written in sorrow and in rage — as well as hope.” It’s possible to read the book as a breathless rant, but it’s a rant that is well argued, cathartic and abundantly sourced. If some of his arguments sound familiar, it’s only because, in response to the Trump administration’s bombast and cruelty, they have been made again and again. “The new robber barons have come to power, and intend to hold on to it, on the wings of xenophobia,” Mehta writes — a postelection explainer that has become a truism. Or take a sentence like, “The migrants are no more likely to be rapists or terrorists than anyone else.” Must we read such obvious truths?

Perhaps we must. The rhetoric against immigrants is so baldfaced and insipid that it’s hard not to be dragged down into a wrestling match in the mud. But Mehta mostly rises above, making a strong economic case for more migration. Far from being a drain on society, migrants contribute both to the places they leave (in the form of remittances) and the places they go. They represent 3 percent of the world’s population but contribute 9 percent of its gross domestic product. Immigrants constitute 40 percent of the home-buying market in the United States, and far from stealing jobs, in fact help create new ones. Places like Buffalo, with its failed industry and rows of empty houses, need people to kick-start the economy again.

“For many countries, immigrants are, literally, the future of the nation,” Mehta writes. “The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.”

Lauren Markham is the author of “The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life.”

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