Suketu Mehta is the author of This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.
Suketu Mehta is an Indian American journalist and associate professor of journalism at New York University. Born in Calcutta, Mehta immigrated with his family to the U.S. in 1977. In his new book, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Mehta weaves his own story of immigration with the larger history of global migration from the 16th century to the present. With examples ranging from colonialism to the current crisis at the U.S. border, Mehta sees immigration as a form of reparations, an outstanding debt Western countries owe to developing countries. As President Trump’s racism and animosity toward immigrants continues, Mehta’s deep dive into the root of immigration refutes Trump’s messaging.
You begin with a story that mirrors rhetoric coming from the White House.
The book opens with this anecdote about my grandfather who was born in India and worked most of his life in colonial Kenya and then retired to England. He was sitting in a park one day when he was on business, and this elderly British man comes up to him and wags his finger in his face and says, “Why are you here? Why don’t you go back to your country”—an echo of what Trump just said about the Squad. My grandfather’s response was, “Well, I’m here because we’re the creditors. You came to my country and took all the gold and diamonds, and we have come to collect. We are here because you are there.” […]
What I want to do is turn the table on the debate on global migration. Most of the debate is told from the point of view of the rich countries. They’re asking how many migrants should we let in, should they be skilled or unskilled. What I want to ask is why are people moving in the first place? It’s not because they hate their homes or their language or their food or their people, but it’s because the rich countries stole the future of poor countries through colonialism, war, inequality, and climate change. They are coming here because we, the rich countries, were there first.
And now the rhetoric and policies from the Trump administration are not just attacking migrants at the border but all immigrants.
Right, and there is a big drive against legal immigrants. In fact, now the Justice Department started reviewing the naturalization application for immigrants. So they are not just going after the undocumented, not just people with green cards, but American citizens. Those four congresswomen who Trump told to go back, three of them were born here. So what he’s trying to do is say some people are true Americans, and by that he means white people, and there are other people who can be told to go back, basically everyone else. It’s crackpot theory, but we’ve got to fight this. There has to be this muscular defense of our place here and the idea that no one can tell us to go back. I’m not going back to where I belong because I’m already here.
So when you hear this, after publishing a book that aims to change the narrative on migration, what were your first reactions?
I’ve been told “go back to where you came from” ever since high school. I went to high school in Queens in New York in 1977. I was constantly told in high school to “go back to where you came from.” And you know, I’m still being told that. The book came out and then I argued in an op-ed in The New York Times for immigration as reparations, and I was experiencing an enormous volley of racial abuse. If you just look at the responses on Twitter to that op-ed you’ll see the most filthy language directed at me. So I’m not surprised. I mean I am surprised that the leader of the free world is engaging in this type of rhetoric, and I think what we immigrants need to do is have a muscular defense of our position in the country. We have a right to be here. It’s our country. There’s a constitution here that protects our right to be here. And also freedom of movement across borders has been a phenomenon since the beginning of our species. The whole system of passports and visas really is only about 100 years old. But before that, just about anyone could come here, and my book shows that immigration helps everybody, particularly the countries that migrants move to.
Especially economically and in relation to GDP.
Without immigration, America’s GDP would have been 15 percent lower from 1919 to 2014. Britain’s GDP would be 20 percent lower. For every 1 percent increase in immigrants, the GDP increases 1.15 percent. There are direct linkages between immigration and a country’s economic health. So when people say go back to your country, I ask who are you to tell me to go back. The European settlers that came to America never asked permission of the natives before they came here. The only person I would listen to if they tell me to go back is a Native American.
In your book, you do a really fascinating thing of weaving historical data and your personal history, dispelling a lot of scholarship and false narratives of migration. Why do you think some of these overarching, false narratives perpetuate and have become somewhat entrenched, especially now?
What’s happening across the Western world is this enormous fear among whites that they are going to be replaced. The number that these people are really afraid of is 2044, the year the United States is going to become a majority-minority nation. They’re scared at the bottom, of unskilled migrants and they’re scared about the skilled migrants at the top, people coming in from countries like India and China. The white people susceptible to this rhetoric feel that they, and particularly their children, will not be able to secure an economic future and that something will be taken from them. Not just economic, but cultural … that this might become a Spanish-speaking country or you won’t be able to get by just speaking English. Some of that fear is understandable; we all like predictability and continuity. When there is a big movement of people all at once, there is some legitimate issue about assimilation. But there was this landmark National Academies of Sciences study that shows that today’s immigrants are assimilating at least as fast as previous generations of immigrants. So this whole idea that we are letting too many people in too quickly is really hogwash.
But also the diverse cultures of immigrants are important, and strict assimilation isn’t always the case, as you describe with your own childhood.
Sure. I talk about how places like Jackson Heights work, as one of the most diverse places in the country. I grew up in a building with people from all over the globe, and they didn’t assimilate. I mean, we wore American clothes and certainly the children of immigrants learned to speak English, but the parents didn’t have to right away. We didn’t have to melt into any kind of pot or any idealized American way. And more and more this is possible across the globe. Particularly as airfare becomes more and more affordable. It used to be that the Irish or Italian immigrant might go back once or twice to their homelands but now many immigrants do go back to their homelands and replenish their culture and roots. There is less of a pressure to be some kind of homogenized American.
And this is most often the case for many immigrants, I’m sure, including yourself.
Look, when I went back to Bombay to write my book, I did feel like I left America. But then I realized that I can be both. We might spend more of our time in one country or another, but you don’t need to pledge allegiance to one country over everyone else. I have a term for it, “inter-locals.” People whose primary allegiance isn’t to something as amorphous as a nation or a state or even to a city. For example, I go back and forth between Indian and American localities, and I’m deeply invested in both. And you don’t have to be rich to be inter-local. There are Mexican migrant workers, for example, who live in the Sunset Park part of Brooklyn and know Sunset Park really well and then when they travel, they go to their village in Puebla. They don’t have much to do with that concept of Mexican or American, but they are cognizant of both their localities and I think this is a hopeful sign for the world.
In your book, you highlight several borders across the world, including the U.S. southern border, the India-Pakistan border, and borders in Europe. And to some extent do you see them as rendered somewhat insignificant?
I keep getting asked a question: “Are you in favor of open borders?” I’m not calling for open borders, not that I’m not in favor of them, but what I am calling for is open hearts. What I do in the book is present all these stories about migrants like the family I met in Morocco trying to cross into Morocco, or the mothers I met in Tijuana. I try to present these migrant stories, and I ask my readers to put yourself in their place. What would you feel if you knew that a gang or a militia was going to kidnap your child, that there is no opportunity of a life there, that you cannot feed your family? Wouldn’t you get up and move, even if you have to move yourself and then send money back? This is what most immigrants are seeking: a better life for their children. So this idea that you either have to have open or closed borders is very binary, and there are many intermediate stages within those two possibilities. I think the United States can dramatically increase its intake of immigrants. And as people move and become more productive, it’s great for the economies that they move to.
But beyond how the U.S. and other Western countries could benefit and continue to benefit from migration, do they have a debt to pay to immigrants as well?
All these colonial countries certainly have a debt to pay to developing countries. Britain certainly has an enormous debt to pay to India or Nigeria. The U.S. has an enormous debt to pay to Central America where the U.S. has continually intervened and flooded countries with guns. So these countries are ravaged because of the actions of the colonial and imperialist powers and of the Western countries. And these countries, the Western countries, grew rich through colonialism. During the colonial period, Europe’s world share of GDP increased, and where did this money come from? The colonies and slavery. When we look at why these countries are ruined, it’s not their fault, most of it is what’s been done to them through history and what’s still being done to them through Western powers and corporations.
And now, increasingly, through climate change.
Most of all, through climate change. And in terms of climate change, you ain’t seen nothing yet. As climate change really kicks in, there are going to be enormous numbers of people moving. By 2050, up to one billion people are going to be displaced. And whose fault is this? The United States, 4 percent of the world’s population, put one-third of the carbon in the atmosphere. So they are moving because we were there. And they will keep moving, because long after we left their countries, we continued fouling the atmosphere so that our industries could flourish.
Are you optimistic at all about the U.S. and other countries addressing this looming threat of climate change linked to migration, as a means to pay back the debt we continue to owe?
Well, people are going to move, and it doesn’t matter in a sense what kind of walls people erect because when people are desperate enough they’ll undergo anything to move. In the short run, in the next election for example, the whole election may be decided on the issue of immigration. And that’s why Trump is spouting the type of tweets he is, because he knows it’s a potent political issue for his base. And he’s going to try to restrict immigration even more. Stephen Miller, his henchman, wants to eliminate the category of refugees.
Refugees from countries we intervened in.
Right. Which is shameful because a lot of these refugees are refugees, for example Iraqi refugees, because we went in there and launched a war that resulted in the death of 600,000 Iraqis. I think the U.S. should repay its debt by letting in 600,000 living Iraqis.