“This Land Is Our Land” Is the Manifesto We Need at a Time When Immigration Is Being Criminalized
Pulitzer finalist Suketu Mehta on why immigration ultimately benefits everyone
Suketu Mehta’s latest non-fiction book, This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, takes its title from the Woody Guthrie song, which most wouldn’t associate as a protest anthem, or link it to today’s immigration debate. But Mehta, who was a Pulitzer finalist for Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, offers this additional verse, handwritten by Guthrie in 1940:
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
A sign was painted, said “Private Property.”
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me. (pp.13)“This Land is Our Land” by Woody Guthrie
From this, Mehta goes in on the facts and reconsiders the narrative of contemporary immigration. The devastating question becomes: why are immigrants moving anyway? Mehta’s answer is that “we”—the West in its colonial, post-colonial, corporate, and climate change-causing incarnations—were/are there. Mehta condenses complicated histories to make the case that immigration is (and should be) a form of reparations for what has been wrought upon the Global South. The histories and numbers will enlighten and enrage but the personal stories Mehta collects, will rip your heart out. With meticulously researched facts (and a hefty footnote section for further exploration), he breaks down why immigration ultimately benefits everyone.
J.R. Ramakrishnan: I want to start by asking you about the story of your mother not being allowed to enter Germany because of her British colonial passport (issued to citizens of Indian origin in pre-independence Kenya) while you were on route to migrating to America. That must have been a traumatic experience.
Suketu Mehta: Yes, we were very young. I was fourteen and my sisters were seven and two. They wouldn’t even let my mother transit between two cities in Germany because she had this “alleged” British passport which they gave to its citizens when they got the hell out of East Africa. I remember watching this incredibly rude German immigration agent berate my mother. We had Green Cards and no intention of staying in Germany. I got my first taste of the indignity that having the wrong passport can have. I realized then that in this world, your humanity, your dignity is determined by your nationality.
JRR: What was your impression of America before you arrived?
SM: I got my idea of America through Archie comics. Maybe Westerns too but I didn’t know what to expect. I was completely unprepared for Queens. When we first arrived, there were five of us in the studio apartment. The superintendent of the building cut off the power to the apartment because there were too many people in it. That was his way of telling us to get out. This was our first night in America. I remember going out to Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, looking at the rusty old subway trembling by and wondering, where is the Statue of Liberty?
JRR: As we speak (July 2019), ICE is preparing raids. This creates fear for those without the right papers. But even with papers, as in your mother’s situation, and for minority populations in many parts of the world, there’s often fear of them being taken away or being deemed invalid. I wonder if there is a special sense of security that you have bearing an American passport that permits you to see borders and how people traverse them, and to opine freely?
SM: So let’s talk about this weekend’s raid first. They’ve been announced with great fanfare. They’ve been postponed and re-announced. There’s this ghoulish gloating on the part of the administration. Obviously, the idea is to create fear among families whose only crime is that they came here to make a better life for the children.
They came here to work and they came here because we Americans fucked up their countries and stole their future. They came here because we were there. In many cases, these are people who’ve been living here all their life and through some bureaucratic accident, they happened to not have the right paper. Now the government is going to swoop in on them with these uniformed soldiers pointing guns at them and throw them in prison. This violates every principle that this country was founded on.
I think every patriotic American should stand up and fight. And this is what I’m doing. I have an American passport. I am protected by the Constitution. And it is my karma as a writer to speak out now. I’ve been writing a book about New York for a long time and I interrupted that book to do this now because I felt it as my calling. I am an immigrant and I have a platform. I feel that I have an obligation to speak out against this incredible contravention of human rights. It is un-American and it is stupid because it hurts the country in the long run.
JRR: The global breadth of the book is dazzling and you seem to have done an incredible amount of reporting. How long did the book take to write and report?
SM: In some sense, I’ve been writing this book since I came to America. I’ve been thinking about the position of the migrant for a long time but I wrote it all in a white-hot rage in just a little over a year. I’ve taken longer to write individual op-eds. I just banged it out because I felt that it needed to come out now. I’ve been doing the reporting for years. I pulled some of the work I did for my New York book, as well as, for articles that I’ve been doing. There’s a lot of personal experience too, of course.
I was very conscious that it should be a book about global migration, but also that it shouldn’t be a door stopper. I wanted this book to be read. I intended it to be a manifesto, something that people can look at as a first book when they want the numbers or when they’re confused about questions such as “do immigrants help countries or not.” They have all the latest studies, the footnotes, and the links where they can go and do further research. So this book is ammunition for people who believe that immigration is a good thing. It is also an eye-opener for people who believe that immigration is not a good thing.
JRR: What’s the most unexpected response you’ve had?
SM: Well, I’ve had my share of death threats and people wondering how they can break into an NYU building. Some calling for me to be skinned alive. It’s just a crackpot white supremacist response.
I mean I’m glad they are taking notice but in terms of unexpected, I’ve gotten a number of letters from people who’ve grown up in the Deep South. They haven’t really known immigrants and get their knowledge from Fox News or Facebook groups. They’ve said that my book has really opened their eyes to this other side. A few promised to go to Thanksgiving dinner with copies of my book to fight their families about this topic. This is gratifying.
Then there are also members of my own family, who are pro-Trump and pro-Modi. I had a tense discussion with my aunt in Detroit, who actually sponsored my family to come here, about immigration at lunch once. She said, “No, there are too many people here already. America should only take skilled people.” I pointed out that we came here on the family unification program. Then she read my book and wrote me the loveliest letter, saying she saw my point because she saw the evidence. You know, my book isn’t just a rant, it’s evidence-based anger, but with a happy ending.
JRR: I appreciated the chapter in which a Border Patrol officer educates his colleague about American intervention in Central America. The colleague seems truly awed by how much he didn’t know despite having had history at school. Do you think there is a wider desire to fill in such gaps amongst Americans?
Suketu Mehta: I think there is because I saw it with this border patrol agent you mention. I didn’t have space to include this part in the book. After our exchange, he asked me for a book recommendation. I told him about Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of America. He immediately ordered it on the phone while he was standing there at Friendship Park (which marks the U.S.-Mexico border at San Diego/Tijuana). There was this hunger in him because he realized after the other border patrol agent spoke that whatever history education he had was sadly deficient.
It’s always astonished people who come to America or when people transfer to an American high school from an overseas high school. Every single time, they are shocked at how ignorant Americans are of world history. But most of their ancestors came here to forget their history in the old world. Henry Ford famously said, “History is bunk.” So there is very little knowledge of things like colonialism and imperialism. In poll after poll, American students ranked at the bottom of the industrial countries in the knowledge of world history. The country is agog about STEM disciplines. To me, history is the more important thing that Americans ought to be studying because their survival depends on it. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it
JRR: In the course of working on this book, was there something you learned that truly surprised you?
SM: The numbers surprised me. The staggering thing is how global immigration is good for everyone. The numbers prove it. In terms of GDP, if we truly opened borders around the world, world GDP would double. The world would be richer by $78 trillion a year. People talk about America and how we don’t have space. The U.S. ranks 23rd in the world for how many immigrants it takes in compared to its population. Even if we tripled our immigration intake from 1 million to 3 million people per year, we still won’t be in the top five immigrant-friendly countries. We can actually take in many, many more immigrants than we currently do and easily resettle them. We’d be a much richer country. The immigrants would be better off because the income and for many of them, their very lives would be saved.
The countries they moved from would benefit because of remittances. Remittances are four times the amount of all foreign aid combined, it’s three times more than the direct gain from abolishing all trade barriers, and a hundred times the amount if we were to forgive all debts of the developing world. People sending money back to relatives in $100, $200, and $300 sums through Western Union amount to a hundred times the amount of all debt relief!
As I started going into the numbers, this really surprised me because you know, even among centrists there is the idea is that we should let immigrants in but we can only take so many because we can’t cope. This is bullshit. During the age of mass migration, one-quarter of the population of Europe upped and moved to the U.S. and what happened? The U.S. replaced Europe at the pinnacle of world wealth and power as a result.
JRR: But I guess that was different because it was European migration.
SM: Right exactly. But even then, there were the same voices using the exact same language except aimed at southern Europeans and Catholics. There were books like The Passing of the Great Race, which argued that Americans are a Nordic people and would be contaminated by the Italians and Irish people coming in. Ben Franklin in the 1700s railed against the people who wouldn’t speak our language and didn’t follow our customs. He was talking about Germans, the ancestors of the current president. He called them the “Palatine Boors.”
JRR: I have read about the declining numbers of foreign students and tourists wanting to come to the U.S. Do you think the administration and its recent efforts have dented America’s reputation as a “Land of Opportunity” destination for would-be immigrants?
SM: Definitely America’s reputation has taken a hit, but still even if there is a depression here, even if civil liberties are suspended, they will keep coming because we have made the rest of the world so unbearable. It’s not just the conflicts happening in Central America. Certainly, it’s true for parts of Africa too. And we ain’t seen nothing yet.
When climate change really kicks in, it will be staggering. In June, temperatures in northern India hit 123F. Last year, five thousand Indians roasted to death in the heatwave. If global emissions continue at the current rate, large parts of northern India and Bangladesh will be unsurvivable. It will be like Mars. You won’t be able to go outside and breathe outside for more than an hour or so before you literally roast to death. And whose fault is this? The United States has 4 percent of the world’s population but we put in one-third of excess carbon emissions. The EU another one-third. The U.S. was the only country that stormed out of the Paris Accord. So it’s our fault that there are these heatwaves, particularly the ones close to the equator.
JRR: In the book, you write that white people don’t have a monopoly on racism, as your NYU Abu Dhabi experiences showed you.
SM: It’s true. In the country of my birth, in India, the Modi government has shamefully turned away the Rohingya who have every claim to asylum. India has signed international covenants, obliging it to let in people fleeing from a genocide, which is what is happening to this group. It’s utterly shameful because Indians have sought political asylum too. During the Punjab troubles, there were a number of Sikhs that found political asylum in northern Europe. You never know when the tables will turn and you will need to seek asylum. The fear and hatred of migrants is universal.
I must say that the majority of migrants don’t go from the Global South to the Global North. They go from a poor country to a slightly less poor or unstable country to a slightly less unstable country. Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey have taken in enormous numbers of immigrants. They are strained to the breaking point and getting very little help from the West. The burden of this global migration is spread very, very unequally. The countries that have done the most to cause the problems are the ones actually taking in the least number of people.
If there was any justice, there would be immigration in the form of reparations. There would be a migration tax imposed on the countries that caused these problems. If each country had a quota for migrants depending on which countries they have despoiled, then the US should be taking in large numbers of Central Americans. The Brits, just about everybody, similarly for France, and Belgium would be awash with Congolese people.
JRR: I really enjoyed (and related) to the stories of your family’s multiple migrations. You mention a South Asian writers group (which included Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai, and Jhumpa Lahiri) you were part of in Brooklyn and quite a few of them have hopped around the globe after their family’s original migration. What’s up with all these Indians not being able to stay in one place?
SM: Well, once we’re set in motion, it’s difficult to stop moving, right? We left because we were ravaged by colonialism. Our ancestors couldn’t make a living or were actually picked up and transported to places like Malaysia. There were active British policies to move populations around different parts of the empire for economic reasons. The Rohingya story is all about that. Taking a Muslim group and setting them in a Buddhist area. Same thing with Sri Lanka.
My family is Gujarati. We have learned that mobility is survival. I have family in East Africa, England, France, and all over America. We go around the world and we trade or are in the professions. My family really shows that migration is a good thing for everyone. It’s good for our family and it’s good for the cultures we go into and the cultures we have gone into aren’t destroyed as a result. When the East African Gujaratis started coming into England, Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech (1968) was a reaction to the influx. He thought that the Thames would be foaming with blood. That Britain would fall apart! And what’s happened? They are the single most successful group of any kind in the U.K.
JR Ramakrishnan: You go through these really wretched histories and the awfulness of how they play out in the contemporary moment very comprehensively. I found a lot of the book devastating. Yet, you hold on to hope and end on a very optimistic note.
SM: I do mean for people to get riled up. I was getting riled up as I was writing it. This has been a universal reaction from my readers, whether they agree with me or not. It’s a passionate book and meant to be passionate. But in the end, I really do believe that it is a story with a happy ending, that when people move, everyone benefits.
We, as a species, are really meant to move. Until recently, there were no borders. And I show, why I still have hope in this country because I saw it with my brother-in-law (Jay Chaudhuri) in North Carolina. He’s a Bengali American who ran for office in a district that is 70% white against a white opponent. He won in a landslide and sits right now as the first Indian American state senator in North Carolina’s history. He’s the democratic whip in the State Senate. A progressive in the American South. He did it because he went out and knocked on doors and took his argument directly to the people. It showed me that it is still possible to change hearts and minds. He’s doing it through politics. I’m doing it through this book.
We have to fight the fight. Every generation of immigrants before us have fought this fight. It’s a contest of storytelling across the world. It’s not just here but all across Europe, and in places like India, Brazil, and the Philippines. There are all these populists, strong men like Duarte, Modi, Trump, and Bolsonaro. A populist is a gifted storyteller—someone who can tell a false story well. The only way to fight him is by telling a true story better.