Bring on the Immigrants!

“These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But as the immigrants see it, the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities. Then they brought us to their countries as “guest workers”–as if they knew what the word “guest” means in our cultures–but discouraged us from bringing our families. 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 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 sh*t and f*ck their men.”

Suketa Mehta is angry. He has every right to be angry. You and I should be angry, too. He’s angry because we are upside-down and ignorant about immigration. That’s why he wrote a manifesto–in the form of a book appropriately entitled This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. His choice of words is narrow: this is a manifesto for all people who live in the U.S. because more than 99% of us are, in fact, immigrants. The remaining 1% are survivors. The paragraph that begins this article also begins his book.

Mehta is a very a good writer, especially when he’s angry. He’s a journalist and a professor, a smart guy who makes very powerful arguments in favor of knowing far more than we know today. He is angry about the hypocrisy, and it’s bracing to see all of this material in print–from a major publishing house. And it is hopeful. Metha makes it clear that we can and must do better, in part because the 21st century demands a higher level of global interaction, in part because “never before has there been so much human movement…and so much organized resistance to human movement.”

This is a book about the whole world–not the United States, not just Europe. It’s filled with stories about people whose lives are in London, Abu Dhabi, Tangier, Bhopal, Palestine, Korea, Rotterdam, Manhattan, Canada, Denmark. Migration, emigration and immigration–each a variation of the other two–is and has always been a global adventure.

The history is difficult because it’s told in all candor. Winston Churchill, for example, “loathed Nazis and Indians, and tried to kill as many of both as possible.” He advocated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, who rebelled against the British Empire. Taken as the ideas of a influential individual, they are upsetting. Taken as part of a larger story, they provide vital insights: “in all, 40 percent of all of the national borders in the entire world today were made by just two countries: Britain and France.” Look at a map of Africa, and you can easily see how thoroughly the many straight lines destroyed local tribes and cultures–hundreds of tribes caught in a cycle of violence as they attempted to reinstate families that, inexplicably, were now in different countries. The mess that now defines the Middle East is largely the result of borders and boundaries determined by a British fellow who never once visited the region.

“The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement” shifted ownership (the term is “cession” as one nation “cedes” territory to another. It was signed in 1848. In March 2017, a Mexican politician attempted to nullify that agreement and require the United States to pay for its use of the territory that was once about half of Mexico’s entire country–and is now most of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of four other states. At first, this seems like a wild idea, but it’s just one of many examples of nations taking over parts of other nations as if it was their right to do so. Now, the time is right to start thinking more seriously about whether the items in the British Museum, gathered from hundreds of years of empire, ought to be returned to their native countries. And if we follow that line of reasoning, whether people born in those regions ought to go home, too. Or be allowed to stay. None of this is absolute. It’s been in motion for a very long time.

Mehta grew up in New York City. In Queens, where there are more people from more ethnic backgrounds than any other place on earth. “It’s astonishing how little ethnic strife there is in New York. It’s astonishing how safe New York has become, while encountering some of the biggest waves of immigration in its history. It’s astonishing how free the immigrants are to follow their own culture, language, religion. It’s astonishing how rich immigrants have made New York. If there’s a poster city for demonstrating immigration works, New York is it.”

The author blasts through ugly arguments about how immigrants take jobs away, how they are more likely to participate in crimes, how they destroy culture. Unlike most people who talk or write about any of this, he has done the homework. We are so upside down on this information, his reliable sources are nearly impossible to believe. From Criminology, “Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence.” Also, “As for jobs, 86 percent of first generation immigrant males participate in the labor force, which is a higher rate than the native born…immigrant men with the lowest levels of education are more likely to be employed than comparable native-born men, indicating that immigrants appear to be filling low-skilled jobs that native-born Americans are not available or willing to take.”

Schenectady, New York is a city near the state’s capital, Albany. It is one of many cities in upstate New York that have been forgotten by the vibrant U.S. economy. That’s why the mayor personally travels to the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill, to recruit people from Guyana so they will move to his city where “they’re refurbished abandoned and burnt-out homes with little to no government assistance, rehabilited them with sweat equity, with neat brick-and-metal fences around them.” A far better idea than demolishing those homes (cost: $16,500 per home), the policy to sell the home instead (cost to new homeowner: $1). This is why 12 percent of Schenectady’s population is now Guyanese. The model has gained considerable acclaim, so it is being replicated in other cities: a quarter of nearby Utica, New York is immigrants, including 7,000 refugees from Bosnia.

If you’re sensing a much larger story than you’re hearing from politicians, reading in the newspapers, seeing on the TV news, or learning in school, you’ve got that right. This is a spectacular story–inclusive of its highly appropriate anger–that every immigrant, potential immigrant, long-ago immigrant, policy advisor, school adminstrator, journalist and pundit ought to study, and research in even greater detail.

In short, immigration is not the problem. It is the solution. (No spoiler alert needed here: to find out why immigration is the solution, you’ll need to read the book.)

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