New York, 1980. An Irish American boy yells at writer Suketu Mehta and his Indian friend, “Fucking Ayatollahs!” When Mehta corrects the boy (they were Indians not Iranians), the boy retorts, “Fucking Gandhis!”
Suketu Mehta’s book, This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, is a political treatise on the issue of migration that makes powerful use of personal narratives. Forty years after Mehta’s exchange in school, hate speech and crime still abound in the United States. By capitalising on a fear of the ‘other’ and appealing to majoritarian groups – leaders like Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Narendra Modi have consolidated power. Since contemporary politics often revolves around the subject of migration, framing the immigrant ‘other’ as a potent threat to the country’s prosperity, growth and development is a profitable electoral strategy.
Indeed, Trump was elected by stoking fear of migrants, and later, “the press, nonwhites, women, Democrats and the NFL [National Football League].” Suketu Mehta’s new book – a product of “sorrow and rage – as well as hope” – documents the increase in cruel anti-immigrant policies under the Trump presidency, including the institutionalising of separation, where tens of thousands of children were shipped across the country to ‘shelters’ with little or no access to their parents. “It was a policy,” writes Mehta, “specifically intended to deter families fleeing violence and instability in their home countries.”
It is this spectre of chaos and lawlessness that a refugee family is perceived to bring with them that evokes fear in the world’s most militarily and economically powerful government. Mehta points out the irony: rich countries that created colonies are often responsible for the economic and political disorder in the home country of the refugee, which the latter finds “wrecked by banditry or desertification.”
Muslims began arriving in the New World much before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, with the first recorded account of their arrival in the late 15th century when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic.
This Land is Our Land, which is divided into four parts, addresses several myths about immigrants, and in doing so, defends the right to migrate. As the book moves from one broad inquiry to another – the migrants are coming, why they’re coming, why they’re feared, and why they should be welcomed – Mehta also narrates the personal histories of a range of migrants, including his Gujarati family’s own journey to the US.
History, the first casualty
“Migration is a constant history,” writes Mehta emphatically. However, in any project of establishing supremacy – political or religious – history is the first casualty. Far-right leaders, as seen in the past, play on long-standing public resentments and pit majority against minority by employing history as state propaganda and demonizing the ‘other.’
“We are here… because you were there,” says Mehta, arguing that centuries of colonial exploitation in Asia and Africa led to migration.
The distortions of history and resulting xenophobia and, today, Islamophobia, which Mehta identifies in his book, are familiar to scholars of Islam and conflict. According to historians, Muslims began arriving in the New World much before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, with the first recorded account of their arrival in the late 15th century when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic. Sailing from Spain and the Atlantic coast of northwest Africa to North and South America, Muslim travellers integrated into and shaped the spiritual landscape of the US. With this started different waves of immigration and a fascinating history of Muslims in America that spans five hundred years. However, the distortion of this history today has led to the creation of mythological binaries like Islam vs the West. Dismissing the symbiotic history of Muslims in America reduces American Muslims to ‘outsiders’ and ‘enemies’ of American values. This is visible in policy initiatives, like the controversial Muslim bans imposed by the Trump administration in 2017, which initially restricted citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from traveling to the US. In January 2020, President Trump banned another six countries with significant Muslim populations.
The history of immigration to America is not limited to Muslims alone, and Mehta’s book provides a narrative of diverse groups of immigrants. The immigrants first came in search of greener pastures and later, with the failure of globalisation, immigrated to escape war, climate change and income inequality at home. The book throws light on early European immigrants in colonial America; the Century of Immigration (1820-1924) that brought Irish and Eastern Europeans to the US; and current-day immigration in the age of globalisation.
“We are here… because you were there,” says Mehta, arguing that centuries of colonial exploitation in Asia and Africa led to migration. He contrasts two different narratives – the extremism of populist leaders with the heroism of doctors, teachers, nannies and labourers – to explain the rationale behind the global footprints of migrants. Through a style of narration that includes personal testimonies and histories, he establishes a historical link between migration and colonialism.
Mehta argues that it is this accumulation of the “burden[s] of history” – the legacy of unrepaired past injustices – that renders the homelands of migrants less and less habitable with the crumbling of the British Empire in the mid-1950s.
For example, Mehta shares a family anecdote to emphasise the indisputable old-hat truth – that colonial rule and the history of extraction led to a sudden and successive flow of migration. While sitting in a park in a London suburb, in the 1980s, his maternal grandfather was asked by an elderly British man why he was in the country. Mehta’s grandfather’s brief response: “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.”
In a chapter titled ‘A brief history of fear,’ the author describes the British colonial project that began with the establishment of overseas colonies in the 16th century. Capitalising on their maritime-power, the British built a large empire, which, by the 18th century was running from Asia to Africa. In 1770, a third of Bengal – ten million people – starved to death in part due to British East India Company policies, including tax increases. Famines in the 19th century led to as many as 29 million deaths, partly because India was coerced to export 10 million tonnes of food per year. Mehta argues that it is this accumulation of the “burden[s] of history” – the legacy of unrepaired past injustices – that renders the homelands of migrants less and less habitable with the crumbling of the British Empire in the mid-1950s.
Going back to 1915, Mehta quotes a speech by US President Theodore Roosevelt, where he declares, “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americans.” According to Roosevelt, the “tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, French-Americans, Italian-Americans,” would bring the nation “to ruin.” In employing such rhetoric, Roosevelt laid down the cornerstone of exclusionary politics in the US.
Roosevelt’s influence resonates in the contemporary politics of cultural dehumanisation – a tactic that has also been borrowed by postcolonial states from their colonial masters, that results in a continued use of colonial vocabulary. The author cites The Population Bomb (1968), in which once-renowned American environmentalist and biologist Paul Ehrlich has what Mehta calls a “hysterical epiphany” as he narrates his ‘frightening’ experience in the congested streets of Delhi that were: “alive with people…People, people, people, people.” This epiphany, Mehta claims, led Ehrlich to advocate that the US condition its food aid to under-developed countries like India on the sterilisation of the male population. Ehrlich’s exaggerated fear shows a deep link between dehumanisation and the language of domination, which has been adopted by new colonialisms.
Immigrants, who constitute 13 percent of America’s total population, have started a quarter of all new businesses and have earned over a third of all Nobel Prizes given to US citizens.
In the neocolonial age, the politically asymmetric and deeply hierarchical nature of global politics helps leaders of the most populous liberal democracies advance their ‘national interests’ – economic or military – often at the cost of local populations, including civilians. Examples include the US-led war on terror in Afghanistan and the denial of economic autonomy to countries in Africa.
Economics, the second casualty
In the US, President Trump has normalised racism and demonised minorities, writes Mehta, by distorting the history of “how rich immigrants have made New York.” A beneficiary of the 1965 Immigration Act, a federal law which repealed national-origin quotas, Mehta reminisces that the New York city of the 1970s was dangerous, bankrupt and “a city from which the white middle class was fleeing.” He notes that, today, 38 percent of New York’s population is foreign-born and has made the city astonishingly rich. “If there’s a poster city for demonstrating that immigration works, New York is it,” writes Mehta nonchalantly.
Although immigrants are presented by US politicians and conservative media outlets as drug dealers, terrorists and rapists, the facts demonstrate a clear decline of the crime rate in immigrant-populated cities since the 1950s.
Immigrants, who constitute 13 percent of America’s total population, have started a quarter of all new businesses and have earned over a third of all Nobel Prizes given to US citizens. “One out of every four US tech companies established since 1995 was founded by an immigrant, and a third of Silicon Valley workers are immigrants,” points out Mehta in an attempt to allay fears that immigrants will impact Social Security benefits. By contrast, Mehta poignantly argues that immigration reduces the Social Security deficit by hundreds of billions of dollars. He predicts that the problem the US will likely face in the years ahead, is not going to be the inflow of too many people into the country. In fact, it might be that too few might want to migrate to America. The Social Security Administration called for an increase in immigration because, Mehta notes: “immigrant workers are younger, and therefore will work longer and pay more into the system.”
Security, the third casualty
A typical caricaturing of the immigrant minority – as criminals and job snatchers – has helped Tump and his like to further their politics of derision through state-propelled propaganda. This culture of xenophobia is visible in his recent resort to racist slurs to attack Democratic congresswomen, accusing them of hating America and suggesting they go back to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Although immigrants are presented by US politicians and conservative media outlets as drug dealers, terrorists and rapists, the facts demonstrate a clear decline of the crime rate in immigrant-populated cities since the 1950s.
For example, a study by Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think-tank, analysing 2016 crime statistics in Texas (which shares its border with four Mexican states), reveals that native-born Americans were convicted of crimes at a higher rate than immigrants. They were convicted of crimes at a rate of 2,116 per 100,000 people; for documented immigrants, that number plunged to 292 per 100,000 people; for documented immigrants, 879. Nowrasteh writes, “the native-born criminal conviction rate was thus 2.4 times as high as the criminal conviction rate for illegal immigrants in that year and 7.2 times as high as that of legal immigrants.”
By stating facts and history, Mehta debunks and challenges a brutal political rhetoric that relies heavily on the “demonstrably false” misperception that immigrants take away jobs and increase crime. Lyman Stone of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank, who studied the ancestries of 422 people charged with terrorism in America since 2001, found that more than half have no foreign citizenship, parentage or identifiable ancestry of any kind. The findings demonstrate that the people charged with violence are Americans themselves. “We have met the enemy, and he is us,” says Mehta.
Anti-immigration trends in India
While Mehta’s book specifically looks at the US and the West, it also sets the stage for the global rise of the far right. Exclusivist politics, demonstrated in political rhetoric and state policy, has led to an explosion of hate crimes against minorities – both national and immigrant – across the world. For instance, in postcolonial states like India, the Hindu rightwing political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has pursued a politics of polarisation that has created, according to Saba Naqvi’s Shades of Saffron (2018), an ‘enemy within’ and an ‘enemy without’.
When the elite see anger emerging as a result of economic struggle, Mehta notes, they inflame the populace and create scapegoats such as immigrants, Muslims or African Americans.
On 11 December 2019, in a controversial move, the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which links citizenship to religion. It aims to grant citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Parisis, Jains and Christians fleeing religious persecution in neighbouring countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but consciously excludes Muslims from the list of beneficiaries of the proposed law. This move is blatantly communal in that, along with the National Register of Citizens, it aims to solidify Hindu dominance and is part of the larger Hindutva project that has been unfolding since Modi came to power in 2014. With an overwhelming second electoral majority in May 2019, the Modi-Shah government has been emboldened to undermine democratic and secular principles of the Constitution.
In this age of post-truth politics, populist leaders have managed to cash in on the ignorance of the masses – or the mob, which is “the by-product of bourgeois society, directly produced by it and therefore never quite separable from it,” in the words of 20th century philosopher Hannah Arendt. Arendt calls this the “alliance between mob and capital” – the title of one of Mehta’s chapters. When the elite see anger emerging as a result of economic struggle, Mehta notes, they inflame the populace and create scapegoats such as immigrants, Muslims or African Americans. This makes the mob turn their attention “away from the redistribution of wealth towards the politically weak, newcomers, or minorities,” who become subjects of fear and contempt.
Mehta’s book is an intelligent portrayal of the American culture of immigration that invokes migration as one of the most fundamental human activities, a lesson that his family learnt: “mobility is survival.” While the book chronicles the global politics of hate, it also evokes humanism: it moves, shocks, educates and sensitises. A kaleidoscope of raw and riveting narratives, the success of the book lies in stimulating the reader to ask critical questions about the politics of hate. And yet, the book leaves some thorny questions unresolved – is fascism the wave of the future?