In 2004 Suketu Mehta arrived on the literary scene, accompanied by the fully formed voice on display in his nonfiction tour de force about India’s largest city, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. The 500-page plus lyrical narrative took as its subjects some of Bombay’s most notorious denizens — its gangsters, crooked cops, and the girls who performed at so-called dance bars before they were shut down over a decade ago. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, Maximum City established Mehta's place among the pantheon of giants writing about India in English, luminaries such as Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy.

And then cometlike, the New York University journalism professor disappeared for 15 years, barring sporadic palate-whetters, such as the profile of an all-female cannabis delivery service published in GQ magazine a couple of years ago. His readers were led to believe he was working on a magnum opus about New York City, one to rival his Bombay tome. Instead, he released a book this summer quite unlike the one that put him on the map, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, an anguished clarion call for open — or at least open-ish — borders.

Suketu Mehta devotes a chapter of “This Land Is Our Land” to interviewing family members in Friendship Park, an area along the U.S.-Mexican border separating San Diego from Tijuana. Family members gather here to speak and touch each other through the slats of the border fence. (Photo: Guillermo Arias/AFP/Getty Images)

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This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto

Suketu Mehta | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 2019 | 306 pp. | ISBN: 978-0-374-27602-7 | More about this book


 

In This Land Is Our Land, less than half the length of his previous book, Mehta trades in his rapturous prose for hard data, think tank research, and coruscating polemic. This is not a criticism, and the book is no less masterful than his first.

Mehta’s call comes not a moment too soon. The U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented influx of immigrants at its southern border, many of whom are claiming asylum. The number of border-crossers peaked at a record high 144,000 in May 2019, more than twice as many the same time a year ago, with the majority hailing from the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, collectively dubbed the Northern Triangle.

The migrants are, of course, escaping poverty, made acute by climate change–caused drought, but the real reason they’re fleeing is that rampant gang violence has made life untenable for residents in these countries. MS-13, for example, acts as a de facto government in El Salvador, extorting fees from legitimate businesses and residents on threat of violence or even death.

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Mehta’s argument is simple: let them in. The U.S. economy is more than equipped to absorb the overflow and in fact, requires immigrants’ willingness to work jobs Americans scoff at. In order to retain its place as the world’s largest economy, the U.S. needs to offset a decline in birthrates with immigrants. Among other things, immigrants pay into social security, supporting the retirements of the growing number of baby boomer retirees, who are living longer than ever before.

Mehta cites one economist’s estimate that immigrant-driven population growth in the U.S. has accounted for about half its economic growth rate in the past decade, compared with one-sixth in Europe and none in Japan, a country with a foreign-born population of under two percent. The author also references a study showing that on a global basis, migrants comprise only three percent of the world’s population yet contribute nine percent of its gross domestic product.

When calling for greater immigration, Mehta doesn’t stop at proof-is-in-the-pudding economic arguments, many of which we’ve heard before. What enlivens his treatise is the compelling notion that a Central American immigrant is entitled to live and work in the U.S., while an Indian immigrant is owed the same in England as a form of repayment for the havoc wreaked by the forces that colonized their homelands.

Mehta doesn’t stop at proof-is-in-the-pudding economic arguments, many of which we’ve heard before. What enlivens his treatise is the compelling notion that a Central American immigrant is entitled to live and work in the U.S., while an Indian immigrant is owed the same in England as a form of repayment for the havoc wreaked by the forces that colonized their homelands.

He’s talking about reparations, of course, which may seem like a fashionable argument du jour, modeled after African American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’s call for the U.S. to compensate its black community for their enslavement and the subsequent discriminatory policies that have kept its members impoverished.

Yet reparations were used on several occasions in the past century to right historical wrongs. To date, Germany has paid out $89 billion in Holocaust reparations, $7 billion of which went to newly established Israel. The U.S. has its own history of paying reparations, when it sought to compensate Japanese Americans around $3 billion in today’s dollars for their forced internment during World War II.

This Land Is Our Land begins with a bracing story. A few decades ago, Mehta’s grandfather was approached in a London park by a man asking, “Why are you in my country?” His grandfather replied with unusual equanimity (no l’esprit de l’escalier here), “Because we are the creditors. You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” Mehta summarizes his grandfather’s remark thusly: We are here because you were there.

The U.S. has had a long and sordid history of meddling in Central America. In the 1950s the U.S. overthrew Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Árbenz, whose land reform policies threatened to harm United Fruit Corporation (which has sought to shed its nefarious reputation by rebranding itself as Chiquita Brands). Since then, Guatemala has cycled through a rogues’ gallery of brutal dictators, never enjoying a period of relative tranquility.

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Teetering Emotions For just over half an hour in late July 2019, children on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border bobbed up and down on three pink seesaws as part of an art installation called Teeter Totter Wall, which was designed by two architects, Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello. “Actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side,” wrote Rael in an Instagram post that went viral. The seesaws were inserted through the steel slats of the border wall dividing Sunland Park, New Mexico, from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (Photo: Luis Torres/AFP/Getty Images)  

 

And what of neighboring El Salvador? In one of the country’s darkest chapters, the El Mozote slaughter saw a regiment of the Salvadoran army kill 1,200 people, including women and children. Prior to carrying out the massacre, the battalion had just returned from a three-month training course in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

MS-13 has its seeds in El Mozote: young men fleeing the military ended up in Los Angeles, where they formed a gang for self-protection. Mehta describes the Guatemalans and Salvadorans arriving at the southern U.S. border as creditors merely collecting their debts.

And there’s another giant bill coming due. Climate change will displace 200 million people affected by flooding and desertification by 2050. “In the twenty-first century, the number one driver of migration might be climate change,” Mehta writes. “No force on earth is going to keep their desperate inhabitants from moving. And, logically, they should be given a home in the countries that are most to blame for the inundation.”

Climate expert Michael Gerrard made the same argument in the pages of the Washington Post a few years ago: “Rather than leaving vast numbers of victims of a warmer world stranded, without any place allowing them in, industrialized countries ought to pledge to take on a share of the displaced population equal to how much each nation has historically contributed to emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing this crisis.”

President Donald Trump’s own grandfather, Friedrich Trump, was a climate refugee, arriving in America in 1885 along with five million other Bavarians who’d suffered a few years of erratic weather — extreme cold spells interspersed with extreme heat — that had led to crop failures.

How about moderate liberals who wonder if the country’s economic and social infrastructure can sustain the record numbers of immigrants flowing into the country? Mehta’s answer is a resounding yes.

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. President Trump has implemented immigration policies such as cutting off aid to the Northern Triangle countries, family separation at the border, and deportation raids. His latest salvo? Proposing that migrant families be held in detention centers indefinitely. These policies haven’t done much to stanch the flow of border-crossers yet have increased suffering for asylum seekers and placed enormous pressure on an already heaving immigration system.

Some reviewers believe Mehta’s book will have little impact on these policies and that the author is preaching to the choir. Such criticism falls wide of the mark.

How about moderate liberals who wonder if the country’s economic and social infrastructure can sustain the record numbers of immigrants flowing into the country? Mehta’s answer is a resounding yes. “There are no serious arguments that demonstrate long-term economic damage to countries that accept immigrants, even large numbers of them all at once,” he writes. “During the age of mass migration, for example, a quarter of Europe moved to the United States — and the United States survived, and thrived.”

Of late we’ve seen the Overton window shift on many ideas only recently considered too outré for public discourse, like Medicare for All or student loan debt forgiveness. Five years after Coates first made his case for reparations for African Americans, he testified before Congress on a bill that would establish a commission to study reparations. We might see Mehta doing the same a few years from now.

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