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When the Migrants Come to Collect Their Due: On Suketu Mehta’s ‘This Land Is Our Land’

Suketu Mehta offers a powerful, angry, and brilliant defense of immigrant rights in This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto.

This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant's Manifesto
Suketu Mehta
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jun 2019

Suketu Mehta’s This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto is a book truly worthy of its sub-title. A stirring manifesto for immigrant rights, it’s also much more. The book is an invaluable reference aid, compiling rich data and statistics on every angle of the refugee crisis – from the crime rates of undocumented migrants (less prone to crime than American-born citizens) to the dollar value of their contribution to the economy (trillions of dollars in the US alone). What’s the price-tag of reparations? What’s the cost of colonialism? The book is a relentless source of data which unpacks and refutes the thoroughly untrue arguments driving white panic about refugees.

But it’s more than simply another report on the refugee crisis (of which, to be frank, there can never be too many). This Land Is Our Land is an unapologetic, angry manifesto supporting the rights of migrants to move. The fiscal benefits of immigration – which are enormous – are a boon to the economies of nations that accept them. Immigrants and refugees have a fundamental right to move to the rich countries of the western world, and Mehta articulates in persuasive, elegant prose the arguments in favour of this right – from the violent war and climate change crises directly caused by western nations, to the lingering impacts of colonialism.

Fundamentally, the stability and wealth of the western world was built atop the material, economic, and human capital stolen from those same countries whose immigrants now come seeking nothing more than the right to work long hours at low pay. They are, he observes, simply following the trail of their own rightful, stolen wealth. They are creditors, coming for what is owed to them.

The unapologetic firmness of Mehta’s articulate arguments is refreshing. If there is any remotely positive outcome from the Trump administration’s undisguised efforts at ethnic cleansing in the United States, it is that it has crystallized and increasingly laid bare the two fundamental components of the immigration ‘debate’: on the one hand, racists who are determined to keep (or re-make) America as white; on the other, advocates of immigrants’ rights whose arguments are grounded in a deeply ethical combination of human rights and natural, restorative justice.


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The Colonial Roots of Contemporary Migration

There is a deep historical relationship linking migrants and the countries to which they move. “When migrants move, it’s not out of idle fancy, or because they hate their homelands, or to plunder the countries they come to, or even (most often) to strike it rich,” writes Mehta. “They move – as my grandfather knew – because the accumulated burdens of history have rendered their homelands less and less habitable. They are here because you are there.”

The impact of western colonialism did not disappear with the signing of a declaration of independence. As a result of more than a century of western colonialism in China, that country’s share of world GDP dropped from 33 percent in 1820 to five percent in 1978. When the British arrived in India in the early 18th century, India’s share of the world economy was 23 percent. By the time it (re)gained its independence, its share was less than four percent. “Why? Simply because India had been governed for the benefit of Britain,” Mehta quotes former UN official Shashi Tharoor as saying in a speech arguing for reparations. “Britain’s rise for two hundred years was financed by its depredations in India.”

Mehta summarizes a typical model of this process, which occurred worldwide:

“[M]igration from poor countries to rich ones is often the inevitable result of colonial depredation. But how exactly did the colonizers rob the colonies? First, they looted the treasuries of the native kings. Hence, the Indian Koh-i-noor diamond in the queen’s crown. Second, they imposed extortionate taxes on their subjects. Third they forced the subjects to grow crops like cotton but prevented them from setting up industries that could turn the cotton into textiles; this was saved for the industries back in the home country… Fourth, they forced the colonial armies to fight their wars, both within and without.”

He notes, in observing how the latter point remains whitewashed in western popular culture, how Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk (2017) completely erased the pivotal role played by Indian troops in the defense and retreat from Dunkirk at the beginning of World War II.

Indeed, the math around calculating reparations reveals the horrific extent of colonialism’s wealth extraction from today’s poor countries. Mehta draws on the work of London School of Economics researcher Jason Hickel, who has worked on these estimates. One calculation of the amount of silver taken from Latin America during the Spanish Conquest, with five percent interest tacked on, reveals a debt of $165 trillion owed by Europe to Latin America. An estimation of the amount of forced labour performed by African slaves in North American colonies, calculated at the US minimum wage, comes up with a figure of $97 trillion – “more than the entire global GDP”, writes Hickel.

In the late 18th century, England was earning roughly half a billion dollars annually from slavery. Even when England abolished slavery (well before the US waged a civil war over the issue) it still benefited from access to the cheap goods being produced by American slaves, which it accessed through trade arrangements and which gave its domestic industries and economy a vital edge.

Colonialism wasn’t just a passing form of political administration – it was an unprecedented shift of global wealth and power to Europe from everywhere else, and the lingering effects of this process shape today’s world. Hickel estimates that during the colonial era Europe’s share of global GDP rose from 20 to 60 percent. “Europe didn’t develop the colonies. The colonies developed Europe,” he writes.

Post-Colonial Colonialism

It is a problem to be lamented that colonialism has left the world suspicious of western liberal, democratic values – values which are not bad things in and of themselves, Mehta writes. But the problem is that the countries which lay claim to those values – in Europe and North America, especially – rarely actually practice them. Colonialism itself is stark evidence of this. “The colonizers did not practice these liberal values when they ruled our countries; but they are certainly worth adhering to in principle – whether they come from within or without,” writes Mehta. “Yet the sorry history of colonialism renders anything associated with them suspect, and the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater.”

Even when colonialism purportedly ended, and the former colonies gained their formal political independence, the system was rigged such that colonialism continued in a new, stealthier guise – corporate exploitation by the former colonial powers. “The numbers are indisputable; colonial countries enriched themselves at the expense of the subject nations, and there’s a case to be made for reparations to be paid,” writes Mehta. “There is a giant program of reparations under way, but it’s reverse reparations, by the poor of the world to the rich: to the oil companies, the chemical companies, the mining companies, which have figured out how to corrupt the governments of the developing countries and continue stealing. The history of the multinational corporation is inextricably linked with the onset of colonialism.”

Here, too, the numbers are compelling. “Developing countries lose three times as much to tax havens as the $125 billion in aid that they receive,” Mehta writes. Most of the world’s tax havens are controlled (and protected) by the West. “Money being smuggled out of sub-Saharan Africa and into [tax havens] is growing by 20 percent a year. In 2011, tax havens held $4.4 trillion of the wealth of developing countries. This is wealth that should be used to grow crops, educate children, and develop cities in the poor countries. Instead, it’s sitting in Luxembourg and the City of London.”

Corporate buy-outs and mergers that should generate billions of dollars for their host countries pay nothing in taxes, to anyone. Upwards of 40 percent of global multinationals’ profits are shifted into tax havens; leaked documents such as the Panama Papers and Paradise Papers have revealed that a stunning 12 percent of the world’s GDP ($8.7 trillion) is held in overseas tax havens. Those tax havens could be shut down by western countries if they wanted. Instead, they allow them to continue pilfering their former colonies and wreaking economic ruination on the world, the effects of which drive migration.

Tax havens aren’t the only problem. According to a 2016 report from the Global Financial Integrity think tank, poor countries lose hundreds of billions of dollars annually in “trade misinvoicing” – falsified invoices which allow corporations to siphon money out of poor countries and into tax havens. Trillions of dollars a year are also shifted out of poor countries in “unrecorded capital flight”. For every $1 of aid to developing countries, they lose $24 in net outflows, states an analysis in The Guardian.

Immigrants seeking a future in the US or Europe aren’t doing anything wrong or nefarious, reiterates Mehta. “They were just following the money. Their money.”


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Climate Change and Migration

“The Trump administration is an existential threat to life on the planet today. The most damning indictment against Americans: we ruined the planet and then elected a government that will stop any last chance we have of saving it,” rages Mehta (and countless Americans would join him in that position).

Climate change is a key driver of migration today. It makes sense, therefore, that those countries most responsible for causing it – the western countries that grew rich off fossil fuels and other pollutants – should bear responsibility for accepting and helping the migrants who have been driven from their homes as a result.

“Americans have put one-third of the excess carbon in the atmosphere. More than any other nation, the United States of America is responsible for this existential threat to the planet. It makes sense for them to deny any human connection with the causes so that they cannot be held responsible for the consequences,” he explains.

Irrational and Hypocritical Fears of Migrants

A point which cannot be emphasized enough – and Mehta rightly emphasizes it – is that the Trump administration’s war against migrants is directed overwhelmingly against racialized migrants. It is, as Mehta and other advocates observe, an ethnic cleansing thinly disguised. This is terrible enough. But the fear stoked by this overt racism has a deeply profound impact on the soul of the nations that it divides and ravages.

“The West is being destroyed, not by migrants, but by the fear of migrants,” he writes.

As an inveterate traveler, I was always struck by the ease with which I, armed with white skin and a Canadian passport, flew through European border and customs control, while others had to queue in endless lines. As Mehta puts it, “The rich countries have always claimed the freedom to move around the planet.” I discovered the disparity went both ways — flying back to Toronto from Turkey a few years ago, a troop of heavily armed and masked Canadian soldiers suddenly appeared in the middle of the covered disembarkation tunnel, waving their guns in the air and demanding passports. Obediently I paused to extricate mine from my jacket, but before I could do so was waved on angrily by a soldier — he’d seen the colour of my skin and had no interest in what my passport said.

The double standards are easily empiricized. In 2015 “ninety-three thousand Canadians overstayed their U.S. visas – more than any other nationality. That was twice the number of Mexicans who overstayed their visas. There are more than one hundred thousand illegal Canadians living in the United States today. No force of Minutemen is zealously guarding the northern border, standing watch for Canadians coming in through the snowy wastes of the Dakotas,” Mehta observes.

Likewise, there are estimated to be 50,000 undocumented Irish in the country, assiduously protected by their Irish-American champions in Congress. “In 2017, ICE deported 128,765 Mexicans – and 34 Irish.”

“The world’s richest countries can’t figure out what they want to do about migration; they want some migrants and not others and will demean their own image to keep the latter out,” he notes. “This is not immigration control. This is ethnic cleansing.”

And it’s a profound double standard, given that it was Europeans and Americans who carried out the most successful storming of other peoples’ homelands when they seized and exterminated Indigenous peoples around the world over the past 400 years. “So, when Americans or Australians talk about ‘the rule of law’ or ‘jumping the line,’ it is an argument rank with hypocrisy.”

The double standard continues today. While imprisoning non-white migrants in horrific conditions in offshore concentration camps, the Australian government unabashedly offered visas to white farmers in South Africa who were at risk of losing their land through legal land redistribution efforts in that country.

Of course, it is convenient for racists attempting to disguise their racism to dwell on political or religious differences instead. America’s currently leadership has openly endorsed the hate of several prominent anti-Islam activists toward that end, Mehta explains.

“This is what the fear of migrants has done to America: we have elected, in a country founded, allegedly, as a refuge for Quakers and Puritans and others persecuted for their religion, a man who hates people for the God they worship.”

A Cost to the Soul and the Pocketbook of America

If the Trump administration had its way and were given carte blanche to fulfill their racist agenda, the cost to the country in financial terms alone (not to mention social and humanistic costs) would be immense. Driving out undocumented immigrants would result in a $4.7 trillion hit to America’s GDP over a decade, the thinktank Center for American Progress estimates, including nearly $1 trillion in lost revenue for the government.

Social media is indelibly connected to hate attacks. Recent research has shown that areas with higher than average Facebook use also experience increased attacks on refugees. Studies on anti-refugee attacks found that some of the strongest predictors of attacks are social media (specifically Facebook) use. “Facebook is today’s Radio Television Libre des Milles, the genocidal radio station that was the vehicle through which baseless rumors about Tutsis spread in Rwanda in the 1990s – rumors that roused Hutus to mass murder. In country after country – Myanmar, Germany, the United States – the social network has become the hate network, purveyor to a mass audience of the most outrageous falsehoods against migrants. And it is doing far too little to stop it.”

The Criminal Factor

Those attempting to foment white panic about immigrants frequently draw on the crime card, spreading baseless or exaggerated claims about crimes purportedly committed by migrants. Here again Mehta’s powerful data collection refutes the falsehoods.

Not only are immigrants less likely on average to commit rates than those born in the United States, but bringing in migrants actually leads to significant drops in crime rates in their settlement areas. According to research conducted by the Cato Institute in Texas in 2016, domestic-born “Americans were convicted of crimes at a rate of 2,116 per 100,000 people. For legal immigrants, that number plunged to 292 per 100,000; for illegal immigrants, 879.”

Mehta quotes a 2018 study in the journal Criminology, which found that for every one percent increase in undocumented immigrants, there were 49 fewer violent crimes per 100,000 people. Why does the presence of immigrants reduce crime rates? According to the article, “Immigrants are driven by pursuit of education and economic opportunities for themselves and their families. Migration – especially undocumented migration – requires a lot of motivation and planning. Those are characters that aren’t correlated with a high crime-prone disposition.”

Drawing on the work of a growing number of other scholars and activists, Mehta makes a clear and compelling case for immigration as reparations, for colonialism as well as contemporary crimes like climate change and military conflict. “The countries that should be paying most for their crimes are the ones doing least to pay their due – most immigrants go to poor and formerly colonized countries, not to the rich former colonial states,” Mehta observes.

“Indeed, a huge bill is coming due to the West. And it is one that the West is not only morally obligated to pay, but one that it should also look forward to paying.” As the rest of the book demonstrates, immigration brings massive social and economic benefits to the country which accepts them. So it’s a bill the paying of which could improve the country in significant ways. If immigration is karma come to bite the West in the ass, it does so with gilded teeth.

“Migrants are the creators of some of the biggest and most liquid capital flows anywhere. They send back some $600 billion in remittances every year, which amounts to three times more than the direct gains from abolishing all trade barriers, four times more than all the foreign aid, and 100 times the amount of all debt relief.”

There are also ways in which western countries could aid immigrants in transferring wealth back to their families and communities of origin – a sort of reverse colonialism, or another form of reparations. Fees on money transfers exceed $30 billion annually – another way in which colonial countries continue to reap extortionate benefits from their former colonial populations — and eliminating those fees could be a form of reparations. “It’s not as if the migrants are just taking from the host countries and sending it all back. Total migrant earnings are estimated at $3 trillion annually, of which 85 percent stays in the host country. The money sent home averages out to under 1 percent of the host countries’ GDP.”

And of course, migrants work harder than the locally-born (one reason, perhaps, why white Americans ravaged by their governments’ austerity policies fear them). “Migrants are 3 percent of the world’s population but contribute 9 percent of its GDP,” Mehta observes.

Mehta offers some speculative notions on what other forms reparations could take. Countries responsible for generating the strife and suffering that now plague developing nations could be designated responsible for accepting migrants from those countries (for instance, Britain could be responsible for migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; the US for Iraqi, Afghan and Latin American migrants, and so forth). There could also be a “migration tax” – for every death incurred due to violence or warfare spurred on by a western country (for instance, victims of US or British military action or drone attacks in the Middle East) the western country responsible for the attack could be required to accept one additional refugee in compensation for each death. This would serve the purpose not only of providing homes for refugees, but also deterring the West from enacting its current divisive and violent politics in other countries.

“To avoid paying the ‘migration tax’ and not be swamped by migrants from the countries they’ve ruined, the rich countries should, for their own good, be nicer to other countries. They should stop propping up dictators. They should keep a check on their own corporations, stop them from amassing profits through bribing local officials, stop them from starting polluting factories and mines.”

Finally, Mehta reminds us that the much nicer world he advocates for is quite within the realm of possibility, if only there was the political will. Opening borders would not generate chaos; it would help to alleviate the existing chaos which current anti-immigration rhetoric and policy has caused.

“A world with more open borders would have a brief spasm of mass movement, and then migration might actually decrease, because money and happiness would be more equitably spread around, and more people would stay home,” he explains. After all, during the heaviest period of migration to the United States, an entire quarter of Europe’s population relocated to the US, with only beneficial effects for the receiving country.

And finally, of course, there is the compelling reality that despite the Trump administration’s attempt to re-write and erase centuries of American pro-immigration policy, it is immigration which has more than anything else made America “great”.

“Isn’t that, after all, what makes America work: this messy mix, this barbaric yawp, this redneck rondeau, this rude commingling? Isn’t this what permeates its films, movies, books; and isn’t it the principal product it can still export? It is American culture’s permissiveness, openness, and vigor that still attract the masses to the Golden Door, not its rigidity.”

Suketu Mehta’s This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto is among the most comprehensive, clearest, lucid and persuasive arguments in favour of immigrant rights yet written. It’s vital reading for anyone looking for arguments and data to unmuddy the rhetorics of white panic, and indeed vital reading or anyone who cares about the future of our world.

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You might also enjoy “Glimmers of Hope for Bombay in Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City‘”, by C.W. Thompson (29 Jan 2006).