Bilal Qureshi is a culture writer and radio journalist.
At this year’s edition of the Venice Biennale, the Olympics of the contemporary art world, the rusted shell of a ship stood perched on a platform above the smartly dressed crowds. The ship on display sank off the Libyan coast in April 2015 with hundreds of migrants on board, the majority of whom were killed in the accident. It was reclaimed from the sea and reincarnated as a ghostly sculpture titled “Barca Nostra” (“Our Boat”). I visited the exhibition during last month’s European parliamentary elections, as a new coalition led by Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini campaigned with the promise of halting migration.
The ship was the centerpiece of the biennale, an eerie symbol of the contemporary migrant crisis. In the face of drowned bodies on the Mediterranean and forced separations at the U.S.-Mexico border, artists and writers have marshaled their energies to advocate on behalf of those facing degradation and death at the gates of the West. The latest to enter the fray is the acclaimed writer and journalist Suketu Mehta, whose new book, “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” is a defiant rallying cry in favor of immigration. “I am not calling for open borders,” he writes. “I am calling for open hearts.”
From its opening anecdotes, Mehta makes clear that the book was born in “sorrow and rage” after the election of Donald Trump. He argues that immigration needs to be reframed as a matter of global justice. Immigrants from poorer countries are creditors, here to rightfully collect the debts owed to them by the richer nations of the West that have shattered their political and economic futures. It is a provocative and seductive polemic by design, buttressed by statistics, reporting and a powerful personal narrative. For this immigrant reader, the results are variable.
Mehta, a professor of journalism at New York University, is best known for his landmark monograph about India’s financial capital, “Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.” “This Land Is Our Land” is based on an essay he wrote for Foreign Policy magazine in 2017. He expands on that piece in a fast-moving survey of the immigration debate, weaving in the story of his own family’s migration to the United States from India in the 1970s along with new reporting from the borders of Europe and the United States. “When migrants move, it’s not out of idle fancy, or because they hate their homelands, or to plunder the countries they come to, even (most often) to strike it rich,” he writes. “They move — as my grandfather knew — because the accumulated burdens of history have rendered their homelands less and less habitable.”
In subsequent chapters Mehta elaborates on how, through the forces of colonialism, climate change and corporate greed, the West has forced people to become migrants. The right to migrate is overdue reparation for those centuries of degradation and exploitation. These families should not see themselves as helpless victims of a paternalistic debate, Mehta suggests, but instead should feel unapologetically entitled to their presence in Western societies. To readers who may question why, he responds: “They are here because you were there.”
I admire Mehta’s defense of the fundamental humanity and dignity of migrants. As a fellow brown-skinned immigrant to this country, I couldn’t agree more with his emphasis on how the immigration panic today is “raced” and fueled by painful caricatures and cultural stereotypes. The “M&Ms” of the American right’s current nightmares, as Mehta describes them, the so-called terrorists and rapists, are Mexicans and Muslims. And yet as I read his book, I found myself questioning the prospects — and the efficacy — of an argument that frames immigration as reparations.
The politics of exclusion may be racist, unjust and on the wrong side of history, but xenophobes seem to continue winning hearts and minds — and elections — across the world. Mehta’s own native country, India, has just reelected a staunch Hindu nationalist government. The tide of xenophobia in the East and the West certainly deserves a robust counterargument. But in taking the merits of immigration for granted, the urban, the global and the globalized have ceded ground to their opponents. They have failed to convince voters with less access to the benefits of globalization that multiculturalism is indeed a better model for living. Mehta calls for “open hearts,” but his central premise that migration is the right of the colonized — and the debt owed by Western oppression — seems tailor-made to antagonize rather than advance the already broken conversation.
In one of his concluding chapters, Mehta suggests that his hometown, New York, is the model for how society could be arranged, bringing immigrant communities and native populations into peaceful proximity with one another and opening political possibilities. “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 that immigration works, New York is it.”
And yet, Mehta also acknowledges that the divisions over immigration are rooted in geographic and economic divides. Not every American can or wants to live in a multicultural banquet of density like New York. Catchphrases like “Don’t tread on me” and “Get off my lawn” that I grew up with in rural Virginia come to mind. In the vastness of this continent, there will always be an American settler tradition of a homestead free from intervention and imposition by outsiders, domestic and otherwise.
For this reader, a more searching text would illuminate what is driving the anxieties of anti-immigrant Americans and provide practical solutions for addressing the gaps in exposure and opportunity that are splintering society over immigration. Instead, Mehta offers declarative statements powered by rhetorical flourish. “I claim the right to the United States, for myself and my children and my uncles and cousins, by manifest destiny. This land is your land, this land is our land, it belongs to you and me. We’re here, we’re not going back, we’re raising our kids here. It’s our country now. We will not reassure anybody about their racist fears about our deportment; we’re not letting the bastards take it back. It’s our America now.”
There are many mic-drop moments and eminently quotable lines such as this throughout “This Land Is Our Land.” It is a blistering argument that earns its place in this emotional debate. In a news climate dominated by opponents of immigration, Mehta brings personal, postcolonial and global anguish to a broader American readership. The book concludes with a hopeful coda, as Mehta shares the story of his brother-in-law’s successful campaign for office in a predominantly white district in North Carolina.
I wish I could share in his hope. The deep legislative damage being caused by the march of xenophobia is destined to haunt us for generations to come. The immigration debate feels more corrosive than ever, and the gulf between the opposing sides seems to widen with every punch thrown in the air. Manifestos and anthems, regardless of their political orientation, are a call to arms, not to resolution.
By Suketu Mehta
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 306 pp. $27