Suketu Mehta on Fear of Immigrants

Hari Sreenivasan speaks to Prof. Suketu Mehta, author of “This is Our Land,” who argues the West is being destroyed not by immigrants, but the fear of immigrants.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Our next guest says the West is being destroyed not by immigrants, but by the fear of immigrants. Suketu Mehta is a journalism professor at NYU. He was born in India. He moved to New York as a teenager and in his new book, “This Land is Our Land, An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” he explains why countries like the United States would benefit from accepting even more immigrants. He spoke to our Hari Sreenivasan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So this is not in any way like your previous book. I want to read out an early passage, you’re talking about rich countries here: “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 that 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 [bleep] and to [bleep] their men.” I mean, you look at the migration issue today through the lens of creditors and debtors; break that down for us.

SUKETU MEHTA, AUTHOR, “THIS LAND IS OUR LAND”: This is an angry book. I wrote this in response to the present emergency in this country and worldwide. And it begins with an anecdote that my grandfather told me. My grandfather was born in India, worked all his life in colonial Kenya, and retired in London. So he was sitting in a park in London one day, minding his own business, and this elderly British gent comes up to him and says to him, “Why are you here? Why don’t you go back to your country?” And my grandfather, who worked most of his life as a businessman, said, “Because we are the creditors. You came to my country, you took my gold and my diamonds, so we have come here to collect. We are here because you were there.”

The whole debate around global migration today is fraught with staggering hypocrisy. The rich countries never asked anyone’s permission when they went into other countries. They never respected any borders. And now they’re asking these people whose futures they’ve stolen through colonialism, inequality, war, and climate change, they are asking these people who are desperate and starving, who are coming not to rob and to rape, but to work, to do what all of us want, to make a better life for the children, to send money back to their families. They’re asking them not to come. They’re saying respect our borders, stay where you are, follow the law. And so the whole hypocrisy of this is what really animated me in to write this book today.

And also, it’s not just for the people who are coming — I’m an American citizen. I have lived in this country for over 40 years. And I strongly believe that in America, like in Europe, the fear of migrants is doing incalculably more damage to these countries than the migrants themselves ever could.

SREENIVASAN: What’s motivating that fear?

MEHTA: So in my book, I break it down. As inequality rises in the world, today the eight richest people on the planet, they’re all men, no surprise, own more than half of the planet combined. So, in all of these countries, in the poor countries, as well as in the rich countries, people are angry and they are looking for someone to blame. And the elites in these countries, being no fools, know that the peasants will come for them with pitchforks and so they have to redirect their outrage away from themselves and on to someone else. Who better than the newest, the weakest, the immigrants?

SREENIVASAN: You know you travel all over the world in researching this book. You meet families that are kind of on that migrant trail out of Middle East and North Africa into Europe. Tell us about some of the people that you met.

MEHTA: I was in Tangier at the northern end of Morocco where you can stand there by the beachfront and [13:40:00] literally see Europe, the bottom of Spain, a place called Tarifa, just across the Mediterranean. And I spoke to a young family from Guinea who had their first child. And you know, Guinea has been bankrupted by essentially American hedge funds who have taken all their minerals, their bauxite. So there was no life possible for them in Guinea. They were going to starve.

And they had come to Tangier to try to get into Spain somehow so that they could work and it was a mother, a father, and a newborn child and I held a 5-day-old baby in my arms. And they told me that they were going to try to get on a plastic dinghy, essentially, not even a lifeboat, like a beach boat that your kids would play on. And they were going to try to cross this very dangerous strait with their baby. They were going to drug this little child so that the child could stay quiet during the voyage, and try to make it across. And I feared for this baby’s life. I told them not to drug the baby. And then I got to wondering, what was it that was motivating this family? It wasn’t that they hated Guinea. It wasn’t that they hated their family or things like the trees or the cuisine of their native land. It’s because no life is possible in these countries and across much of Sub-Saharan Africa. Devitrification has wreaked havoc on agriculture. Their minerals have been stolen. Their governments have been corrupted by the same multinationals who come into these countries that replace the old colonial regimes and the original sin is really colonialism.

SREENIVASAN: You know, after this scene where you’ve spent time with this family who’s negotiating passage across this strait, you talk about how you could essentially board a ferry and be in Europe in three hours all because you have this little blue passbook. And you cite a philosopher, Joseph Karnz, the greatest inequality of today’s world is that of citizenship. Now you say in the book, you’re not calling for open borders but open hearts. That sounds nice, but what does that mean?

MEHTA: Look, I’m not a policy person. I’m not a president or governor — I’m a writer. And the immigration debate around the world is a contest of storytelling. There are these populists who seek to provoke people in their countries, whether it’s Orbán in Hungary, or Trump in the U.S. And their narrative of immigrants, of migrants, is that these people are coming here to take from us, that they are somehow not us, they are lesser than us, and we need to keep them out. The narrative that I want to present because I’ve actually gone out and spoken to these migrants, as Orbán and Trump have not, is that they are people just like you and me.

They want what you and me want, a better life for their kids. They’re coming here to work and they’re coming here to either give their kids a better life by bringing them here or send money back to them wherever they are. If we can somehow look at the world from the viewpoint of these migrants who are coming into, whether it’s the U.S. or Latin America, then I think everyone benefits, because my book ultimately has a happy ending. And the happy ending is that when these people come in here, everyone benefits, and this was the narrative that I really want to present.

The rich countries benefit because we’re not making enough babies. Our old people need younger people to come in and work so that they can pay into social security systems, to take care of a rapidly aging population. The immigrants themselves benefit, their standard of living increases by an average of fivefold. And the countries that they leave benefit because remittances are the best and the most targeted way of helping the global poor. So if we replace this fearmongering narrative about immigration as, you know, this enormous threat to us, culturally, economically, with this other narrative that people have always moved during the history of the world.

You know, in the 19th century, a quarter of Europe emptied and made their way to the United States. And you know, until recently, we were very happy about this. We thought of ourselves as a nation of immigrants. Recently, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Service has removed the phrase, nation of immigrants, from its official logo. So we have to come back to thinking of ourselves as a nation of immigrants because the evidence is incontestable.

Immigrants make our lives better in all ways. They commit less crime, they work harder, they pay more into the social security system than they get out of it, and they’re also assimilating quicker, actually, than previous generations of immigrants.

SREENIVASAN: Those ideas don’t seem to be winning elections right now besides Orbán and Trump. I mean you look at the Brexit Party and the E.U. elections that are happening. You look at what’s happened in Italy. You look basically there’s the rise of the far-right across parts of Europe. The other narrative that you’re talking about seems to be connecting with people in a way that yours doesn’t.

MEHTA: That’s why I wrote this book. It is connecting, again, because of inequality, because —

SREENIVASAN: That plays into the scapegoating.

MEHTA: Exactly. The majority of the populations in places like Italy, in Hungary, in Britain, in the United States, they haven’t benefitted from the economic boom of recent years. Most of it has gone not just to the one percent but the 0.01 percent. And during the 2008 crisis, there was a bailout of the banks, and people felt that their futures had been stolen, but the elite have somehow channeled this outrage away from themselves and on to the immigrants. So the narrative that seems to be winning, but there is a backlash. So during the midterms, Trump tried to — the Republicans tried to win by stoking fear of migrants. Didn’t happen. The Democrats still won the House and it’s now got some of the most strongest pro-immigration voices in the House, people like Pramila Jayapal and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and so there is hope possible which I saw firsthand. I happened to go down to Raleigh, North Carolina where my brother-in-law, Jay Chaudhuri, a Progressive Democrat, was undertaking his first ever political campaign for State Senate in North Carolina. And he was in a district that was 70 percent white. You know, none of us gave him much of a chance, but since he was family, I went down and campaigned for him. My two sons went down and campaigned for him.

And we knocked on doors, and you know, my son had a gun pulled on him. I had a dog set on me, although it was a small dog, a poodle named Chewy. “Chewy, Chewy, you get back here,” the dog owner said. And he knocked on 10,000 doors and he took his message, which was about making the schools better, and he won in a landslide and he is now the Democratic Whip in the North Carolina Senate.

So I saw what is possible in this country when an immigrant or an immigrant’s son runs, you know, for State Senate in a Conservative state like North Carolina. That if you — you know, the truth has power. So a populist like Trump or Orbán is above all a gifted storyteller. And the way to fight a false narrative well told is to tell a true story and tell it better. And that’s what my brother-in-law did, that’s what many of the people who are fighting the good fight on behalf of immigrants around the world are doing.

SREENIVASAN: You know, you talk about — there’s a section in the book where you talk to a border patrol officer. His rationale is that many of these migrants are frauds, that they’ve been coached on exactly what to say, dreamers are cutting in line. I mean a significant number of people who went to the polls and elected the president agree with that. Does a nation not have a right to create a set of criteria on who they let in? And I mean as the president says, what is a nation without borders?

MEHTA: I would like us to have a coherent immigration policy. We don’t. It’s really ad hoc and it’s motivated by — the nation’s immigration policy is motivated not by any sort of rational logic, any calculating about the costs and benefits, who should we let in, how many of them should we let in. But it’s motivated by fear and hatred and false storytelling.

SREENIVASAN: Isn’t that something that Democrats have been charged — in charge over a period of decades? I mean they were not able to come up with a sound immigration policy just like Republican administrations weren’t. I mean, one of the arguments is always, listen, the drain on our resources right now, this first generation, they’ve come in, they’re going to need more public help, they’re going to need hospitals and they’re going to need public schools for their kids, where this life raft, this oasis and at some point there’s going to be too many people that climb on board and we’re going to sink.

MEHTA: That’s the popular narrative, but if you actually unpack it and I’ve spent a lot of time speaking to economists and it doesn’t really hold water. We could let in triple the number of immigrants that we get in. Right now, we give out a million green cards. If we give out three million, it really wouldn’t make a difference. In fact, it would make the country better.

Our giant northern neighbor, Canada, actually hired the consulting company McKenzie to show them how to increase their immigration intake threefold. If we look at cities like Schenectady or Utica in Upstate New York, they actually welcome and solicit refugees. Schenectady which was this down on its luck industrial town in Upstate New York decided to bring in 10,000 Guyanese people and the city sort of turned around now. There’s flourishing immigrant groups in places like Hamtramck and Detroit.

We have lots of land. We have lots of space in the country. But it’s also true that we can’t just bring in large groups of people, particularly in areas along the border, and just throw them in there without services. So there are intelligent ways to deal with this. One is an expansion of the earned income tax credit, which would help both the high school dropouts who — if there is an economic case to be made that segment of the American population suffers from increased immigration, it is these.

Also, another solution is to keep more people in high school. There could be a tax that, for example, tech companies who benefit by the H1B program could pay and which could be redirected towards some of the border communities that bear the brunt of this influx. So, this tax could go to what’s supporting hospitals and schools in these communities. There are intelligent ways of redistributing income. What is not intelligent is to say we’re going to put up a giant wall across the border and that’s going to keep these people out because, you know, nothing will keep these people out because they’re so desperate and so starving that for some of them, it’s literally a matter of life and death.

I remember speaking to a 23-year-old Honduran mother in a women’s shelter in Tijuana and she had this beautiful cherubic 18-month-old boy. She was going to try to go across and claim asylum because her husband had witnessed a gang murder so they were going to kill the entire family, basically. The gangs had come to her and told her that they would take the boy when — in a few years and just induct him into the gang. And I said, listen, you’re going to try to claim asylum but you know that they’ll probably take your boy away from you. She said, “This is what a mother’s love is. I might never see him again but at least I know that he’s alive somewhere and I have a hope of seeing him someday.” And that is better than having to put him in a box under the ground where I come from and knowing that I’ll never see him again. And I thought if I were a father and this was the choice I were faced with, I would do anything. I would climb any wall to get my kids to safety. And I also thought, well, she is coming here because we were there because we put 1.8 million guns into Honduras during — to arm the Contras.

We emptied our prisons and flooded the country with criminals. And now we buy the main product they have left to sell which is their drugs. We’ve devastated the country. We owe it to them. So there’s a section of my book which calls for immigration as reparations. If there was any natural justice, the 1,600-acre bush ranch in Texas would be filled with tents housing Iraqi refugees because we went in there, we mounted an illegal and unnecessary war. And as a result, the entire Middle East is in turmoil. Four million Syrians are on the move. Why? Not because they hate Syria but because climate change and this war have made it impossible for them to live in their countries.

SREENIVASAN: Suketu Mehta, thank you so much for joining us.

MEHTA: Thank you so much.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Gen. David Patraeus about Iran; and chef José Andrés about the role of meat in climate change. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Suketu Mehta, who says the West is being destroyed not by immigrants, but the fear of immigrants.