This Land Is Our Land
- By Suketu Mehta
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Sunil Dasgupta
- July 25, 2020
Is it time for oppressed peoples to collect what's owed them?
While humans have always been a migratory species, the last 50 years were an unprecedented era of global movement of peoples. The distance, speed, and nature of this travel have been unlike anything in the past.
The social and economic impact of immigration has transformed the world and shaken up societies to the point where immigration could well be the defining political fault line of the 21st century. Even climate-change action, the most urgent call to homo sapiens, remains hostage to the question: Who are we and who belongs with us?
Into this political cauldron, Suketu Mehta has added a self-proclaimed immigrant’s manifesto that is more than just the usual homage to the narrative of America as a land of immigrants. The book is essentially a case for immigration as reparations, and Mehta sets up the creditor’s demand in very personal terms: Sitting in a suburban London park, his grandfather is asked by a finger-wagging elderly British man why he is there, to which the grandfather retorts, “We are the creditors…You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.”
The case for reparations has been around for a long time. War losers have long been forced to pay reparations, though Germany, following World War I, proved how wrong reparations can themselves be. Since then, the demand for reparations have been more specifically targeted.
After the end of the Cold War parted the Iron Curtain, revealing art stolen by Nazis from Jewish homes, there has been a movement to return the works to the descendants. Obviously, tort law has provided recompense for numerous commercial wrongs, but even then, general compensation is extremely hard to win.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates revived the case for general reparations for black Americans in recent years; the idea is based on the belief that the consequences of original sin continue to this day.
As Mehta cites Coates:
“Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, ‘never again.’ But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”
Mehta adds: “Globally, too, a giant bill is due.”
Mehta writes up the invoice items — from colonialism to war to climate change — in detail, but the power of this book really lies in its anguished howl at the delinquency of the West in paying up after having taken and taken and continuing to take.
With its working-age males decimated by World War II, Europe invited “guest workers” to help rebuild, but when those workers brought their families over, and their children grew up to want to work outside the factories, to live outside designated neighborhoods, and to cultivate their own culture, they became unacceptable.
The United States did not have a legal immigration regime for the first 100 years of its existence. If you could get here, you could stay. This openness, however, applied only to white immigrants — though not necessarily to all whites, as poor Irish, Italian, and Eastern European Jews periodically discovered.
Once the U.S. wrote a specific immigration statute, it exclusively allowed Europeans — and, hence, white — migration. The Immigration Act of 1965 upturned the old regime by allowing non-white, non-Europeans to come to the United States in large numbers. This opening was justified as a necessity of the Cold War. The “green card” became a powerful foreign policy tool, winning allies and undermining Soviet claims about American racism.
In response to the expanded immigration regime and attracted by mostly low-paying agricultural and construction jobs that native-born Americans did not want, Mexican and Central and South Americans became the largest group to migrate to the United States.
Clearly, the reality of global migration is Western in its making, too. The dense links of transportation, communication, money transfer, and commerce that generate demand for modern immigration and make it possible are primarily products of Western economies.
Mehta’s own argument is that this infrastructure was originally erected to exploit the colonized, but now that brown and black peoples are using the same means to rush the borders of advanced industrial societies to escape the conditions created by those advanced countries, their primarily white populations have become resentful.
As early as 1955, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, a shining liberal, analogized in his famous book, Tristes Tropiques, how the filthy conditions of urban Calcutta might come to roost in Western cities. Levi-Strauss seemed to be asking: If they lived like this there, how would they live when they got here?
In the equally influential The Population Bomb, the American environmental biologist Paul Ehrlich stewed in the wretched conditions of summertime Delhi to reach his epiphany on how the earth could not support unending population growth. Ehrlich and his wife were supporters of restricted immigration into the United States.
Then candidate for U.S. president Donald J. Trump calling Mexican immigrants “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists” is not new or fringe.
The miseries of mid-20th-century Calcutta and Delhi, like the violence in Guatemala, Honduras, Syria, and Afghanistan today, were as much the consequence of imperialism and colonialism as they were of overpopulation and characteristics of the societies themselves.
The gall of the West was to take what it wanted without paying for it. To colonize the earth but not expect those who were brutalized as a result to seek escape. To bring immigrants into their societies but not allow them to become full citizens. To use immigrant labor but not accept an immigrant presence.
Mehta is an adept reporter. In his earlier book Maximum City, he brought to life the Indian metropolis of Mumbai in a way that changed its image from a genteel colonial outpost to that of a voracious swamp monster where life thrived and disappeared with equal ease.
In This Land Is Our Land, he stokes righteous anger with images of mistreatment of immigrants. In San Diego’s Friendship Park, where Mexicans and Americans, often from the same families, used to be able to meet, they can now only touch fingers, denied by callous Customs and Border Patrol officials with a misguided sense of their own Christian values.
In Tangier, in North Africa, he meets Middle Eastern and African immigrants plotting their crossing of the Mediterranean in flimsy vessels with outboard motors and inexperienced pilots. He tells one father looking for sedatives to help keep his baby silent during the journey not to medicate the child out of fear that the child might never wake up.
But the power of such images and the strength of the argument for reparations are also the book’s undoing. Despite Mehta’s qualifier that he is calling for open hearts and not open borders, he is unlikely to change minds with this one. Those who pick it up are likely already convinced of his case. Those who disagree with him are unlikely to open the book.
And on the chance that an opponent does find herself stuck with the book on an airplane without anything else to read, Mehta’s images are probably going to provoke a quite different reaction than he intends. As Trump tweeted recently during Independence Day week, if refugees don’t like the conditions in his detention camps, they shouldn’t come here.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2019.]
Sunil Dasgupta teaches politics and government at UMBC at the Universities at Shady Grove.