MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
A PLANET ON THE MOVE
One day in the 1980s, my maternal grandfather was sitting in a park in suburban London. An elderly British man came up to him and wagged a finger in his face. “Why are you here?” the man demanded. “Why are you in my country?”
“Because we are the creditors,” responded my grandfather, who was born in India, worked all his life in colonial Kenya, and was now retired in London. “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.
* * *
These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But as the migrants see it, the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building our industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities. Then they brought us to their countries as “guest workers”—as if they knew what the word “guest” meant in our cultures—but discouraged us from bringing our families.
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 shit, and to fuck their men.
Still, they needed us. They needed us to fix their computers and heal their sick and teach their kids, so they took our best and brightest, those who had been educated at the greatest expense of the struggling states they came from, and seduced us again to work for them. Now, again, they ask us not to come, desperate and starving though they have rendered us, because the richest among them need a scapegoat. This is how the game is rigged today.
My family has moved all over the earth, from India to Kenya to England to the United States and back again—and is still moving. One of my grandfathers left rural Gujarat for Calcutta in the salad days of the twentieth century; my other grandfather, living a half day’s bullock-cart ride away, left soon after for Nairobi. In Calcutta, my paternal grandfather joined his older brother in the jewelry business; in Nairobi, my maternal grandfather began his career, at sixteen, sweeping the floors of his uncle’s accounting office. Thus began my family’s journey from the village to the city. It was, I now realize, less than a hundred years ago.
I am now among the quarter billion people living in a country other than the one they were born in. I’m one of the lucky ones; in surveys, nearly three-quarters of a billion people want to live in a country other than the one they were born in, and will do so as soon as they see a chance. Why do we move? Why do we keep moving?
* * *
On October 1, 1977, my parents, my two sisters, and I boarded a Lufthansa plane in the dead of night in Bombay. We were dressed in new, heavy, uncomfortable clothes and had been seen off by our entire extended family, who had come to the airport with garlands and lamps; our foreheads were anointed with vermilion. We were going to America.
To get the cheapest tickets, our travel agent had arranged a circuitous journey in which we disembarked in Frankfurt, where we were to take an internal flight to Cologne, and then onward to New York. In Frankfurt, the German border officer scrutinized the Indian passports belonging to my father, my sisters, and me and stamped them. Then he held up my mother’s passport with distaste. “You are not allowed to enter Germany,” he said.
It was a British passport, given to citizens of Indian origin who had been born in Kenya before independence, like my mother. But the British did not want them. Nine years earlier, Parliament had passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, summarily depriving hundreds of thousands of British passport holders in East Africa of their right to live in the country that conferred their nationality. The passport was literally not worth the paper it was printed on.
The German officer decided that because of her uncertain status, my mother might somehow desert her husband and three small children to make a break for it and live in Germany by herself. So we had to leave directly from Frankfurt. Seven hours and many airsickness bags later, we stepped out into the international arrivals lounge at John F. Kennedy International Airport. A graceful orange-and-black-and-yellow Alexander Calder mobile twirled above us against the backdrop of a huge American flag, and multicolored helium balloons dotted the ceiling, souvenirs of past greetings. As each arrival was welcomed to the new land by their relatives, the balloons rose to the ceiling to make way for the newer ones. They provided hope to the newcomers: look, in a few years, with luck and hard work, you, too, can rise here. All the way to the ceiling.
It was October 2—Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. We made our way in a convoy of cars carrying our eighteen bags and steamer trunks to a studio apartment in Jackson Heights where The Six Million Dollar Man was playing on the television. On the first night, the building super cut off the electricity because there were too many people in one room. I stepped out and looked at the rusting elevated train tracks above Roosevelt Avenue and wondered: Where was the Statue of Liberty?
* * *
At McClancy, the brutal all-boys Catholic high school where my parents enrolled me in Queens, my chief tormentor was a boy named Tschinkel. He had blond hair, piercing blue eyes, and a sadistic smile. He coined a name for me: Mouse. As I walked through the hallways, this word followed me: “Mouse! Mouse!” A small brown rodent, scurrying furtively this way and that. I was fourteen years old.
One Spanish class, Tschinkel put his leg out to trip me as I was walking in; I kicked hard at it as the entire class whooped. “Mouse! Mouse!”
As I left the class and walked to the stairwell, I felt a hand shoving me forward. I flew straight down the small flight of stairs and landed on my feet, clutching my books; I could as easily have not, and broken my neck. When I complained to the principal, I was told that such things happen. It was within the normal order of the McClancy day.
Four decades later, another German American bully from Queens became the most powerful man on the planet. The 2016 election particularly struck home for me. Donald Trump is like the fathers of the boys I went to high school with. He grew up in Jamaica Estates, then a gated white island in the middle of the most diverse county in the nation. That explains everything about him, his fear and hatred of people different from him.
According to Trump, Haitians “all have AIDS.” If Nigerians are allowed into the United States, they would never “go back to their huts.” Mexicans? “They’re bringing drugs; they’re bringing crime; they’re rapists.” About immigrants in general: “Everything’s coming across the border: the illegals, the cars, and the whole thing. It’s like a big mess. Blah. It’s like vomit.” All this was shocking to many people, but familiar to me, because I’d heard it from the McClancy boys—and some of the teachers.
When my family moved to the almost-all-white suburb of Ridgewood, New Jersey, from Jackson Heights to find better schools for my sisters, I found that the hatred wasn’t confined to McClancy. One morning we awoke to find that someone had painted across our car “SMEGSMA.” I can only guess that the semiliterate vandal had intended to write, but couldn’t spell, “smegma,” the biological term for the crud that gathers under an uncircumcised penis’s foreskin. My parents and sisters and I gathered around the car, trying to divine the point of the vandal’s imprecation and whether it was in some way connected to our ethnicity.
* * *
I have been in this country for forty-one years. For thirty of those years I have been an American citizen. Every year, my confidence in my position in the country grew. When I would go abroad—a summer in London, nine months in Paris, even when I went back to India for a couple of years—I would return to America with relief, because here I could be American. I couldn’t be English in England, or French in France; even when I went back to India, I wasn’t wholly “Indian”; I was an “NRI,” a “non-resident Indian.” And so, each time I saw the Long Island beachfront from the window as my plane approached JFK, I felt a gladness. Here was my home. Here I belonged, because everyone else belonged.
Or so I felt until the first Tuesday of November 2016. The morning after, knots of people were weeping on the streets all over Lower Manhattan. My undergraduate students at New York University asked me, What are we supposed to do now? I had no answer because I didn’t know, myself, what I would do now. The white racists who had been hiding under rocks since the 1960s slithered out after Trump’s victory and joined his battle. Is this their last roar before America becomes a majority-minority nation? Or will they succeed in their aim of stopping or greatly reducing immigration, of forcing immigrants already here to leave?
Immigrants have endured tough, and sometimes cruel, policies for decades. But each month of Trump’s presidency has escalated the attack. He got elected by stoking fear of migrants. Then he stoked fear of everyone else: the press, nonwhites, women, Democrats, the NFL. And the people who voted for him out of fear of migrants rode the wave of fear all the way with him, and now Americans are at each other’s throats. Trump will try to hold on to power and win reelection by continuing to stoke it: build that wall, shoot anyone who tries to climb over it. The evidence, so far, shows that his tactic works. Because it’s not Trump alone. Ninety percent of Republicans, as of summer 2018, support this man. A third of the country, more or less.
My home is in the other two-thirds.
* * *
This book is being written in sorrow and rage—as well as hope. I am angry: about the staggering global hypocrisy of the rich nations, having robbed the poor ones of their future, now arguing against a reverse movement of peoples—not to invade and conquer and steal, but to work. Angry at the ecological devastation that has been visited upon the planet by the West, and which now demands that the poor nations stop emitting carbon dioxide. Angry at the depiction of people like my family and the other families that have continued in my family’s path, because they had no other choice, as freeloaders, drug dealers, and rapists. I’m tired of apologizing for moving. These walls, these borders, between the peoples of the earth: they are of recent vintage, and they are flimsy.
People are not plants. Migration is a constant of human history. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we started traveling greater distances in shorter times on trains, steamships, automobiles, and jet planes. And in recent years, as the legacies of colonialism, inequality, war, and climate change have made it close to impossible for people in the poor countries to live a decent life, we’ve become a planet on the move. Between 1960 and 2017, the overall number of migrants tripled. Today, 3.4 percent of the world population, or one out of every twenty-nine humans, lives in a country different from the one they were born in. If all the migrants were a nation by themselves, we would constitute the fourth-largest country in the world, equal to the size of Indonesia. By mid-century, migration will account for 72 percent of the population growth in the USA; and up to 78 percent in Australia and the U.K. This is changing elections, culture, cities—everything. Mass migration is the defining human phenomenon of the twenty-first century.
Never before has there been so much human movement. And never before has there been so much organized resistance to human movement. All over the world, countries are building high walls and fences against this movement: in Hungary, in Israel, in India, and, if Trump has his way, in the United States. They’re moving their armies and navies to their borders to intercept—and in some cases shoot at—desperate caravans and boats of migrant men, women, and children.
It’s not just white fear that’s putting up the walls. In South Africa, it’s fear of Zimbabweans; in India, it’s fear of Bangladeshis. Another effect of mass migration is the withdrawal of countries from multilateral institutions and treaties, like the European Union and the North American Free Trade Agreement, and into narrow nationalism, a pinched vision of the country’s role in the world that has the effect of impoverishing it, economically and culturally.
Pretty much anyone who was not Asian could get on a boat to America, until the Immigration Act of 1924, which set racial limits based on the ethnic composition of the United States in 1890. Today, among the rich countries, the United States ranks nineteenth in terms of how many immigrants per capita it takes in annually. For every thousand residents, New Zealand welcomes 11.7 immigrants per year. Germany takes in 12.6. The United States suffers 3.6; only five Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries are less welcoming. America long ago stopped lifting its lamp beside the golden door.
Increasingly, Europe is the same story. The population of African cities is slated to triple, from half a billion today to one and a half billion by 2050. By then, the working-age population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to increase by 800 million. Many of them will head north, to Europe: the number of immigrants in the larger European countries is set to increase threefold in this period. But in many of them, politics today is defined by a competition to see which party can prevent immigration most effectively, not by which one has the best strategy for dealing with the inevitable and integrating the new arrivals most successfully.
Meanwhile, the world grows ever more horrific for human beings caught in conflicts, internal or international. In 2012, there were 930,000 newly registered asylum seekers driven out from their countries. Three years later, there were 2.3 million. Not since the end of World War II have there been more refugees and displaced people all around the world.
* * *
The rich countries have always claimed the freedom to move around the planet, not just to sightsee or seek employment, but to invade, conquer. At airports around the world, the holders of Indian and African passports line up miserably in hours-long lines while their fellow passengers holding American and European passports, gilded passports, swan through immigration.
In Abu Dhabi, I noticed that the brown people, usually working in menial or service jobs, were called “migrants,” while the white people, employed as executives or professionals, got to call themselves “expats,” a much more glamorous term than “migrant,” implying wealth, long afternoons at the club, fat housing allowances. Above all, it implies that your movement has been voluntary, unforced by historical or economic circumstances.
Today’s migrants are rarely so fortunate. Half are women, a recent phenomenon, and they are raped and molested and harassed all over the world in vastly greater numbers than native-born women. Eight out of ten Central American women who migrate to the United States are raped en route, according to an investigation by the cable channel Fusion. Before they set off, they equip themselves with contraceptives. When you move countries, your greatest—sometimes only—asset is your body, which also becomes your greatest vulnerability. Sex becomes currency, to be exchanged for protection from the smugglers, the coyotes, or the police. The arrangement is called cuerpomátic—after the Central American credit-card processor Credomatic—because it involves using your body, cuerpo, as currency.
* * *
Migration is like the weather: people will move from areas of high pressure to those of low pressure. Like the weather, this movement is equally hard to fight. Well over half of all undocumented immigrants come into America not through the borders but by flying in and overstaying their visas. A wall will do nothing to stop them. And so they will keep coming, on foot or on boats, on planes or on bicycles, whether you want them or not—because they are the creditors—whether you realize it or not.
In 2015, immigrants, mostly Syrian refugees, found themselves stopped at the Norwegian border with Russia. They had obtained Russian visas in Damascus or Beirut, flown to Moscow, and taken a train to Murmansk, which is 130 miles from the Norwegian border. The Russians would not allow people to walk across the border; Norwegians would not allow people to drive across the border.
So the refugees bicycled across the border. Five hundred a week. Thousands of migrants, pedaling on rickety bikes, across the magic line to Europe. The bureaucrats had not thought of banning bicycles.
* * *
Ever since the invention of passports, the right to a home, to a nation, exists in conflict with the right to move freely, to leave home, and to find another home. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.” It says nothing about what happens when someone leaves his country, or whether or not he has a right to reside in another country. Article 14, though, gives everyone the right to political asylum in another country, and Article 15 gives everyone the right to a nationality and the right to change that nationality. These contradictions are what the world is grappling with today.
* * *
During the Great Depression, an Okie named Woody Guthrie began traveling around the country, listening and gathering stories and songs. In 1944, he recorded a song that, after the Weavers popularized it, has become America’s alternative national anthem. Most Americans are familiar with the opening and closing lines of “This Land Is Your Land.” But what is less known is that in other variants, there are additional verses which make it a protest anthem, and a prophetic one at that. One of these verses was handwritten by Guthrie in 1940:
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
A sign was painted, said “Private Property.”
But on the backside, it didn’t say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
Another version of the song contains these two verses:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back.
This land was made for you and me.
With those three verses, the Guthrie song becomes not just the American anthem, but a universal migrants’ anthem, wherever in the world they come from, and wherever they are going. This land is their land; this land is our land.
Copyright © 2019 by Suketu Mehta