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The United States’ Debt to Immigrants

Suketu Mehta’s new book reckons with the colonialism and exploitation that have uprooted so many people.


This spring, while on break in London, I rode the train two hours north to Birmingham and back in one evening to see an exhibit by the British artist Hew Locke. I’d seen his work in New York and was taken with his visual vocabulary, one entirely his own and haunted by colonialism. He transforms found objects and historical memorabilia (old coins, for example) into armadas of model boats that evoke refugees, slaves, immigrants; and he dresses Victorian statues as if they were going to Carnival, displacing them in the imagination from the center of empire to the Caribbean periphery that made that empire rich.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pp., $27.00

At Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery, I saw for the first time Locke’s series of acrylic paintings on century-old share certificates. He’d embellished many of them with kaleidoscopic maps of Africa and South America. And against the background of a Greek government refugee bond, over coupons to claim the shares when they came due for payment, he’d painted a rowboat filled with refugees, a row of skeletons dancing around it. In 1924, under the aegis of the League of Nations, the Greek government floated the bond on stock markets in London and New York to raise money to resettle the one million Greeks who had fled across the Aegean Sea in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and conflict with Turkey. In essence, Americans and Brits loaned the Greeks some £12.3 million to cope with a massive formal exchange of people with Turkey that swelled the Greek population by 20 percent, and the Greeks had to pay the loan back over 40 years. Locke had woven in, as backdrop to his work, this postwar history of extending credit, shadowed by genocide and desperate flight.

I knew this artwork signified something intellectually subtle—but what, exactly? Why turn these government bonds, these records of debt, into a canvas? Why overlay these canvases signifying debt with maps of continents, with national borders explicitly depicted or intimated? Why mingle migrants with international stock exchanges and the business of borrowing and lending? Reading This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Suketu Mehta’s new book, his first book-length work of nonfiction in more than a decade, brought the meanings of Locke’s share certificate series into focus for me. It is a book shaped by the nuances of borders: of who crosses them and why; who drew them and what that set into motion; who transgressed them through arms, resource concessions, and international loans; and who owes whom what as a result.

Mehta opens­­ This Land with an anecdote. In the 1980s, his grandfather was confronted in a suburban London park by an elderly British man who wanted to know why the Indian was in his country. “Because we are the creditors,” came, sharply, the reply. “You took all our wealth, our diamonds. Now we have come to collect.” The younger Mehta, heir to this pithy and barbed way with language, in evidence throughout This Land, hammers the point further home at the book’s start: “We are here, my grandfather was saying, because you were there.”

As a polemic, This Land makes two main arguments. The first is that immigrants “have become a credit to this country”—the United States. He presents statistics and studies to debunk the political vitriol currently demonizing immigrants across much of the world, to show that immigrants grow jobs, lower crime rates, spur cultural innovation, and counter the “depopulation bomb” in aging countries through their youth, fertility, and ability to support retirees. His second argument is that immigrants do not owe their new countries anything, as the Greek government bonds in Locke’s show might suggest; if anything, those countries owe it to them to let them come “as creditors,” to collect for the wrongs of colonialism and corporate neocolonialism.

Mehta isn’t the first to stake this kind of bold claim, rhetorically. In arguing for immigration as a form of reparations for harm done in the past, he consciously takes a cue from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing on the debt owed African-Americans for slavery. Mehta also builds on a Washington Post op-ed by Columbia environmental law professor Michael Gerrard, who contends that the United States and other nations disproportionately responsible for carbon emissions should accept climate change refugees as a form of compensation to them and a form of justice.

Many immigrants and their children understand this logic intuitively. In the country that Hew Locke and I both left—Guyana—covert U.S. operations during the Cold War installed a government that became dictatorial, sowing an exodus; and for those of us who came to America, it makes perfect sense that we ran, with a whole heart and a certain irony, to the nation largely responsible for our uprooting. With a similar awareness of causes and ironies, a Mexican-American Border Patrol agent who Mehta meets in San Diego asks a co-worker with a hard-line on immigration: “Do you know what happened in Central America in the 1980s?” To explain why so many Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans are coming, he unfolds to his partner the sordid history of U.S. interventions across the region—tracing the migration to political instability, economic ruin, and civil strife beginning, as just one example, with the CIA’s overthrow in the 1950s of a Guatemalan leader whose land reforms threatened to check the power there of the American-owned United Fruit Company. It was a coup executed essentially at the American corporation’s request.

Mehta’s interest in migration and its causes extends beyond the misadventures of the informal empire of the United States to official colonial relationships and the dislocations they caused elsewhere. To that end, his reporting ranges widely, from a Nigerian hair braider’s hard-won alcove along the Spanish seaside, to the campus of NYU Abu Dhabi, to a virulently racist apocalyptic novel published in France in 1973, to a refugee tent city in the wasteland between Hungary and Serbia. The trope of borders connects the book’s numerous examples, anecdotes, memories, and occasionally dense accretion of demographic, economic, and sociological data. Throughout This Land, Mehta returns to these dividing lines, whether they’re being physically crossed or fatefully etched on a map or dramatized as a meeting point.

He gives us the evocative image of Syrian refugees bicycling across “the magic line to Europe” between Russia and Norway—because the Norwegians had banned driving across and the Russians, walking across. He provides a brisk history of the botched and bloody lines that colonial powers arbitrarily drew to carve new nations out of former colonies in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. He informs us that 40 percent of modern national borders were made by Britain or France and tells us that in Africa, borders created by ex-colonizers split 357 tribal groups, leading to higher rates of political violence in partitioned homelands, which reliably ends in displacement. Continuing the refrain, he also invites us to imagine the irrelevance of borders when climate change, which makes migrants of many millions through droughts, floods, and hurricanes, can’t be stopped at ports of entry.

And he visits places where borders touch, but human beings cannot. At Friendship Park, a spit of land between San Diego and Tijuana, people see their families and loves across a rusted mesh fence that descends from the mountains into the Pacific Ocean. When Pat Nixon inaugurated the park as a cross-border meeting place in 1971, there was no fence. Now, the mesh allows only pinkies to touch—except in a fugitive spot where it ends, and there’s a gap big enough for a palm to push through and (in at least one known case) for an engagement ring to be slipped on. A side gate opens into a spot where occasionally (six times since 2013) meetings can happen without barriers. But even there, a border control bureaucrat has decided to ban hugging as a security threat.

Here, Mehta remembers his visit two decades earlier to another “sanctuary spot,” this one along the India-Pakistan border, where people could meet fenceless but not touch or talk; at that border, soldiers forbade even waving, lest it somehow betray national secrets. Perhaps it was this memory tinted with partition and the sins of imperialism’s functionaries that leads Mehta to describe Rodney Scott, the border control chief for the San Diego sector, as a man with the “the air of a viceroy.” Last year, he ordered his border patrol officers to fire tear gas and pepper spray at a migrant caravan from Honduras. Speaking to Mehta, Scott used the Bible to justify his hard-line against illegal immigration. “I go back to the original sin, the Garden of Eden,” he said. “There were consequences; they got deported out of the Garden of Eden, and God created a border around it.”

In one final play on the theme of borders, as Mehta ferries us from the disastrously man-made ones to the preposterous notion of divinely ordained ones, he considers a border-free world: not the one dreamed by leftist utopians but the one that exists for multinationals. In a hard-hitting chapter on neocolonialism, Mehta details how corporations spirit away money that they should be paying as taxes to the developing countries in which they operate (to educate children, grow crops, build infrastructure) into overseas tax shelters; for every dollar these countries receive in international aid, they lose $24 through such capital flight. He echoes scholars who compare this transfer of wealth from poor to rich nations—a sum, since 1980, amounting to America’s current GDP—to the redistributive theft of colonialism, which saw Europe increase its share of the world’s GDP from 20 to 60 percent as it looted silver from Latin America, funded the Industrial Revolution with profits from the slave trade, destroyed the Indian textile industry to bolster Manchester’s mills, and extracted extortionate taxes across the globe.

By arguing that this all “has a direct bearing on the ethics of immigration,” This Land not only bares teeth, but bites. As Mehta considers the 16 million Mexicans who’ve come to America since 1965, during a time when the country lost $872 billion through illicit financial outflows, he concludes: “They weren’t doing anything wrong. They were just following the money. Their money.”

With his 2005 book on Bombay, the Pulitzer finalist Maximum City, Mehta gained a reputation for immersive and lyrical narrative nonfiction that plunges the reader into the inner worlds of well-developed characters. Since then, his fans have been eagerly awaiting an epic work about New York City, focused largely on immigrants. That one is still (and reportedly soon) to come. This Land—which introduces us to many migrants journalistically and anecdotally, to make various points, but not in the lasting and stirring ways that literature portrays characters—is not it. Instead, it mushroomed from an essay for Foreign Policy in reaction to Donald Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric and policies. Shock and dismay over the 2016 election animates the book, with Mehta taking aim at Trump with the relish of someone getting back at a childhood bully.

He does so by pointing out facts and contradictions, for instance observing that Trump’s grandfather was arguably a climate change refugee from the nineteenth century crop failures of Bavaria and that his immigrant mother came to America through what the president derides with the dehumanizing term “chain migration.” In Mehta’s first years in America, a teenager at his Catholic high school in Queens branded him with a cruel nickname. (“Mouse! Mouse!” Mehta remembers. “A small brown rodent scurrying furtively this way and that.”) And now, the successful survivor of that taunting, he notes how little progress the country has made since then: “Four decades later, another German-American bully from Queens became the most powerful man on the planet.”

If there is a fully-rounded character in This Land, it is Mehta himself. As narrator, he emerges as comprehensively analytical and trenchant, full of pointed epigrams; perhaps too willing sometimes to lean into the model minority narrative to argue the case for immigrants; relatively privileged but for the most part aware of his privilege and indulgent occasionally of a male gaze. (Did we really need to know that the Cameroonian nursing student he interviews in the Bronx is wearing tight white shorts? Or that that tourists who get their hair braided by a Nigerian migrant are voluptuous?) Mehta is brave and generous enough to be personal with his readers, mining his own life as professor, father, brother, son. His anatomy of hate, exploring the sources and history of xenophobia, goes to the raw place of his own encounters with racism, from New Jersey to the United Arab Emirates.

But it pivots from that emotional spot to an agile analysis of racism as “an old-world idea” manufactured by elites, from Harvard professors who propagated eugenics or the clash of civilizations to leading environmental and reproductive rights organizations. Powerful groups and individuals cloaked their white supremacy and panic over the prospect of interracial sex in the respectable language of warnings about population explosion and density. Historically, hate sprang not from the masses but from those VIPs. Their political heirs are populists like Trump. They divert the anger of whites at the margins hurt by policies that enrich and exonerate Wall Street by scapegoating immigrants, while enacting tax cuts and deregulation that continue to harm their base.

Racism served imperial capitalism well, and xenophobia serves neoliberalism and global plutocrats just as effectively. This Land is Mehta’s expression of rage at the cynical exploitation of inequality. In it, he makes debt his canvas, overlaying it with borders and borderlands that suggest what we owe migrants.