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Expat, immigrant, migrant, refugee: New book looks at mass migrations in the 21st century, why they happen and what they mean

By Lauren Markham

Book Review: This Land is our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta

In almost any other country on earth, Central Americans attempting to reach our southern border would be considered refugees, a designation that would guarantee them protection under international law. But in the United States, they are mere migrants who must, as a result of this label, fight desperately for a chance to cross over and to stay.

Such tricks of language abound in the contemporary war against migration — and against migrants themselves. Is it a border wall or a border fence? Are the teenagers who flee gang violence victims or criminals? Did the chain link separating children from their parents constitute a cage or a cell? “Etymology is destiny,” Suketu Mehta writes in “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” his searing new book about migration past and present. The category a person is assigned at a border — asylee, refugee, forced migrant, economic migrant, expat, citizen — is determined by where she comes from, and will in turn decide her fate, and even, at times, whether she lives or dies.

Migrant caravan in Mexico in 2018.

In an age of brutal anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy, “This Land is Our Land” offers a meticulously researched and deeply felt corrective to the public narrative of who today’s migrants are, why they are coming, and what economic and historical forces have propelled them from their homes into faraway lands. We are, and always have been, a planet on the move, Mehta observes. Yet migration tripled between 1960 and 2017, and, with war, climate change and income inequality, mass migration will only get worse.

“In the 21st century, your humanity is defined by your nationality,” Mehta writes. So, too, your mortality. Mehta’s own family immigrated to New York from India in 1977, when he was a boy. In the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, he found himself part of a so-called “model minority” class of Indian-American engineers and doctors, yet this didn’t spare him and his family the indignities of being new (and brown-skinned) in the United States. A teacher called him a pagan, and, during the Iran hostage crisis, a fellow teenager yelled, “Fuck Ayatollah,” as he and the only other Indian student in his high school walked by. “We’re Indians,” Mehta replied. “Fuck Gandhis!” the kid shouted.

Mehta introduces us to migrants who weren’t as fortunate as he was: people who fear death in the desert, on a small boat in the Mediterranean or even high above the city of Tangier, jumping from roof to roof to evade the police: “One of them didn’t make it; he fell into the alleyway and died,” Mehta writes. To migrate is to risk everything.

He takes us to the ironically named Friendship Park on the California-Mexico border, where family members can meet one another through thick wire fencing — that is, when the park is open. “There’s a semi-hidden place,” Mehta explains, “where a section of the mesh ends, next to a supporting pole, big enough for part of a whole palm to slip through, four fingers all the way up to the knuckle.” Week after week, a girl meets her boyfriend on the other side of the fence. One day there’s a ring on her finger.

“This Land Is Our Land” reads like an impassioned survey course on migration, laying bare the origins of mass migration in searing clarity. To the question of why a migrant left home yesterday or last month, one such person might answer: gang violence, drought, floods, war, lack of income. Mehta travels back further, to deeper, more distant causes; the global North’s fingerprints are everywhere.

The book makes a convincing argument that contemporary migration is a direct descendant of colonialism. Europeans and North Americans stole gold, silver, cash crops and human beings from the places people are now fleeing en masse. People migrate, Mehta says, “because the accumulated burdens of history have rendered their homelands less and less habitable.” Put another way, “They are here because you were there.” (Though one might wonder who this “you” is — the assumed reader of this book. Do migrants not also read?)

How to quantify what is owed? Mehta offers some numbers to get us started. The amount of silver shipped between 1503 and the early 1800s “would amount to a debt of $165 trillion that Europe owes Latin America today.” This pattern of extraction has not waned with time, nor has the mass violence it facilitates. Mehta reports that every day 700 guns cross the United States border into Mexico, where they are sold for triple the price back home. To say nothing of climate change: Wealthy countries’ enrichment is destroying the planet, hitting the poorest countries hardest of all.

“This Land Is Our Land” is, in large part, a case for reparations. Between 1970 and 2010, Mexico lost $872 billion in illegal financial outflows, most of it going from corporations doing business in the country to North American banks. In nearly the same time period, 16 million Mexicans came to the United States. “They were just following the money,” Mehta writes. “Their money.” He points out that “forty percent of all the national borders in the entire world today were made by just two countries: Britain and France.” Why shouldn’t there be a formula, like a carbon tax, by which wealthy countries would be required to take in migrants in numbers proportional to those countries’ wealth theft and contributions to climate change? “If the rich countries don’t want the poor countries to migrate, then there’s another solution,” Mehta suggests. “Pay them what they’re owed.”

He began this book in the wake of the 2016 election; he confesses that it was “written in sorrow and in rage — as well as hope.” It’s possible to read the book as a breathless rant, but it’s a rant that is well argued, cathartic and abundantly sourced. If some of his arguments sound familiar, it’s only because, in response to the Trump administration’s bombast and cruelty, they have been made again and again. “The new robber barons have come to power, and intend to hold on to it, on the wings of xenophobia,” Mehta writes — a postelection explainer that has become a truism. Or take a sentence like, “The migrants are no more likely to be rapists or terrorists than anyone else.” Must we read such obvious truths?

Perhaps we must. The rhetoric against immigrants is so baldfaced and insipid that it’s hard not to be dragged down into a wrestling match in the mud. But Mehta mostly rises above, making a strong economic case for more migration. Far from being a drain on society, migrants contribute both to the places they leave (in the form of remittances) and the places they go. They represent three percent of the world’s population but contribute nine percent of its gross domestic product. Immigrants constitute 40 percent of the home-buying market in the United States, and far from stealing jobs, in fact help create new ones. Places like Buffalo, with its failed industry and rows of empty houses, need people to kick-start the economy again.

“For many countries, immigrants are, literally, the future of the nation,” Mehta writes. “The immigrant armada that is coming to your shores is actually a rescue fleet.”

Credit The New York Times,

22 thoughts on “Expat, immigrant, migrant, refugee: New book looks at mass migrations in the 21st century, why they happen and what they mean

  1. I am an immigrant and a naturalized citizen of the United States. Mehta’s arguments vis. the hidden forces driving migration ring true to me. Belonging to the first generation of Indians born soon after India’s independence from Britain (England actually), the opportunities for me (even as an Europe trained engineer) were sparse. I arrived at JFK in 1981 with $90 in my pocket, two suitcases, and a determination to ‘make it’. I worked odd jobs (e.g., distributing voluminous yellow pages in downtown Chicago, draftsman, etc.) while completing my Masters in Computer Science from IIT. I took the citizenship oath in 1984 and quietly merged into the American mainstream…with a decent job, a suburban home (white picket fence and all), and bratty kids. I have never looked back since. Now that I am close to retirement I would like to believe I have done my bit for my adopted country. I raised law abiding kids, paid all my taxes, and stayed out of trouble. In 2001 I founded and led a software company for eight years that, at its peak, employed over a hundred people. Granted not all immigrants in this country get the lucky breaks that I got…but I can attest to the fact that most work much harder than the average ‘native’. Given that I am a firm believer that this country of immigrants must keep its borders open to new immigrants from around the world to fulfill its destiny. That said, I also believe we should not have “open” borders and the new arrivals MUST meet a fair established criteria that include (among other things) prized skills to help us stay competitive, humanitarian considerations, and economic necessities.

    Nearing completion of my charmed American journey, I will soon be an “expat” again…this time in Cuenca in tiny Ecuador…a place I have gradually fallen in love with. Life is nothing but constant movement and change!

    1. First of all you came legally and worked hard. Now you need to realize the majority of people coming from Central America are illegal invaders who are just looking for a free ride and have no intention of being anything like you. The leftist Demoncrats have even put out flyers and adds in those countries telling the people if they can get over the US. border they will get everything for free and never have to work again.

      1. It is not easy to be as misinformed as you are. It would be interesting to know where you get your information. Also, let us know when you actually see one of those flyers or ads that you contend have been put out in those countries. Also, consider learning the difference between “ads” and “adds”.

        1. The anti immigrant rhetoric will continue, as the people who want to separate us vs them, will rage on. I don’t believe they have the capacity or willingness to understand the dynamics of the plight of immigration and the history behind this reality. I especially love the irony of expat immigrants on this site. They will ramble on about how they followed the rules and did everything all legal….never getting the fact , that they were not fleeing their home country and asking for asylum at the border. The gene pool is filled with selfish, self seeking , narcissist western thought. Just look at the President who now stands as a role model for ‘Merika, btw he can’t write, nor spell either.

    2. I am an immigrant & natural denizen of the planet earth. Meta•arguments vis the obvious forces driving movement from here to there ring unnecessarily (& not onlyjust to me): the driveway’s long, the sightlines are clear, I saw the approach, see all the approaches, & the dogs heard it, hear them all, & let me know, even
      before I see them. Belonging to the 1st generation of “Germans” born
      after “Germany’s” independence from “Germans,” which was traded away for dependence on other good little germans in war with those other good little germans, the opportunities for me were what they were (what else would they be?). I arrived in ’59 with $0, empty suitcases, which got packed with 2nd hands
      & cast-offs that had to be unpacked, & a predetermination to determine the pre’s, presents, & posts – which are all one thing. ‘Making it’ was a side effect…that was always contingent (same as it is for everybody). I worked odd jobs odd hours in odd places for odd decades. B(ull)S(hit) Finance was a waste of prime time that’d have better been spent on odd jobshoursplaces…& I knew it, 2 years into the ma•trick•ulation, but had a bad habit of finishing what I started, whether it was a loss that should have been cut, or not. As mentioned, baggage unpacking is a big part of life (& if it isn’t, see the series The Walking Dead: metaphor, analogy, simile – art imitating “life”). Confessions begot by coercion are inadmissible covers password “oaths.” But “1984” is a nice, poetic, touch. (Orwell, oh well….) Otoh, when a crook’s got a gun on me, I’m justified in saying whatever I wantneed to straighten that wolf leg out. It is tempting to dismiss the Black Knight as stupid, a
      comic buffoon, but it’s way beyond that – it is pathological (a path that stupid comic buffoons can’t get off of, so they lie to, aggrandize {with aggregation helping to serve as “proof”}, themselves, & everyone else, that its “logical”… most Milgram guinea pigs & Pavlov pups do as directed without a second thought, some have reservations but still do as directed anyway, and a few people (not lab animals) see the scam for what it is…). The mainstream takes comfort & identity in effluent – which is by far the largest flow outta’ all the various Shawshanks; sewage is the shared story, & it doesn’t look anywhere but back, has no Zihuatanejo, or galts gulch, in its sightline…it just goes along to get along the watchtower (DylanHendrix). Countries indenture. That’s not adoption, even tho “adoption” to indenture surely does occur. And slaves do not, cannot, adopt masters. Laws are fabric of reality & wearing that garment well is good…but rules, made up to serve rulers, are not laws. I can attest to that fact, too: my best people were not original “muricans.” This country – no country – is “we.” That is more of the pathology that purports Shawshank inmates run the place. “Criteria” do not
      establish competition – completion establishes criteria…then disestablishes yesterday’s criteria as it births today’s. Creative destruction. The star chamber nitwits engage only in destructive destruction. Crises do not only not go to waste,
      the waste of crisis is fomented. For the economic rents. Which is, again,
      synonym for criminality. Expat? Here’s the truth: every person goes from nonexistence to expat like *that*. It’s called conception. But most x’s refuse to leave texas. More precisely, the Alamo. Game of Thrones is a thrown game. Black Knights….

      Thanks for the exercise.

      1. rhett…wish I could follow your scattered thoughts. You appear to be an interesting individual.

        1. In past lives I’ve pitched & sold to ESL’s, engineer-speakers, “creative” writing teachers. I know those languages. And those tongues are not past like cuneiform & hieroglyphs, but they are past like that, or mostly so, to me.

          Associational, analogical thinking may appear to be scattered. Too many connections can look like no connections. And even the densest connections are mostly empty space. Irony.


          … a stone {dense empty}, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.

          Naked & alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face: from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable & incommunicable prison of this earth.

          Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger & alone?

          O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

          O lost, & by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”

          ~ prologue to O Lost, Thomas Wolfe

          I am interested. You must be too. Else I’d not strike interesting.

  2. Such tricks of language, indeed. Divide earthlings, into “proud”flesh country (club prisons), & conquer.

    Only reason pen seems mightier than sword is because legions of dummies have swords in hand ready to slaughter each other over the words & definitions du jour. But also – mainly — to take each others’ stuff. Including each other. Enslavement.

    The words then are just emperors robes.

    And entomology is destiny. Hive mind is no mind – not in the good martial arts or high performance way, but in the lowest of the low Ox Bow Incident way.

    Leader-follower self-defeats over & over, as all oxidizing morons must do, but the outer & inner lawyers continue to pretzel the dough…& the dough continues to want to be pretzeled. “Identity.” Morons. More oxygen, please. An iron lung cranked all the way up & a bic lighter or box of matches would be good…if stupid were killable.

    Nuts: They are here because you were there & so impressed those already there that they emulated you…which is merely to say the indigenes who were already crooks learned from the cross-pollinating gangsters how to up their games. Pretzels, pretzels everywhere.

    Reparations? Stupid is unrepairable. Watched the last season of Game of Thrones. After everything being reprised yet again for the nth time – wall to wall carnage – the ending was to yet again install another kingqueen. But this time, “of course,” they were “good people.”

    Acton’s titular, “lord,” tells all that’s needed to know. And his so-called dictum regarding what power does to them wielding it is pure whitewash. Those attracted to power, including all proud minions salivating to follow orders, are already corrupt. And stupid. A hive full of shivs & shanks…& scribblers “elucidating” the meta ground.

      1. Roq never makes a point or a comprehensible sentence. Congrats to you on a life well lived. Blessings!

        1. English as a 2nd (or further down the
          line of wordstringing ways) language, engineers, have more toehold excuse than
          others. Double that for E2E(ngineer)’s. Others, if not the rest, mistake the
          slickness of their rock faces for incomprehensibility & pointless ascent
          effort. Knowing one’s limitations is good. Projecting one’s limitations is not
          so good. But it is common.

          1. Perhaps you should try an ESL (English as Second Language) course to improve your grammar.

      2. Indeed.
        What’s on second (base). {google the abbott & Costello routine if unfamiliar}
        But none of these teams got a how.
        Cuz howitzers.
        Might makes right’s the religion that precedes ‘em all, informs ‘em all, energizes ‘em all: parasites attached to hosts – many more by invitation than not.
        And the might rite has always found its highest & worst expression in the govstate.
        Cuz might compensates those who ask, rhetorically, “Who am I?”
        Might’s something bigger than the mites & motes that ask that question.
        And govstate buries the need to ask that question. Buries it, 6’ deep, in declamations.
        To which the mites & motes sigh with relieved love. Which some therapy-speakers call codependency.

  3. Immigration
    Some key points that are not talked about, foreign aid that is or was provided.
    That if a US retire migrates to another country they have to prove a level of income deemed
    adequate by the host country.
    There needs to be balance and controls on the amount of people. As in not 80 percent of
    one nationality out of a set level accepted for a year. There needs to be a balance of skills,
    knowledge, age, and economic levels. If people need help that should not be upset that the
    US or any 1st picked host country denies their entry. They should have multiple potential host
    The article talks about immigrants creating jobs. They don’t create them. Jobs are added when
    goods, services or skills are required. Adding somewhere between 2 or 3 people to an economy
    theoretically creates 1 new job.
    Lastly this is a personal and or emotional issue for almost everyone. Unfortunately personal
    reasons and emotions need to be subdued so a successful, rational, and sustainable balanced
    plan can be constructed and achieved.
    We all need to understand that we must play the hand of cards dealt us. Some will play better
    than others. We need to appreciate any of the beauty, joy, thrills, adventures, people, and events
    in life.
    This is more of a behavioral psychology mindset of you control whether something causes you
    to be happy or sad. Some like myself need to continue train my mind that making the best and
    being positive about things is the most beneficial.

  4. You can fill a book on the ‘evils’ of colonialism, imperialism etc. etc. but you can also fill a book on the ‘good’ that has been done by organizing hospitals, schools, railroads, economies as well. It’s not the one sided debate that it’s made out to be. That and nobodies hands are completely clean in this argument. You can be the descendent of Incas, Aztecs, Germans, Poles etc. etc. and your forefathers have been up to some dirt somewhere…Drop it…

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