Suketu Mehta, an associate professor of journalism at Columbia University, was born in India and grew up in New York City. In his book, “This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto,” he makes the best and most comprehensive argument I have seen for why immigrants should not only be welcomed by wealthy countries but even actively sought. Unfortunately, this book will probably be read mostly by those who already agree with him and ignored by those who most should read it. Although the tone is sometimes (especially early) somewhat strident, this is a scholarly work with around 50 pages of footnotes and references to back up his arguments. The net result is very convincing.
The first two sections of the book set up the current world stage of unprecedented immigration across borders. The U.S. is currently 13% foreign born, although many falsely believe that number to be much higher. Immigrants start a quarter of all new businesses and have earned more than a third of all Nobel Prizes awarded to Americans. Bill Gates has stated that for every tech worker emigrating to the U.S., five more jobs are created. 83% of the winners in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair were children of immigrants.
This description of the situation is followed by a review of the reasons people emigrate. This began with colonialism, with its shameless pillaging of poorer countries by richer ones. Even in the modern world, colonialism continues in more subtle, often economic, ways. Of course, war is another major reason, as with the Syrian Civil War and Central American unrest in recent years. Most recently, climate change is becoming an increasingly important motivator to emigrate.
The third section of the book examines the history and psychology of fear, including its connections to race, class and war. Mehta attempts to explain why so many non-immigrants believe the false narrative that immigrants are bad for their country, when the evidence is strongly to the contrary. Most of this belief is based on fear, and Mehta helps us understand how this works.
The last section — “Why They Should Be Welcomed” — makes an interesting argument I had not heard before, namely, an interpretation of what American exceptionalism really is. Mehta argues that it is the truly multicultural communities like the Jackson Heights area of Queens where he grew up that really “make America great.” This is where Pakistanis and Indians live as neighbors, Arab and Jews cooperate, and everybody loves other groups’ food and culture. His South Asian writers’ group meets in a South African cafe in Brooklyn and has people from all over India as well as other South Asian nations, people who could not all meet together in South Asia because they could not get visas to visit each others’ countries. This peaceful and productive sharing could not happen back home in Asia, but it occurs daily in New York City.
Immigrants bring much to developed countries and are in fact less likely than non-immigrants to use social services, commit crimes or remain poor. The population decline and aging population in wealthy countries is only offset only by increasing immigration.
Immigrants will literally be what saves programs like Social Security and Medicare. Some nations like Sweden, Canada and Germany are already actively recruiting immigrants to help head off this looming demographic disaster.
The recent toughening of immigration policies in the U.S. and elsewhere is damaging future economic security based on short-sighted and unfounded fears.
Mehta even offers in interesting argument for immigration policy being viewed as reparations for past colonial sins. For example, maybe West African nations should be given generous immigration quotas for admission to nations that prospered from the slave labor of their ancestors or nations that enriched themselves through the slave trade or by plundering their natural resources.
Mehta ends the book with a long epilogue chapter focusing on how his own extended family has prospered and expanded culturally since emigrating to the U.S. At this point, it becomes a very uplifting and inspiring book. I was reminded of the admittedly somewhat more limited cross-cultural opportunities here in the Little Apple, although sometimes we fail to see what is right in front of us. Our children went through school with many classmates from around the world, and Lee Elementary School made a point of using these students to teach everyone about different cultures and enlist all the children to help new international children to learn English. We are so thankful that our kids grew up around peers from all over the world and thinking that was normal. Immigrants are wonderful.
Richard Harris is a professor emeritus of psychological sciences at K-State.