Books

One insider’s view of the thorny subject of immigration

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

14 September 2019

9:00 AM

Probably this happens to every generation: the moment when you can’t believe what’s going on; when events seem too preposterous to be true. I never thought I’d witness government and parliament in this country tearing themselves to tatters and becoming so irrelevant that Westminster might as well be located on the dark side of Jupiter.

Perhaps the most incendiary topic lumbering about in the disintegration of our governance is immigration. No other subject manages to beget such nonsense and fury. The claims of anti-migrant, anti-immigrant sentiment are rife, despite the fact that even on the far right it is almost impossible to find anyone who is completely against the notion of immigration; it’s all about how it should be conducted.

Suketu Mehta, an American of Gujarati origin, who wrote a highly acclaimed portrait of Bombay, Maximum City, has now come up with This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, a consideration of the state of play.

Mehta signals his position, in neon, straightaway. Resistance to immigration ‘is based on fear and prejudice’, and he ends his preface with ‘the heart should have no borders’. His investigations are principally concerned with the US, but he’s happy to lambast other ‘rich countries’ — such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan as well as many in Europe — or, as others might prefer to describe them, the democracies who, obviously, are the real villains on the global scene.


This line of thought doubtless goes down well in the bars of Brooklyn, but it’s annoying to encounter in this book a Twitter-level analysis of economic history and a student union sophistication in argument. The ‘rich countries’ stole their wealth from the poor, through colonisation or imperialism? I can’t remember where Canada, Switzerland, Finland, Ireland or Singapore had their colonies, or indeed how Germany’s postwar resurrection had anything to do with shafting farmers in paddy fields.

As is the fashion, Mehta lays into Hungary for its attitude to migrants and refugees, and says that the Central European University has been ‘forced out’ of Budapest. No it hasn’t. Don’t take my word for it: check its website. But maybe that’s too advanced for someone who’s merely an associate professor of journalism at New York University. The one figure Mehta gives in relation to Hungary, ‘a country of almost ten million people’, is the government’s objection to an EU quota of ‘1,294 refugees’. He conveniently overlooks the hundreds of thousands who have sauntered into the country over the previous years.

Mehta also has a curious, almost 1930s chippiness about the British and the Raj, as if he’s absconded from a Paul Scott novel. (But then much of his outlook seems stuck way back there; note his references to Woody Guthrie, and Jeremy Corbyn, who must forever rue his misfortune in not participating in the General Strike of 1926.)

In between heartwarming tales of beneficial immigrants, Mehta inserts his life story and that of his family, who moved to the US when he was a child. They had a hard time with bureaucracy. Maybe someone should mention to him that officials at borders in any country are rarely helpful or cheerful, whether you’re Indian or not.

Mehta contends that if you’re white and have a British or US passport, you’re fantastically privileged. As someone white, with a British passport, I’m curious as to why that privilege involved, over the years, lengthy discussions with US immigration officials, British and French customs officers persistently searching me, having visas refused, and being locked in a room by Hungarian border guards on more than one occasion.

We are told how Mehta’s schoolmates, who were exactly like Donald Trump, horrifically called him ‘Mouse’, and once — wait for this — pushed him down some stairs. The most outrageous whinge, however, is about his two-year-old son’s first day at preschool in New York. His son had been raised to speak Gujarati. So, you’re American, you live in America, but you don’t teach your son a word of English (and children of that age have a breath-taking ability to absorb language) and then when your son can’t communicate with the other kids, ‘I sit with him feeling miserable.’ The kids in their building don’t invite little Gautama to play, Mehta bleats. Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t speak English.

There’s also a lot of obvious stuff, such as New York having a real mix of nationalities — hurrah — and some great restaurants as a result of that; and sweeping assumptions that immigrants rely on their families more than non-immigrants. Oh yes? My guess is that anyone lucky enough will have been bailed out in some way by a family member at some point.

I greatly enjoyed Mehta’s Maximum City, but I’ll have to reassess how factual his reportage really was, since he appears to have such a frail grip on reality.

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