• How the West is Destroying Itself Through Its Fear of Migrants

    Suketu Mehta on the Origins of Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric

    The Populists’ False Narrative

    The West is being destroyed, not by migrants, but by the fear of migrants. In country after country, the ghosts of the fascists have rematerialized and are sitting in parliaments in Germany, in Austria, in Italy . . . They have successfully convinced their populations that the greatest threat to their nations isn’t government tyranny or inequality or climate change, but immigration. And that, to stop this wave of migrants, everyone’s civil liberties must be curtailed. Surveillance cameras must be installed everywhere. Passports must be produced for the most routine of tasks, like buying a cell phone.

    Take a look at Hungary, where Viktor Orbán has forced out the Central European University and almost destroyed the country’s free press and most other liberal institutions, using immigrants and George Soros as bogeymen. Or Poland, whose ruling party purged the judiciary, banished political opponents from government media, greatly restricted public gatherings, and passed a law—modified only after an international outcry—making it a crime to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust. Or Austria, where the neo-Nazis in the governing coalition want to flunk kindergartners for not knowing German. Or Italy, where a fanatically anti-immigrant coalition that won power is now going after the Roma. All these rode to power, or intensified their grip on it, like Orbán, by stoking voters’ fear of migrants, promising to ban new immigrants and to take away the rights of immigrants already in the country. Once in power, they energetically set about depriving everyone else of their rights, migrants or citizens.

    It’s a successful strategy for the fearmongers. Driven by this fear, voters are electing, in country after country, leaders who are doing incalculable long-term damage. And some liberal politicians blame not the fearmongers or the people who vote for them—but the migrants. “Europe needs to get a handle on migration,” declared Hillary Clinton in November 2018. It “must send a very clear message—‘we are not going to be able to continue to provide refuge and support’—because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

    The economist Jennifer Hunt tells a story about visiting Germany recently and listening to people making the liberal argument against letting in refugees: “If we let these people in, we’ll have the far right in government.” Hunt’s response: “If you don’t let these people in, you’ve already become a far-right government.”

    Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe were the harbinger of today’s global migrants; many of today’s covenants that protect refugees came into existence in response to their predicament. So it’s particularly painful to hear that the first army in our time to shoot at people crossing the border looking for asylum was the Israeli army. In 2015, Israeli soldiers fired on African migrants crossing the Egyptian border, wounding a number of them. In December 2017, the Knesset passed a law under which the 40,000 asylum seekers in the country “will have the option to be imprisoned or leave the country.”

    It was fear of migrants that led the British to vote for Brexit, the biggest own goal in the country’s history. In the lead-up to Brexit, the far-right member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage unveiled a poster showing a horde of nonwhite males attempting to cross into Slovenia, with the slogan “Breaking point: The EU has failed us all.” It turned out that the photograph was of a column of refugees, not economic migrants, and was similar to an image used in a Nazi propaganda lm. But it worked, and Brexit passed. In the year after the Brexit vote, hate crimes in England and Wales jumped by 29 percent. The young Brits who were gobsmacked by Brexit—even though a majority of them didn’t vote for it—will soon experience firsthand the rigors of border control that their forefathers made people like my mother endure.

    A populist is, above all, a gifted storyteller, and the recent elections across the world illustrate the power of populism: a false narrative, a horror story about the other, well told.

    Here in the United States, voters motivated by an utterly irrational fear and hatred of immigrants elected in 2016 a leader who might end up being the most destructive in the country’s history. In surveys, Trump’s promise to build a wall was the single most important factor cited by crossover voters, including women. When Congress refused to fund his wall, he shut down the government itself for the longest period the nation had ever known, causing enormous economic and political damage.


    For much of the 20th century, America’s greatest threat was from outside: Japan, the Soviet Union. Then from al-Qaeda. Now we realize that the greatest peril comes from within, from the heartland: Queens, New York. Only a year into his presidency, Donald Trump had succeeded in making the country I call home the most polarized I have ever seen it. Democrat versus Republican, Anglo versus Latino, urban versus rural, rich versus poor, men versus women: people are at each other’s throats as never before.

    A battle is being fought today in the public square, in the political conventions, on the television, in the op-ed pages: a battle of storytelling about migrants. Stories have power, much more power than cold numbers. That’s why Trump won the election; that’s why Modi and Orbán and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte won power. A populist is, above all, a gifted storyteller, and the recent elections across the world illustrate the power of populism: a false narrative, a horror story about the other, well told.

    The fear of migrants is magnified by lies about their numbers; politicians and racists train minds to think of them as a horde. In all the rich countries, people—especially those who are poorly educated or right-wingers—think that immigrants are a much bigger share of the population than they really are, and think that they get much more government aid than they really do. A recent study found that Americans think that the foreign-born make up around 37 percent of the population; in reality, they are only 13.7 percent. In other words, in the American imagination, we are three times as large as we really are. The French think that one out of three people in their country is Muslim. The actual number is one out of 13. British respondents to the poll predicted that 22 percent of the people will be Muslim by 2020; the actual projection is 6 percent.

    A quarter of the French, one in five Swedes, and one in seven Americans think immigrants get twice as much in government handouts as the native-born. This is not remotely true in any of these countries. Americans estimate that a quarter of all immigrants are unemployed; in reality, under 5 percent are.

    But there are also countertrends and counterexamples. Multiple studies have found that people who have direct contact with immigrants have much more positive views about their work ethic and reliance on welfare, and are much more open to increased immigration.

    And there are leaders who welcome migrants, however embattled they may be. Look at France, which elected the unapologetically pro-immigrant Emmanuel Macron, or Germany under Angela Merkel, which welcomed a million refugees in 2015. Above all, consider Canada, where the Justin Trudeau government has declared its intention to increase the flow of immigrants threefold, and whose economy had the strongest growth in the G7 in 2017—3 percent a year, as opposed to the 2.2 percent in Trump’s America (although the gap disappeared in 2018, thanks to Trump’s massive tax giveaways to the rich and to corporations). Hate crimes against Muslims actually went down in Canada in 2017; in its southern neighbor, they jumped by 5 percent.

    The early targets are easy to hit, under the cover of nationalism. But hate, once fed, grows ever more ravenous. It is never satisfied. But where does the hate come from?

    This shows that when countries safeguard the rights of their minorities, they also safeguard, as a happy side effect, the rights and economic well-being of their majorities, or other minorities within the majority. If a judiciary forbids discrimination against, say, Muslims, it is also much more likely to forbid discrimination against, say, gays. The obverse is also true: when they don’t safeguard the rights of their minorities, every other citizen’s rights are in peril.

    Every majority is composed of a set of discrete minorities. When you go after Palestinians and Africans in Israel, the Reform Jews are next. When you go after Muslims in India, the Christians are next. When you go after Muslims and Mexicans in America, the Jews and gays are next. The early targets are easy to hit, under the cover of nationalism. But hate, once fed, grows ever more ravenous. It is never satisfied.
    But where does the hate come from? How was it generated?

    A Brief History of Fear

    Homo sapiens has always moved around the continents, and often been hated for doing so. Our time is one in which, after a postwar openness to migrants, that hatred has resurfaced. Where does this fear and loathing of migrants come from? It didn’t start with the yobs on the street, the skinheads marching in leather, the torch-bearing white supremacists. The hatred has been manufactured. It’s an old-world idea. While the colonizers ruled over the colonies—and the slave owners in the new world over the slaves—they also began to find it essential to distinguish themselves from their subject peoples, to hold themselves morally, intellectually, and civilizationally superior to them. Otherwise, where would the colonial enterprise end? In intermarriage and race degradation. Since there were so many more of them than there were of the colonists, the tiny number of colonial officers would dissolve into a larger sea. Gandhi put the numbers in perspective: “If we Indians [in 1947, 390 million strong] could only spit in unison, we would form a puddle big enough to drown 300,000 Englishmen.”

    So, over the years, there’s been a rich vein of hysterical European, particularly French, literature on the subject. Much of it is about Calcutta, epicenter of Western fears—and my birthplace. The legend began with the “Black Hole,” a small prison in which 146 British prisoners of war were locked up for three days in the stiffling June of 1756 by an Indian nawab; only 23 survived. Ever since then, the popular image of Calcutta has been that of a giant urban black hole: overcrowded, hot, filthy.

    Thus, the celebrated French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss on Calcutta in 1955’s Tristes Tropiques:

    What we are ashamed of as if it were a disgrace, and regard as a kind of leprosy, is, in India, the urban phenomenon, reduced to its ultimate expression: the herding together of individuals whose only reason for living is to herd together in millions, whatever the conditions of life may be. Filth, chaos, promiscuity, congestion; ruins, huts, mud, dirt; dung, urine, pus, humours, secretions and running sores; all the things against which we expect urban life to give us organized protection, all the things we hate and guard against at such great cost, all these by-products of cohabitation do not set any limitation on it in India. They are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper. To every individual, any street, foot-path or alley affords a home, where he can sit, sleep, and even pick up his food straight from the glutinous filth. Far from repelling him, this filth acquires a kind of domestic status through having been exuded, excreted, trampled on and handled by so many men . . .

    In certain respects at least, these people, although tragic, appear childish to us. First, there is the engaging way in which they look and smile at you; then their indifference to propriety and places, which is forced upon your attention since they sit or lie about in any position; their liking for trinkets and cheap finery; their naïve and indulgent behavior.

    Lévi-Strauss’s disgust wasn’t directed just at Indians; it was at modernity in general, and its effects on the aboriginal peoples around the world that he loved. Lévi-Strauss loved tribal India, but not modern India, the India of the cities. Because cities contain a lot of people. And people like Lévi-Strauss don’t like density. When confronted by masses of people, otherwise sober, nonracist professors experience a severe allergic reaction and start foaming at the typewriter.

    But there’s something about brown and black people reproducing that has always horrified Western thinkers and leaders.

    The once-renowned environmentalist and Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich begins his enormously influential 1968 book The Population Bomb (published by the Sierra Club) with another hysterical epiphany, this time in Delhi:

    I have understood the population explosion intellectually for a long time. I came to understand it emotionally one stinking hot night in Delhi a few years ago. My wife and daughter and I were returning to our hotel in an ancient taxi. The seats were hopping with fleas. The only functional gear was third. As we crawled through the city, we entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was well over 100, and the air was a haze of dust and smoke. The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping. People visiting, arguing, and screaming. People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people. As we moved slowly through the mob, hand horn squawking, the dust, noise, heat and cooking res gave the scene a hellish aspect. Would we ever get to our hotel? All three of us were, frankly, frightened.

    Ehrlich and his family emerged from the taxi awakened to the peril: “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

    This epiphany led Ehrlich to advocate that the U.S. condition its food aid to poor nations, like India, on those countries sterilizing their males.

    The United States could take effective unilateral action in many cases . . . When we suggested sterilizing all Indian males with three or more children, we should have applied pressure on the Indian government to go ahead with the plan. We should have volunteered logistic support in the form of helicopters, vehicles, and surgical instruments. We should have sent doctors to aid in the program by setting up centers for training paramedical personnel to do vasectomies. Coercion? Perhaps, but coercion in a good cause. I am sometimes astounded at the attitudes of Americans who are horrified at the prospect of our government insisting on population control as the price of food aid. All too often the very same people are fully in support of applying military force against those who disagree with our form of government or our foreign policy. We must be just as relentless in pushing for population control around the world.

    Your belly or your dick: choose!

    Ehrlich and his wife, Anne, were leading advocates for restricting immigration to the United States—because all those extra people would be bad for the environment—and for restoring ethnic quotas on immigration. He predicted that 4 billion people, including 65 million Americans, would die because the planet was incapable of feeding them. “Sometime in the next 15 years,” Ehrlich predicted, “the end will come.” This was in 1970.

    There’s often been a troubling alliance between extreme environmentalists, the zero-population growth crowd, and racists, based on a common fear of density.

    None of this actually happened, of course—and India, Ehrlich’s nightmare country, is actually reaping the demographic dividend of a workforce with a median age of 27. But there’s something about brown and black people reproducing that has always horrified Western thinkers and leaders. Churchill, in 1945, opined that Hindus are “protected by their mere pullulation [rapid breeding] from the doom that is their due.”


    The Mein Kampf of the contemporary anti-immigrant movement in the West is a poisonous 1973 French novel called The Camp of the Saints. Its author, Jean Raspail, was nothing like Lévi-Strauss, the champion of aboriginal cultures, or Ehrlich, the environmentalist. He was a French adventurer in the tradition of the great pith-helmet-wearing white explorers who brought horrifying tales of native debaucheries back to Europe for the delectation of audiences like the Académie Française and the Société de Géographie, both of which gave Raspail awards for his books. The Camp of the Saints imagines a convoy of 800,000 migrants from my birthplace, Calcutta, on course to land in France in the year 2000. On board, they copulate promiscuously, including with their own children, and eat each other’s excreta. As they prepare to land in France, the country is torn between liberals who are prepared to welcome the new arrivals and the gallant native whites who have the moral fiber to fire on the unarmed men, women, and children of the convoy.

    The prose of the novel is a whiter shade of purple. This is how the Indians—like me, my parents, my children—are described: “First to land were the monsters, the grotesque little beggars from the streets of Calcutta. As they groveled through the wet sand like a pack of basset hounds, or a herd of clumsy seals exploring an unfamiliar shore, with their snorts and grunts of joy, they looked like an army of little green men from some remote planet.”

    It is an out-and-out, unapologetically racist book, as Raspail states in his 1982 preface to a reprinting: “Our hypersensitive and totally blind West . . . has not yet understood that whites, in a world become too small for its inhabitants, are now a minority and that the proliferation of other races dooms our race, my race, irretrievably to extinction in the century to come, if we hold fast to our present moral principles.”

    The novel’s influence has only grown over time. It set off a wave of other (mainly French) imaginings of this alien invasion, such as Renaud Camus’s theory of “the Great Replacement,” in which Europeans will be replaced by immigrants, mostly Muslim, all at once. Michel Houellebecq’s 2015 novel Submission imagined a North African Muslim winning the presidency of France.

    In 1995, Raspail’s disease-ridden book crossed over the ocean and landed in America, where it was reprinted by a malevolent ophthalmologist and eugenicist in Michigan named John Tanton, the fons et origo of today’s anti-immigration movement in America. Tanton founded the anti-immigrant groups Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies, and Numbers USA; and was a board member of U.S. English and, not incidentally, the head of the Petoskey, Michigan, chapter of Planned Parenthood and a Sierra Club official. (There’s often been a troubling alliance between extreme environmentalists, the zero-population growth crowd, and racists, based on a common fear of density). The Camp of the Saints has had enormous influence on both Steve Bannon, who has called current immigration to Europe “a Camp of the Saints–style invasion,” and Marine Le Pen, who keeps a signed copy at her desk.

    Tanton republished The Camp of the Saints in 2001, writing,

    Over the years the American public has absorbed a great number of books, articles, poems and films which exalt the immigrant experience. It is easy for the feelings evoked by Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty to obscure the fact that we are currently receiving too many immigrants (and receiving them too fast) for the health of our environment and of our common culture. Raspail evokes different feelings and that may help to pave the way for policy changes. The Camp of the Saints takes the world population explosion and the immigration debate in a new direction. Indeed, it may become the 1984 of the twenty-first century.

    Tanton’s correspondence with a white donor reveals his truest color. “One of my prime concerns is about the decline of folks who look like you and me.” The godfather of today’s anti-immigration movement also declared, “For European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.” He was, like many racists, a eugenicist. “Do we leave it to individuals to decide that they are the intelligent ones who should have more kids? And more troublesome, what about the less intelligent, who logically should have less. Who is going to break the bad news to them?”


    Excerpted from This Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto by Suketu Mehta. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux June 4th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Suketu Mehta All rights reserved.

    Suketu Mehta
    Suketu Mehta
    Suketu Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and won the Kiriyama Prize and the Hutch Crossword Award. His work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Granta, Harper’s, Time, and GQ. He has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Whiting Writers’ Award, and an O. Henry Prize. He was born in Calcutta and lives in New York City, where he is an associate professor of journalism at New York University.

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