The New York Times recently published an op-ed advancing a rather peculiar argument. Author Suketu Mehta builds on the familiar, hackneyed debate over reparations for slavery to make an even bolder, but more politically contemporary proposal: as penance for colonialism, the West should open its borders to the Third World.
Mehta suggests immigration quotas for Western countries that correspond with their respective historical sins. Mehta categorizes the nations of the world into “creditors” and “debtors,” according to their legacy as oppressors or oppressed within roughly the past 500 years.
By this token, “Britain should have quotas for Indians and Nigerians; France for Malians and Tunisians; Belgium for very large numbers of Congolese.” The West should accept 12 million African laborers, one for every African enslaved by the colonialists of the past.
While audacious, this argument expresses what many on the Left believe, but are often careful to avoid stating frankly: that mass migration should be seen as a form of just punishment for the West’s history.
Open-Borders Double Talk
In general, immigration activists try to disguise their malice as sympathy for “refugees,” many of whom are in fact economic migrants seeking a better life. Of course, one need not be so cynical as to imagine that their concern for the well-being of would-be immigrants is entirely fake. But once in a while, the mask will slip, and it becomes apparent that they are motivated at least as much by resentment towards the destination countries as they are by compassion for migrants.
From the “walls are immoral, but we don’t really want open borders” denialism of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to those openly calling for immigration as a form of reparations, there is a growing consensus on the Left that all restrictions on migration are motivated by xenophobia, borders are immoral because they are exclusionary, and Western countries are morally obligated to accept an unlimited number of migrants because of past wrongs.
How would these immigration quotas be drawn up? As with slavery reparations, the price is levied indiscriminately and with great prejudice. People who had nothing to do with the negative effects of colonialism are saddled with collective, generational guilt for the sins of distant, forgotten ancestors.
Mehta mentions more recent ravages as well, such as the Iraq War. National sovereignty doesn’t absolve America’s leaders from the responsibility of making smart, and ethical, foreign policy decisions. The United States should not invade the world and then expect the world to stay behind in the blast crater. But why should American workers pay for Iraq, when it is America’s irresponsible leaders who deserve the blame?
An exact accounting of who the “debtors” are, and what they owe, is beside the point. How would one go about determining who deserves to pay for King Leopold II’s brutal exploitation of the Congo? The enterprise is no more workable than figuring out which Americans living today should pay for slavery. Never mind the specifics; all Westerners are assumed guilty for the wrongs of all Western history.
A Profound Shift
The classes that comprise America’s elite are pushing this narrative. Journalists, academics, educators, entertainers, and activists are all popularizing academic, anti-American histories that invert the story of America’s founding and legitimize unlimited migration as a form of just deserts.
This new radicalism marks a shift from traditional American heritage, history, and identity. No one can deny that immigrants have had a profound impact on American history and society. But until recently, immigration has been understood as adding to, not defining, American identity; as something that should occur within legal and reasonable boundaries, not endlessly and without consideration for the economic welfare and social fabric of the existing nation.
Put simply, immigration always has been regarded as a privilege. Immigrants would come to America through a legal process. They would be vetted and accepted as American citizens, with certain expectations. They would assimilate to American society and pledge loyalty to their new home. They would contribute more than they would take. The would learn English, and be good neighbors and citizens.
In sum, immigration worked best when it had benefits for America and the migrants it accepted alike. There was no malice or malevolence toward the United States or its existing people involved.
This is a path that countless migrants have followed and continue to follow. But for numberless thousands of migrants coming more with the mindset of invaders than immigrants, a set of powerful interests exists to justify their illegal entry as an entitlement.
The Left today has an altogether different understanding of immigration’s role in American identity and political life. The old, sentimental imagery associated with immigration to America—Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty—does not align with the present situation or progressive ideology. Lawful process has been replaced with lawlessness, gratitude and respect with brazen entitlement.
Immigration Myths and Realities
For the Left today, immigration is a universal human right that can brook no restrictions, whether by national sovereignty or mere economic realism. “No human is illegal.”
To justify this universal right of entry, the Left employs a foundational myth. In this myth, America, and the West broadly, is the villain and debtor to the suffering masses around the globe. Citizenship is not a privilege but a right owed by Westerners to every “citizen of the world.”
In this founding myth, the settlers of America were illegitimate brutes who despoiled the verdant plains and stole the birthright of today’s rightful heirs to the continent. American history begins not with 1492, but with the beginning of the struggle for social justice and the rise of modern progressivism in the 20th century, particularly the mid-century. The American “history” that has been written is illegitimate and needs to be written anew, by the erstwhile, rightful occupants of the land. In fact, the real Americans need not have any historical ties to the American continent at all, other than having been on the receiving end of America’s might.
This academic narrative typically writes off the Founders as irredeemable racists, discrediting their nobility, wisdom, and efforts to build a lasting constitutional republic. Once relegated to humanities departments in America’s universities, this “de-colonialist” ideology has seeped into the wider public consciousness through various left-wing channels. Today’s students learn more in K-12 education about what is wrong with America and its past than what made it great.
At its core, this anti-founding myth denies that America has a core identity at all. There is nothing greater about American life than the sum of the countless job seekers searching for a better life from abroad. America has no history, since that history is illegitimate; it has no culture that rises above what can be bought on the market, including the various commodified “cuisines” brought from afar and sized down to American palates; it has no border, since borders are restrictive. America is simply a giant casino in which all and sundry may seek their fortune, with special preference given to those shut out by the prejudices of the past.
In this narrative, migration, being a right rather than a privilege, comes with no obligation for the migrant. What nation would there be to render any obligation to, anyway, when America is merely a “nation of immigrants?”
It’s not hard to imagine why millions of Americans find this vision a threat to their economic welfare, security, and cultural integrity. When push comes to shove, elites must fall back on gaslighting to deceive Americans into believing that unlimited mass immigration is actually in their interest.
It’s here that the elites’ immigration message shrieks with dissonance. While browbeating Westerners for the sins of their ancestors, the Left simultaneously will work to assure their targets that their apprehension about open borders is unfounded.
In one breath, the Left claims reassuringly that nobody actually wants open borders, that America is a bountiful country with plenty to go around, that fear of mass migration is irrational and rooted in xenophobia. In the next, coaxing words are replaced with gnashing malice. Nobody wants open borders, but even if that were true, you deserve it, you bigot.
In an excerpt of his book, This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto, Mehta argues the West is being “destroyed, not by migrants, but by the fear of migrants” and describes fears of mass migration as “irrational.” Millions of Westerners somehow have been duped into working against their own interests by populist strong men playing off atavistic hatred.
But if immigration is a form of punishment, payment of the “debt” for the West’s wrongs, is this not an admission that those “irrational fears” are simply clear perceptions of the costs of mass migration?
When they’re not forwarding shallow, disingenuous arguments for mass immigration as a boost to the GDP, today’s most ardent proponents of open borders—however much they might deny it—agree in their most honest moments that mass immigration, rather than being a net boon, brings burdens that Americans may be loath to accommodate—but must bear, as payback. How, then, are the fears of immigration restrictionists irrational?
In their haste, the open borders proponents are giving the game away. Does their confidence stem from a belief that they have already won? That through their combined institutional powers, the media, activist judges, the administrative state, academia, an education system thoroughly co-opted by anti-American ideology, and corporate interests seeking cheap labor, dissenters are powerless to resist their agenda?
They may be right to believe so. But for America’s sake, one must hope that they are wrong.
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