An American magazine I subscribe to often carries full page advertisements from groups calling for a halt to immigration into the USA. "Time for a Moratorium", says the headline of a typical one, from an organization in Washington DC called FAIR (Federation for American Immigration Reform). The USA, the ad tells me, is "vulnerable to unregulated surges of people seeking our shores."
The word "surge", in fact, occurs in these ads surprisingly often.
The interesting thing about campaigns that seek an end to immigration is that they invariably conjure up a spectre of hordes of unwashed and underfed poor flooding in. That's the implication behind that phrase "unregulated surges." That's also why the ad is so effective: these days, opinion polls make it clear that increasing numbers of Americans want immigration reduced. America is a land of immigrants, but today many of them don't want any more. Ironic, but there it is.
Chatting idly with a friend recently, the issue of immigration came up. He had some strong opinions to offer: "We must ban people from coming here." "These immigrants only want to MAKE MONEY!" -- he actually shouted those two words -- "which is something I just do not approve of!"
Was this an American, anxious about immigration into the USA?
No, it was a Bombayite, convinced like thousands of other Bombayites are that "immigration" into the city is the root of all Bombay's problems. All we have to do, and the quicker the better, is prevent people from coming here. Of course, his own grandparents "immigrated" into the city, and did so precisely in order to make money. But pointing that out to him had no effect.
What my friend will not see at all, what too many people don't want to adequately understand, is that people come to Bombay to better their lives, simple. Call it "making money" if you like, if that makes it seem like the crime it isn't. But desperate as we who live here might think conditions are in the city, there are still millions for whom conditions are far worse; for whom, therefore, Bombay remains the city of dreams, a place of opportunity unparalleled. We might choose to set up that "ban", but people are going to come in.
In much the same way, I cannot see how banning immigration into the US will ever be a success. Despite intensive patrolling on the border with Mexico, illegal immigrants flood across every day, defying the best efforts of the US border guards to keep them out. Opportunity, after all, is far better in the USA than in Mexico. People will find ways to come in.
Now banning immigration or not is one thing. But tucked away deep inside the arguments my friend put forward is something far more serious and insidious than a simple desire for a ban. We must also send the city's street dwellers "back to where they came from", he said. After all, they are not only coming into Bombay. They occupy public land illegally, or "encroach." They are unclean. They "breed like rabbits." They are a "security risk." They indulge in spying -- spying, if you please! -- and thefts and assaults.
The way he said all this, he might as well have said it out loud: they are really sort of subhuman.
This kind of sentiment is shared by many city dwellers, and speaks of a profound contempt for the poor and their problems. Think of it: Middle- and upper-class people also immigrate into the city. They live in flats that were almost certainly constructed and acquired illegally. They too commit crimes -- as names like Mehta, Telgi, Sarpotdar and others remind us.
But nobody ever argues that middle class city dwellers must be sent "back to where they came from." Nobody says of them that they "breed like rabbits", or are a "security risk." The Bombay Municipal Corporation never arrives in force, police protection in tow, to demolish middle-class blocks of flats, even though many of them are just as "illegal" as hutments on the streets. In fact, even when courts rule that a block of flats is illegal, you can bet good money it will not be torn down. Next time you're here in Bombay, ask anyone to point out something called "Pratibha."
No, it is always the poor and only the poor who are the targets of demolitions and such like. Because not only are they poor, we must make sure they suffer for being so. We blame all the ills of our modern big-city lives -- crime, garbage, crowds -- on them. And to top it all, we want to deny them the chance to lift themselves out of poverty by the pipe dream of an immigration ban.
Home truth time.
The poor, street and slum dwellers -- whether we like it or not, these fellow citizens are a crucial part of our economy. They do jobs few in the middle class are willing to do. They are waiters in restaurants. Shoe-shine boys at Churchgate station. Sculptors and vendors of plaster idols outside temples and churches. Peons in our offices. Men who deliver our milk and newspapers every morning, rain or shine. All these and many other activities that make our lives more comfortable, that help keep the huge engine of our economy lubricated and running, are done to a greater or lesser extent by people who live on our streets.
If we send them "back to where they came from", we had better be prepared for all these services to vanish as well. For the consequent damage that will cause to the economy.
You see, for better or worse, our lives are not easily separable. On the contrary, they are intricately linked. Simple though this sounds, it is a startlingly unpopular, unknown concept. Not only in Bombay or India, but around the world. Consider the evidence.
Tall blocks of luxury flats in Bombay are stacked in the middle of desperate huts made of rags and plastic. Even with the poverty that Bombay sees and lives daily, it is still an island of wealth in what remains among the poorest countries in the world. It is a magnet for thousands of people every year. Then there are the affluent countries of Europe and North America, where the standard of living is so vastly different from countries like India that it is difficult to believe we all occupy the same planet. If Bombay is an island in India, those countries are islands of wealth in a considerably poorer world.
What reactions do these extremes provoke in the rich? Increasingly, they are turning inwards, fencing themselves in. The tall buildings in Bombay build ever higher walls to keep their residents "safe." They employ ever more security men to keep the outside world firmly outside.
Never mind that those very security men are themselves slum dwellers come to the city from distant villages.
Meanwhile, the rich call loudly, as my friend did, for bans on immigration into Bombay: the poor from outside had better just stay somewhere far away. Meanwhile too, many of those high-rise denizens have their sights firmly set on the promised lands of the West. Never mind that those promised lands are talking of sealing their frontiers, much like the our efforts to close Bombay to outsiders.
The result: we live in a world that is characterized, more and more, by fortified islands of wealth surrounded by fields of poverty. People in the islands have absolutely no idea of who lives outside. Or how.
The moral repugnance of this situation is one thing. But more important, how can it be sustained indefinitely? The poor will inevitably be forced to desperate measures to better their lives. What happens then?
The French writer Jean Raspail painted a vision of one such measure in his 1973 book, "The Camp of the Saints." In Raspail's imagination, a million emaciated poor from Calcutta flood the shores of France, presenting the French with a unique dilemma. Repelling this unarmed horde by force is both an impossible and a repulsive idea. But can they be allowed to land? And what does this dilemma do to a society?
Raspail's account is fiction, but we've already seen some real-life echoes of it. Not long ago, residents of a Rio de Janeiro slum ran down the hillside and occupied several luxury flats that were lying vacant. In 1991, thousands of desperate Albanians, attracted in part by the luxuries they saw daily on Italian TV, commandeered ships and sailed across the Adriatic into Italian ports. They were forcibly returned to their impoverished country by Italian officials. Soon after that, nearly 300 Chinese refugees crowded onto an ancient freighter, the "Golden Venture." They sailed west, around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Atlantic, coming ashore in New York one night. Eight died trying to swim to land.
And besides these more dramatic episodes, a steady stream of Cubans and Haitians clambers onto anything that floats and tries to make the dangerous crossing to Florida. We remember the celebrated case of Elian from 1999 for his stay in Miami and forced return to Cuba. Yet he was one such would-be immigrant from Cuba, his mother lost to the sea as they tried to reach Florida.
What all this tells us, if we want to listen, is that the path the rich choose today -- fencing themselves in ever more securely, blinding themselves to the way millions live -- is one of futility. It can never work. In Bombay as in the USA.
The truth is simple, whether in the USA or in Bombay. Our futures are intertwined. If we hope for a better tomorrow, it must mean a better tomorrow for us all, not just for the middle and upper classes. This has little to do with morality, altruism or idealism. What we have to realize is that this idea is pure realism. Self-interest.
FAIR, to its credit, has seen the validity of this. Here's what the same advertisement I wrote about to begin this article also says:
Our role must be to try to help people improve conditions where they
are ... If we and the other developed nations are to control our own
destinies ... we must recognize that most people around the world will
have to 'bloom where they are planted.'
I might add: this idea itself will have to bloom where it is planted.