I often wonder what later generations will “see” as obviously irrational, immoral, or unjust practices in our culture, and ask themselves how we could have accepted these, the way we look back at enslavers today. Some are obvious: even before I die, expect my grandchildren to ask me why we were so careless in burning carbon, what with all the airplanes, heating and air conditioning, and big cars. Some people argue that future generations will look in horror at our carnivorous practices; I’m skeptical, though I assume we’ll eat a lot less meat, especially beef.
So I was fascinated to hear Mohsin Hamid on the Ezra KleinShow podcast say that he thought we today are as barbaric today for preventing migration ("enforcing the limits of geography on people’s lives") as slaveholders were for enforcing birth hierarchies 150 years ago. He points out that humans, like all animals, migrate. In fact, the enforcement of borders is actually fairly new.
[N]one of us are, in a sense, indigenous to where we live.… [W]herever we are, in a sense, we are migrants. And up until quite recently, this idea of the nation-state with such impermeable borders and passports and this entire mechanism didn’t exist. Of course, there were tribes that wouldn’t let members of other tribes live among them. There were wars, there were all kinds of things. But the human record is of movement, incredible amounts of movement.
Europeans migrated to the New World with almost no restrictions until the early 20th century. The Qing dynasty tried to prevent Chinese from moving to Taiwan and the Philippines in the 17th century, but pretty much failed. But today, Hamid notes, we have governments attempting to use industrial technology to stop any movement. He continues:
And I think that, while I fully understand and can empathize with the idea that, well, if we let everybody come, it will change everything and we can’t do that, I can understand that. And there needs to be some navigation of how do we manage this tussle of what those who wish to move and those who do not wish others to move to where they are, how do we manage the balance between those two things.
But what I think is very stark is that it cannot be that the moral right is simply to say that people mustn’t move, they are criminal if they move, they should be criminalized if they move, because in a world where there will be, I think, enormous flows of people, due to climate change and environmental disruption, but also wars and other things, if we say to people that they just can’t move, we’re, in a sense, handing out death sentences to millions and millions of our fellow human beings. If you can’t leave a country where there’s a war underway and where people of your particular group are being killed, or if you can’t leave a country where there is enormous starvation and crops have failed, we are basically deciding that these people now need to die.
And for me, that decision should be revealed in its correct moral complexion, which is to say it isn’t the person who wishes to move who is the criminal here. If somebody is drowning and we can help them and we don’t, it’s not the person who drowns that is the criminal here.
The same day that I heard this podcast interview, I also heard news from an IPSOS poll that Americans are very misinformed about immigration.
Over half of American adults believe it is either completely or somewhat true that the U.S. is experiencing an invasion at the southern border, according to a new NPR/Ipsos poll. Moreover, half believe there is at least some truth to the view that migrants bringing fentanyl and other illegal drugs over the southern border are responsible for the increases of overdoses in the U.S.
The idea of an “invasion” is hyperbole at best, and the migrants are not bringing drugs, but trying to save themselves. Though half of all respondents believe migrants are smuggling drugs, Republicans who watch Fox are most likely to believe this (89%), compared to 64% of Republicans get their news elsewhere.
The survey also shows that support for giving citizenship to Dreamers (people brought to the US by their parents as children) has fallen from 65% in January 2018 to 51% today. And “Fewer Americans today (56%) believe that immigrants are an important part of our American identity than in January 2018 (75%).” This represents a significant rightward tilt in the country.
I’ll admit I’m biased; I am the child of immigrants. My father’s family migrated to the US in 1920. My mother survived Allied bombing near Argenta, in Emilia-Romagna, and relied on distant relatives and strangers to survive. Her beloved great aunt, virtually her only relative on her father’s side, was killed in a bomb shelter in Ferrara. She always said that in wars, everyone suffers. My parents taught me that refugees needed help and that we should help them. They lived those values by sponsoring a family of Vietnamese refugees in 1979.
In another coincidence, this week I also heard Malcolm Gladwell’s last podcast of the 7th season, “I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me,” which tells the story of how his parents and their friends sponsored three Vietnamese refugees in 1979 (I highly recommend listening to this podcast; excellent, as usual). He makes the point that many people contributed to the effort, and there was little or no organization; many of the people Gladwell assembles for his interview were not aware of who did what or how things got done. It was all a series of small acts of kindness. No bravery was necessary; like the “Good Samaritan” of the Bible, who does not fight off hoodums or sneak the injured man past a military checkpoint, but just tends his wounds and pays an innkeeper to restore him to strength, a number of people donated money and time to help refugees start a new life in Canada.
The group in Canada was in part motivated by their Christian faith, and the podcast has them reciting these verses from Matthew 25:
For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.
I have to wonder at these people who consider themselves Christians, or even "Christian Nationalists," and yet spread misinformation about migrants at the border, and are able to turn their backs on their suffering. And I worry that the poll shows this country is turning Rightward, becoming more intolerant and fearful. What will our grandchildren say?