Suketu Mehta makes an impassioned case for immigrants in the U.S in his recent book, “This Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto.” I find much to agree with in his book. However, I have a fundamental problem with his basic premise: “The West has despoiled country after country through colonialism, illegal wars, rapacious corporations and unchecked carbon emissions. And now their desperate migrants are supposed to be grateful to be let in by the back door at the mansions of the despoilers, mansions built with the stolen treasure of the migrants’ homelands?” By blaming everything on the West, he lets the Third World countries off the hook for a lot that is wrong there.
Let me talk about India from where both of us came. I lived in India for the first 25 years of my life until I came to the U.S. in 1965. Life for me in India, particularly in Mumbai, was horrendous and hopeless. For starters, despite earning an accounting degree from what was arguably the best business college in India, I’d failed to land a job—any job—despite a hundred or more applications. One had to know the right people in the right places to get a job, and I did not meet that requirement. When I finally did find a job, it was nothing to write home about. After I married, we couldn’t afford to live in Mumbai, so I had to send my new bride hundreds of miles away to live with my parents for nearly two years while I lived and slept in the office where I worked. When she finally returned to Mumbai, we moved from place to place every three months. It was a miserable, nomadic existence; if there was a scarcity of jobs, affordable housing was even scarcer.
My traumatic years in Mumbai washed away most of my hopes, ambitions and patriotic fervor. I came to a bitter realization that India is no country for young men. It is a democracy only in name. Yes, people vote and governments change, but the more things change, the more they remain the same. India's Soviet-style five-year plans come and go, but the masses still live in miserable conditions. Over 70 years after Indian independence in 1947, according to the United Nations, India is home to the largest number of poor people in the world: Fully a third of the planet's 1.2 billion extremely poor people subsist in India without access to basic services such as education, health, water, sanitation and electricity. Yet India is among the 10 richest countries in the world with 245,000 millionaires and 111 billionaires. Even worse, it has the second-highest income inequality in the world with millionaires and billionaires living next to shanty towns and slums in big cities like Mumbai.
Mehta can blame the West all he wants, but India should look into the mirror for all of its present ills. Its selfish and utterly corrupt politicians—and equally corrupt, rigid and insensitive bureaucracy—have put a stranglehold on its people, particularly the poor. My only salvation was to leave the country for a new home where I could find a congenial environment and flourish: America. That’s when I realized that even leaving the country was a rich man’s game. It cost several hundred thousand rupees to go abroad—I didn’t have even a few thousand. Fortunately, with the help from a college friend, I was able to leave India for the United States—nothing short of a miracle!
But why did I choose America? Because I knew in my bones that it was only here that I could rise and realize my full potential. More than any other country, it has a tradition of accepting and absorbing immigrants. It gives them a chance to remake their lives. I got that chance for a life that would otherwise have been wasted in India. Here, at last, what matters is what I know and can do, not where I come from or how I look or what my hereditary lineage is.
For an immigrant with skills, America is heaven. If you know what you want to do with your life and are willing to work at it, this is the place. Only in America can an Asian immigrant like me become the chief financial officer of the nation’s capital. This country’s generous people open their hearts and doors to immigrants like me and let them pursue their dreams. And that is why America is still the most favored destination for tens of millions around the world. The best and brightest as well as the tired and poor come to America, invited or not.
In singing America’s glory, I am not ignoring what is bad and ugly here. Like anyone, I also see crime, guns, mass shootings, drugs, social promiscuity, homelessness, economic inequality, racial discrimination and toxic, special-interest-driven tribal politics that have debased the public square. I particularly abhor the current anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. And yes, I too feel the sting of discrimination with crank calls from crazies telling me to go back home. Yet this is my home, now and forever!
Most Americans take their country for granted. I don’t. I know better. I am from the Old World, where America is still the place to go. I am profoundly and indelibly grateful for being here.
Natwar Gandhi is the former chief financial officer of the District of Columbia (2000-2013) and author of "Still the Promised Land" (Arch Street Press, 2019).