Strangers in the Land

Strangers in the Land

Human Cargo and The Rights of Others chronicle the plight of refugees and migrants, revealing how seemingly simple moral positions can assume toxic political form.


Nathan Berzok, son of Joseph and Mollie, was born in Odessa on October 7, 1905. A multicultural metropolis on the Black Sea, Odessa was home to some 138,000 Jews–and the site, eleven days after Nathan’s birth, of a four-day pogrom that took at least 400 of their lives. The Berzoks survived; Mollie

hid Nathan in a stove. But like many of Odessa’s Jews, they took the pogrom as a sign that it was time to pack their bags. On March 1, 1908, Nathan, his two older brothers and Mollie arrived at Ellis Island. Joseph was there waiting for them, having already left Odessa to scout out New York. When he spied his wife and three sons inside the immigration center, Joseph rolled them oranges under the railing–the sweetest of signs that they had permanently left Odessa and its pogroms behind.

Nathan Berzok was my grandfather. But it wasn’t until I had nearly finished Human Cargo, Caroline Moorehead’s book about contemporary refugees and migrants, that I even thought of these stories, which he told me while I was growing up. I hadn’t forgotten them. They just didn’t register as I read Moorehead’s harrowing tales of people fleeing persecution, warfare and destitution, traveling thousands of miles in search of a new and better life.

Despite the efforts of postmodern theorists to convince us that exile is the emblematic condition of modern life, when it comes to immigrants and refugees we still seem incapable of the barest gesture of recognition, much less empathy. We remember Oedipus Rex: lover of one parent, killer of another. We forget Oedipus at Colonus: exiled king who wandered twenty years in search of “a resting place” near Athens, “where I should find home” and “round out there my bitter life.” We feel Medea’s rage over Jason’s betrayal, driving her to kill their two sons. We scarcely notice her equally poignant–and more frequent–lament that she is “deserted, a refugee,” with “no harbor from ruin to reach easily.”

Even those of us who for reasons of personal background, religion or politics should be most sensitive to the suffering of refugees can be astonishingly indifferent to their plight. “Four hundred years of bondage in Egypt,” Cynthia Ozick has written, “rendered as metaphoric memory, can be spoken in a moment; in a single sentence. What this sentence is, we know; we have built every idea of moral civilization on it. It is a sentence that conceivably sums up at the start every revelation that came afterward…. ‘The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'”

Fine, even beautiful, words, both the original and the gloss. But where are we to find them in Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, from the exile it thrust upon them in 1948 to the ongoing hostility to their return–or, for that matter, in Ozick’s anti-Arab fulminations? From one vantage, the story of Israel and Palestine can seem the most idiosyncratic of ironies: A people forced to wander thousands of years forces another people to wander for who knows how many years. From another vantage, the story is sadly universal: the refusal to see or imagine oneself in the pain of another, even–or particularly–when one has suffered a similar ordeal. If exile has any larger import, then, it is not that we all share in its status. It is that it occasions the most sacred and sublime of obligations–“love him as yourself”–and the most wretched of betrayals.

Consider two points often made in debates about refugees and immigrants. Writers and politicians, in this country and in Western Europe, have long complained that immigrants and refugees do not conform to the rules and norms of liberal democracy. Arabs and Africans, we are often informed, do not accept the rights of women; Muslims are more loyal to their religion than to the state (something said of Europe’s Jews not so long ago); immigrants carry, along with their luggage and food, the conflicts and violence of their countries of origin to their new homes. Since 9/11 writers and politicians have grown increasingly apprehensive about the security threat posed by Muslims and Arabs. Worried about insufficient assimilation and potential terrorism, many commentators now believe that Western countries need to reconsider their open immigration policies.

What’s most interesting about these claims is not their truth or falsity but the terms of the debate, in which even the most right-minded men and women feel free to toss off one or two adjectives as a complete account of an entire people. When a Dutch vegan murdered the gay right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn, the distinction between a criminal and his dietary tastes remained sharp. But when Mohammed Bouyeri, a Muslim with dual citizenship in the Netherlands and Morocco, murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a leap was instantly made from a lone assassin to an entire religion and region. Debates about immigration not only turn newcomers into outlaws; they also transform native-born citizens into a church of unsullied virtue. Start an argument in France about Muslim women wearing the hijab, and suddenly every Frenchman is a feminist.

What is it about immigrants and refugees that frees us from the stricture against guilt by association and the duty to treat individuals as individuals? Perhaps it is simply because we can. It is in the nature of immigration regimes, after all, to classify each arrival or departure as an instance of a larger whole. And because the immigrant’s entry into or exit from a society is a question of choice–sometimes his or hers, always ours–there’s a tendency on the part of host countries to assume that vexing social issues can be resolved merely by removing a distasteful ingredient from the mix.

It would be a mistake, however, to view the immigrant–or the exile or refugee–as simply a symbol of our fallen humanity, forever standing outside the gates of time, accusing us of hypocrisy and disregard. Exiles, refugees and immigrants are the subjects and objects of history and politics: in their countries of origin and destination, in the economies that push and pull them, in the global conflicts between contending state powers. And it is Moorehead’s sensitivity to these historical circumstances and political contingencies–not to mention her considerable skills as a writer and storyteller–that makes her book such a vital contribution to debates over migration.

Moorehead is a British writer who has been reporting on human rights since the early 1980s. Working in an already crowded genre, she differs from those showy journalists of alarm who view the distress of others as an opportunity for overwrought prose and self-display. Though a vital presence on the page–indeed, we occasionally see her intervening in the lives of the refugees she profiles–she is devoted to the quiet narration of disquieting fact. Each of Moorehead’s chapters focuses on a different set of migrants trying to make their way across a different border. Wherever they are–in Sicily, northern Britain, Finland, Tijuana, Australia, southern Lebanon, Cairo or Guinea–she is with them. If her brief is universal, her eye and ear are local, attuned and affixed to the toll of state policies and their historical context. Inevitably, she brings to mind the great Martha Gellhorn, the subject of her last biography, whose “small, still voice” carried a “barely contained fury and indignation at the injustice of fate and man against the poor, the weak, the dispossessed.”

In the past century, Moorehead argues, no historical force has had more immediate effect on immigration politics than the cold war. Throughout that conflict, exiles and refugees were treated as political gold, especially in the West. Eager to expose the tyranny of the Soviet Union and its allies, the anti-Communist powers spearheaded international conventions and institutions that firmly established the refugee as a victim of repression, unable to go back to her native land because of “a well-founded fear of persecution.” The persecutors were presumed to be “totalitarian Communist regimes, and the refugees were therefore, by definition, ‘good.'” Whether Soviet scientists or Vietnamese boat people, refugees were happily received by the United States, Western Europe and other countries. Indeed, during the 1970s, some 2 million people from Indochina found a home in the West. (Though the United States, it should be pointed out, never rolled out the red carpet to the victims of its interventions in Central America.)

With the end of the cold war, millions of people living under former Communist rule could move more freely, whether out of fear of repression and civil war or in the hope of economic opportunity. Mass migration, free and forced, has always been a central element of capitalism, from the Europeans who colonized the Americas in the seventeenth century to the Indians who settled in Africa in the nineteenth. Once the Communist world succumbed to the free market, that economic migration accelerated–though not, Moorehead writes, as much as we might think. “Most people today, as in the past, are not mobile. Somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s population can be counted as international migrants…the proportion is no higher and no lower than at any time in the last fifty years.” Still, the promise of economic betterment–and the need for cheap labor–remains a potent lure, reinforced by the threat or reality of persecution and violence in the Third World.

Released from the constraints of the cold war, prosperous nations have devised more elaborate measures to control, limit and regulate this movement of peoples. (Ironically, for all the recent talk of global flows, the cold war may have paved wider lanes of traffic.) Racism and xenophobia are, of course, permanent fixtures of immigration politics, albeit in varying degrees of intensity. But the end of the cold war allowed Western governments to indulge an image of the refugee as an economic and cultural parasite–crawling across or burrowing beneath the border in order to sap the nation’s affluence and identity. September 11 and the “war on terror” have only hardened this impulse. “The whole notion of security, once seen as a matter of keeping refugees safe…has shifted. Now it is the refugees themselves who are seen to pose the danger.”

Australia has been the leader of this trend, as Moorehead shows, establishing “one of the most exclusionary immigration policies of any democracy” in the world. Where most countries sell their beaches, nightlife or mountains to potential tourists, the Australian government has distributed a video depicting an island continent “inhabited by poisonous snakes, fearsome crocodiles, and man-eating sharks.” In 2001 the government instituted “the Pacific Solution,” in which trespassers would be intercepted at sea and deposited in Indonesia or transferred to “off-shore processing centers.” Under no circumstances would they be allowed on Australian soil and thereby gain access to the courts. Deprived of all hope–and traditional implements of self-destruction–detainees have been known to sew up their lips or drink whole bottles of shampoo.

On the Mexican border, US officials have built sharp slopes along canals separating the two countries, making it difficult for anyone to climb out on the American side. The Clinton Administration launched a succession of militarized endeavors–Operation Blockade, Operation Hold the Line, Operation Gatekeeper–in the name of “prevention through deterrence.” As a result, migrants and refugees now swim across rivers teeming with typhoid, cholera, and hepatitis, “holding their breaths under submerged bridges and along a twenty-foot culvert.” Between 1994 and 2001, at least 1,700 migrants from Mexico died trying to reach the United States. Throughout its entire existence, by contrast, exactly 171 people died trying to cross the Berlin wall.

For all its pretensions to liberalism and openness, Western Europe has hardly been more welcoming. (Moorehead cites the case of one refugee in Britain leaving a suicide note that read, “You have to kill yourself in this country to prove that you would be killed in your own country.”) In response, many Africans have attempted to sail surreptitiously across the Mediterranean in vessels the Phoenicians would have scuttled long ago.

On a stormy night in September 2002, to cite just one of Moorehead’s examples, a boat built to carry fifteen people went down less than 100 meters off Sicily’s southern coast. As tourists danced unknowingly at a popular bar on the beach, thirty-five of the 150 Liberians on board drowned and twenty more disappeared. Watching the bloated bodies float to shore over a period of days was gruesome enough. But what truly haunted Vera Sciortino, a local resident, was the thought of hungry fish feeding on the corpses. The inverse of little Oskar Matzerath’s mother in The Tin Drum–so filled with disgust upon seeing a horse’s head writhing with eels that she begins to eat fish obsessively–Vera was never able to eat fish again.

It would be some comfort if we could confine the misery of life on the move to Western Europe, North America and Australia. But as Moorehead reminds us, 90 percent of all refugees remain in the region of their birth, and Iran, Pakistan and Tanzania receive the most refugees of any country in the world. Not surprisingly, these and other governments are just as reluctant–and certainly less able, economically–to absorb people from abroad.

Cairo, the mise-en-scene of Human Cargo, is “a staging post” for “Africa’s displaced people…a step on a journey that should, but seldom does, move from terror to safety.” As they wait for the gates of Fortress Europe or North America to open, refugees and migrants from Liberia and Sudan are hassled and beaten by the Egyptian police, robbed in the streets and forced to stand in lines at immigration centers that would make the most harried holiday shopper blanch–only to find at the end of the day that the store has closed or run out of goods. For many migrants, homelessness turns out to be a kind of salvation: Only in Cairo’s uncharted slums and squats can they be somewhat assured of protection from the police.

In southern Lebanon Palestinian refugees suffer from the racism of their hosts, which keeps them out of jobs and power, and from the fear among the Lebanese that this largely Muslim refugee population will upset the country’s delicate confessional balance. Forbidden to expand their refugee camps “outward,” Palestinians are forced to build Manhattans of misery out of cinder blocks and scraps of tin: “Much of the inner camp [of Shatila] is almost completely dark, the daylight reduced to a pale glimmer by the overarching buildings and the canopy of wires that dangle not far above the head. Windows open onto walls.” Where migrants to New York City like my grandfather could look out such windows and see the world, Palestine’s refugees gaze out on a road to nowhere.

Like Moorehead, Seyla Benhabib, a professor of political science and philosophy at Yale, writes out of a moral concern for the rights of refugees and migrants and the wrongs done to them. To this she adds a refreshingly cosmopolitan vision of travel and association between and among different peoples. Unlike Moorehead, though, Benhabib is a political theorist, whose profession requires a certain abstraction from the concrete and often ugly details of the refugee experience. If Moorehead’s credo is no ideas but in things, Benhabib’s, by necessity, is no things but in ideas.

Lest readers assume that the first enterprise is more to their liking, Benhabib’s The Rights of Others shows–unflinchingly, astutely and bravely–that immigration remains such a pitched battle in the West because it is part of a larger war of ideas, fought between two contending, even morally attractive, ideals. On the one side are the rights of democratic polities to govern themselves. On the other are the rights of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants to enter, remain and ultimately join those polities as full and equal members.

In many ways, this conflict is a version of the old debate between liberalism and democracy, between a commitment to universal rights, which cannot be challenged or overturned, and a vision of mass participation, which puts everything, even rights, up to a vote. But when liberal universalists–or libertarians and free marketers–square off against populist democrats over immigration, seemingly innocent moral positions can assume toxic political form. One side bends toward the dissolution of all borders, toward an international regime that would protect rights everywhere, inviting charges of despotism and imperialism. The other slouches toward national chauvinism, insisting that the people have a right to preserve “their way of life” from intruding others.

Benhabib argues that the second camp–which includes a surprisingly wide array of defenders in academia–makes a series of mistakes. Beyond ignoring the fact that most nations have already committed themselves, by treaty, to welcoming refugees and asylum seekers (though not economic migrants), many populists assume that the nation has a fixed identity, that its mix of customs, habits and history is indivisible and unchanging rather than conflicted and in flux.

Immigrants and refugees, in this view, threaten rather than renew or enrich a people. But “peoplehood,” Benhabib reminds us, “is an aspiration; it is not a fact.” A list of titles from the past three decades–Eugen Weber’s Peasants Into Frenchmen, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White and Rogers Smith’s Stories of Peoplehood–echoes her argument that nations are made, not born, and that stories and myths, laws and institutions, are the necessary instruments of their making.

The most noxious element of the populist position, according to Benhabib, is that it dissolves the ideal of democracy in the illusions of blood, ethnicity and sameness. As all of us learned in high school or college, early Americans–like Americans today–were fundamentally divided about questions of power and authority. It was not their common racial stock but divisive conflicts among them, and between them and those who did not share their ethnicity or heritage, that set the nation on its faltering and unsteady march toward greater freedom and equality. Democracy is thus a political art, Benhabib observes, not a cultural or racial inheritance. Just as nothing in the literature or veins of a nation predisposes it to democracy, nothing in the immigrant precludes him or her from contributing to democracy.

In fact, one could argue–and Benhabib does–that immigrants sustain and expand democracy by fighting for rights and broadening popular notions of “we, the people.” This point was brought home to me one Saturday eight years ago, when I was organizing in Los Angeles around several items on the ballot: a referendum on bilingual education, another on the political contributions of labor unions and a city council election. Walking door to door with a Spanish-speaking hotel worker from Guatemala, I listened to her explain to her neighbors the ins and outs of American electoral law, the powers of local versus state governments and the US Constitution. The irony was not lost on me: Not only do immigrants deepen democracy; they sometimes understand its substance and procedures better than its native proponents do.

But if Benhabib refuses to join the second camp, she is also wary of the first. Though she finds the notion of a world without borders morally attractive, she fears that its political embodiment could be dangerous. Inherent in the idea of democracy, she argues, is that the authors of the law should be its subjects and that the subjects of the law should be its authors. Unless we imagine a world government or international-rights regime–which would radically dilute the power each individual exercises over and through her national government–we have to accept that democracy requires a territorially bounded space. As she points out, where “empires have frontiers,” extending as far as the metropolis can rule, “democracies have borders.”

Benhabib’s understanding of democracy as a territorially bounded unit does pose some problems, which she herself acknowledges. On the one hand, she favors a liberal immigration regime of “porous” but not “open” borders–where, first, asylum seekers and refugees, and second, migrants (in that order of preference) would be allowed to enter a country and, after a specified period of time, offered the opportunity to join it as citizens. But given her commitment to democratic deliberation–and the likelihood that many people would reject her preferred regime–how can Benhabib insist upon that regime, over and against the expressed wishes of the people? On the other hand, if those who are subject to a nation’s laws should be its authors, why shouldn’t immigrants have a say in formulating those laws? Surely no one is more subject to those laws than they.

Benhabib’s solution is to insist that all nations, particularly democracies, must ground their immigration policies in standards of argument and justification that everyone–including the immigrant–would accept as reasonable. These are standards that “you would accept if you were in my situation and I were in yours” and that treat men and women as individuals capable of rational debate and justification. Because these ideals of reciprocity and rational justification are the moral underpinning of liberal democracy, such democracies must not stray from them in their immigration policies.

What this means in practice is that no democracy can bar people from entering or, if they have already entered, from becoming citizens, because of their “race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language community, or sexuality.” Criteria like these would not be acceptable to all peoples. Nor do such criteria treat an immigrant or potential immigrant as someone who can enter a rational discussion with us.

At the same time, nations can require immigrants to “show certain qualifications, skills, and resources.” Because everyone can understand why a nation would need or want people with those skills or resources, these criteria would be acceptable to everyone. Nations can also establish “language competence” and “a certain proof of civic literacy” as conditions, where applicable, for entry or citizenship. Such criteria “do not deny” an immigrant’s capacity for dialogue or rationality. On the contrary, their very premise recognizes that capacity. Democratic debate over immigration may not be a free-for-all, then, but it does leave room for disagreement.

From Benhabib’s earliest work on Habermas and the Frankfurt School, her high standard of argument and justification has always been the best advertisement for a certain kind of cosmopolitan liberalism. There is likewise much to admire in this book, not least her willingness to give sound reasons for her positions. But The Rights of Others raises questions, at least for me, that need to be answered.

For starters, why should linguistic competence be a factor–or acceptable as an item of democratic debate–in determining citizenship? As my comrade for a day in Los Angeles would attest, a non-English speaker in the United States not only can get and hold down a job; she can also turn out the vote. Why should a non-English speaker be allowed to mobilize for American democracy but not to join it as a citizen?

Conversely, why should we require “a certain proof of civic literacy” for immigrants seeking to become citizens? I know a great many native-born Americans who could not pass such a test. Why should immigrants have to prove that which the native-born need not–and, in some cases, could not–prove? Doesn’t this double standard assume the very view that Benhabib so skillfully takes apart elsewhere in her book, namely, that Americans take in democracy with their mother’s milk?

While the economic criteria Benhabib accepts–“qualifications, skills, and resources”–avoid the ascriptive criteria of race and gender she rejects (though the two may be more closely linked in practice, a point I shall return to shortly), it’s not clear that these criteria stand the test of reciprocity she favors. Would a poor immigrant really accept the stringent economic qualifications that a middle-class citizen has voted for? Would she accept the underlying reasons for those justifications? Would an unemployed worker in a rich country accept the liberal immigration regime that a wealthy employer in that same country has lobbied for? Could each of us–citizen and immigrant, rich and poor, employer and employee–find a position that all of us would accept? I doubt it.

And what would such economic criteria look like in practice? Only people with advanced computer skills or a college degree need apply? Only those who have held down a job for five years can stay and become citizens? (The more likely scenario, of course, is that the employing classes of a prosperous country will favor liberal immigration policies–or allow, with a nod and a wink, millions of undocumented workers to cross the border in order to staff the bottom tiers of the economy.) It’s ironic that a regime implementing Benhabib’s criteria of “marketable skills” could prove more restrictive than the United States that allowed my grandfather into this country a century ago.

Benhabib could reply that yesterday’s United States is not today’s, that America in 1900 required millions of uneducated workers from Eastern and Southern Europe and East and Southeast Asia in order to build its expanding industrial economy. She might be right, but that only raises a deeper, more troubling, question: Has Benhabib offered a critique of society or–in some important respects–merely reflected it? How far does her theory, with its stringent opposition to policies of ascription and mild toleration of economic exclusions, depart from contemporary norms? Though I doubt that Benhabib personally would favor economic exclusions–she claims that democracies can institute them, not that she would support them–it says something about our moment that they can be accepted, without much argument, as the inevitable price of democracy.

There was a time when nothing so vexed left-liberals as how to justify such economic distinctions–not in the realm of immigration policies but in capitalism’s distribution of resources. Facing worker activism at home and then communist insurgencies abroad, theorists from John Stuart Mill to T.H. Marshall to John Rawls were forced either to defend the inequalities of capitalism or to offer some program for their amelioration and gradual abolition. Through their efforts, classical liberalism was nudged, ever so slowly, toward something approaching social democracy.

Benhabib has neither forgotten nor abandoned this heritage. In one section of her book, she discusses the inequalities of the international political economy, arguing that prosperous nations often accumulate their wealth through the misery of poorer nations–a fact, as she points out, that Rawls never confronted in his discussions of global economic justice. But the inferences Benhabib draws–and doesn’t draw–from this discussion suggest the contemporary weakness of that heritage. In countering the claims of Rawlsian leftists that the globe’s resources and assets should be redistributed in order to benefit the world’s “least advantaged,” Benhabib writes that we lack “clear and non-controversial judgments about who is to count as ‘the least advantaged’ member of society.” Yet even more controversy surrounds the ascriptive identities she wishes to take off the table. (Controversy would also surround, were they subject to genuine international debate, the economic criteria that Benhabib argues everyone would accept.) Why does one controversy inspire her to push and another to pull?

More important, Benhabib derives no moral conclusion about immigration policy from these international inequities. Distinguishing between economic and ascriptive criteria in theory, she overlooks how they are intertwined in practice–in part because of the very history of slavery and imperialism that she discusses. Race and class have made a witch’s brew of inequality in the United States, and many of the poorest classes in today’s Europe hail from its former colonies in Africa and the Middle East. If I understand Benhabib’s criteria correctly, it would not be unreasonable for Europe to refuse entry or deny citizenship to these men and women and their families on economic grounds, even though the motivation or effect of such refusals could be entirely skewed by the color of their skin.

Whether or not Benhabib’s distinction holds up in reality, shouldn’t the mere fact that the United States has ravaged its neighbors to the south play some role in its decisions about whether to accept economic migrants from that region? Shouldn’t the misery that Western Europe imposed upon Africa and elsewhere figure in the moral calculus of its immigration policies? Shouldn’t these histories of exploitation at least mitigate the “qualifications, skills, and resources” that wealthier countries require of newcomers? As South Asians and Caribbeans in Britain used to say, “We are here because you were there.”

Benhabib and Moorehead both show that people flee not only persecution and civil war but also poverty and destitution. That this reality–and the contributions of Western Europe and the United States to it–is not reflected in our contemporary immigration regimes or in the work of our best theorists is a problem. I wish I could say that it was Benhabib’s alone. Sadly, I think it’s ours, too.

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