The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and Terror of Life on the Move
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. $28.00, 400 pages.
After the Last Border: Two Families and the Story of Refuge in America
Viking, 2020. $27.00, 368 pages.
American policy toward immigration is sodden with apprehension. It tries to simultaneously appease employers and companies who benefit economically from a free movement of labor, as well as local residents who feel threatened by newcomers. The ardent defenders of immigration like to quote Emma Lazarus welcoming the tired and the poor yearning to breathe free. Those against have a blunt response: “Emma Lazarus wasn’t elected to Congress.”
Sonia Shah traces the origins of this ambivalence in her new book, The Next Great Migration. In the book, she documents the evolution of our understanding of migration. The scale of migration among animals, birds, and plants is so vast that it continues to mystify scientists. Shah discusses how early European explorers were shocked by the diversity of humans they encountered, and naturalists of the time developed taxonomies reinforcing the idea of the superiority of the European race. The first wedge between familiar and foreign was forged with science.
The fear of immigrants bringing inferior genes and diseases dictated early immigration policies in the United States. After those fears were proven to be unsubstantiated, the Malthusian worry of a population explosion became the leading argument against migration. Pictures of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe rekindled the debate on “migrant invasion,” with newspaper headlines peddling inaccuracies about rising crimes in cities that welcomed migrants. The actual truth about the myriad positive effects of migrants on societies never stood a chance. The innate apprehension toward strangers turned into a lethal political weapon.
In After the Last Border, Jessica Goudeau brings to light the other side of this anxiety—that felt by refugees starting a new life in a land thousands of miles away from home. With heart-wrenching stories of two refugees presently resettled in Austin, Texas, Goudeau shows how even after enduring a treacherous passage to resettlement, refugee families continue to be afflicted by bouts of depression and a crippling sense of loneliness. It is a cruel test of mettle to negotiate the survival of not just their bodies but also of their Native culture.
Mu Naw, a Karen refugee fleeing persecution from the Burmese military junta, is one of the first to be resettled from her camp in Thailand. Without any support, her family starves the first couple of days because they cannot figure out how to operate the stove. For months, she is haunted by debilitating helplessness at having to choose between rent and groceries, and most days end with her sobbing in the shower. After months of living a life sustained by charity of local churches, Mu Naw’s family finally finds a foothold. In the second story, Hasna is forced to leave her house in Daraa, the epicenter of Syrian struggle, as gunshots and bombings intensify. She moves to Jordan for safety. Once her house in Daraa is hit by a missile, the hopes of returning dwindle and she starts the process of resettlement in the U.S.
The experiences of Mu Naw and Hasna are two relatively successful stories from the checkered history of the U.S. welcoming refugees. It wasn’t too long ago that a ship with nine hundred Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany was turned away from the shores of Miami. The U.S. refugee resettlement program was partly borne out of a moral awakening roused by the Holocaust. During the Cold War, the term refugees meant European dissenters of communism. The program expanded its scope after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and continued, albeit in a stunted form, even on the heels of 9/11. The United States was particularly reluctant to admit masses of Syrian refugees, and that program came to a grinding halt after the election of Donald Trump.
Shah foreshadows another looming crisis—that of mass migration induced by a rapidly changing climate. Every year since 2008, more than twenty million have been displaced due to environmental reasons. Although most disaster-related migrations take place within a country, environmental catastrophes easily elide into political and economic woes that spill over borders. One needn’t search hard for an example: the struggle in Syria was preceded by one of the worst droughts in the area, forcing a massive reshuffle of population.
It is unfortunate that any hopes of using resettlement as an instrument for dealing with the upcoming climate crisis are dampened by anti-immigrant sentiments soaring worldwide. We are already leaving those in greatest need to their own devices, often forcing them to make precarious journeys and risking death. We hope to return to a time when reason and moral imperatives outweigh brazen xenophobia—after all, what good is record-low unemployment and burgeoning economies if there is no room for a few more people?