Originally published by The New York Times
My first encounter in America was with a luggage cart. In the summer of 1992, when I landed at Kennedy Airport, I carried with me a travel bag filled with books. It was so heavy that it could not be checked in at my originating airport in Casablanca, Morocco, without putting me over the weight limit. Since I couldn’t afford the excess baggage fee, I brought the bag with me on the plane, where the flight attendant helped me hoist it into the overhead bin. In New York, I hauled it down the jet bridge and through passport control, my hands blistering from the effort. Relief washed over me when I saw a row of carts. I tried to get one, only to discover that it required three dollars to unlock. I remember thinking: What kind of a heartless place is this?
I didn’t have three dollars, or a five or a ten. The money I did have was in the larger denominations I had received at the currency exchange office where I’d traded in my meager savings. I began to doubt whether I would make it to the terminal from which my flight to California was scheduled to leave. Then a voice behind me called, “Do you need help with that?” A middle-aged man in a baseball cap picked up my bag and carried it for me to the terminal bus. All the way to my next gate, other people stepped in to help. This wasn’t a heartless place after all, I thought; Americans were more than willing to lend a hand to a stranger.
I am no longer a stranger here. In the 20-odd years since I arrived at Kennedy, I have had ample time to learn about this country’s history, culture and politics. Although my plan had been to complete a graduate degree in linguistics and return to Morocco, chance intervened: I met an American, we fell in love, got married. Now, I’m an immigrant. There is nothing extraordinary about this condition — I share it with millions of others — yet hardly a day goes by when I am not reminded that to be an immigrant is to have crossed a threshold, to see the world from two vantage points at once, to perceive it in shades of gray rather than in black and white.
When I hear elected officials talk about immigrants, they seem to be speaking about figments of their imagination, conjured up to illustrate talking points. The president rants about “criminals,” “rapists” and “terrorists,” then uses them as justification for building a wall, separating families at the border, jailing refugee children in tent camps and banning people from five Muslim countries. The president’s critics, meanwhile, portray newcomers to this country as singularly talented people who start new businesses, serve in the armed forces, innovate new technologies, run for Congress or otherwise “get the job done.”
By casting immigrants as either heroes or villains, these politicians reveal that they view immigration as a law-enforcement issue. The reality is much more complicated. Like other species on this planet, human beings are a migratory type. When they suddenly find themselves in desperate need of physical safety or economic opportunity, they leave home and start over somewhere new. It has always been this way. The earliest stories we tell ourselves are stories of displacement: Adam’s fall from Eden, Moses’ flight from Egypt, Muhammad’s hegira to Medina. Trying to stop this process through the building of walls strikes me as both ineffective and unnatural — like trying to stop a river from flowing.
I use the simile deliberately. Scientists predict that over the next decade the earth will warm by 1.5 degrees, and perhaps as much as two degrees Celsius if we fail to take drastic and sustained action on climate change. Even under the best-case scenarios, we will witness huge hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and other severe weather events. The consequences will be dire: loss of homes and livelihoods, hunger and disease, probably conflict, but eventually dislocation. As much as it is an economic, a social and a foreign-policy issue, migration is a climate issue.This is your last article.
Those who are safe from displacement — at least for the moment — must confront the roles they want to play in this unfolding global story. What responsibility do people in America, for example, have toward those who live in places that have been ravaged by wars the American government has started or abetted? What responsibility do they have toward those who have benefited least from industrialization but stand to suffer most? And how do they plan to adapt to global migration?
In Christchurch, New Zealand, last week, at least 49 people were killed during Friday prayers by a white nationalist who released a manifesto railing against Muslims and immigrants. As refugees and migrants rebuild their lives in new places, both the intolerance and the resilience of their host communities are revealed.
In order to have a fruitful conversation about immigration, we have to set aside antiquated ideas about barbarians at the gate and thoroughly rethink our approach to the inevitable displacements that will take place in our lifetimes. The overwhelming majority of immigrants are neither dangerous monsters nor exceptional achievers — they are ordinary people who find themselves, for a range of personal or political reasons, pulled or pushed to leave home. Whether they will be met by kind strangers or by an enforcement machine as faceless and indifferent as a luggage cart is a choice that Americans still have the luxury to make.
Laila Lalami is the author of the forthcoming novel “The Other Americans.”