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Reparations Through Immigration

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I thought this was one of the finest op-eds I have ever read.

Today, a quarter of a billion people are migrants. They are moving because the rich countries have stolen the future of the poor countries. Whether it is Iraqis and Syrians fleeing the effects of illegal American wars, or Africans seeking to work for their former European colonial masters, or Guatemalans and Hondurans trying to get into the country that peddles them guns and buys their drugs: They are coming here because we were there.

Before you ask them to respect our borders, ask yourself: Has the West ever respected anyone’s borders?

A vast majority of migrants move from a poor to a less poor country, not a rich one. Immigration quotas should be based on how much the host country has ruined other countries. Britain should have quotas for Indians and Nigerians; France for Malians and Tunisians; Belgium for very large numbers of Congolese.

And when they come, they should be allowed to bring their families and stay — unlike the “guest workers” who were enticed to build up the postwar labor force of the colonizers and then asked to leave when their masters were done exploiting them.

The Dominican Republic, where the United States propped up the dictator Rafael Trujillo for three decades, should be high on the American preference list. So should Iraq, upon which we imposed a war that resulted in 600,000 deaths. Justice now demands that we let in 600,000 Iraqis: for each death we caused there, someone should get a chance at a new life here.

Some 12 million Africans were enslaved and carried across the Atlantic by European powers. Should not 12 million people from Africa be allowed to live in the countries enriched by the toil of their ancestors? Both will be better off: the African still suffering from what slavery has done to his country, and the host country that will again benefit from African labor, but this time without enormous pain and for a fair wage.

Just as there is a carbon tax on polluting industries, there should be a “migration tax” on the nations who got rich while emitting greenhouse gases. The United States is responsible for one-third of the excess carbon in the atmosphere; Europe, another one-quarter. A hundred million refugees fleeing hurricanes and droughts will have to be resettled by the end of the century. The United States should take a third, and Europe another quarter.

To avoid paying the “migration tax,” the rich countries would have to stop propping up dictators, stop starting savage and unnecessary wars, restrain their multinational corporations from ripping off mineral wealth of poor countries and make sure that global trade is more equitable. Or else the migration bill from the devastated country would be prohibitive.

What is good immigration policy for the United States is separate from what is just and moral for the peoples whose destiny America, past and present, has affected. It might make economic sense for the United States to let in more skilled Indians and fewer unskilled Latinos, but America owes them more, and it should open its doors more to its southern neighbors.

History is what has happened and can never un-happen; history is happening right now. Attention needs to be paid. So does the bill.


One of the worst parts about this country is that Americans are so clueless as to how our policies and our politicians wreak horrendous havoc on the world that anything–people coming to our nation, people protesting American policies, people from other nations criticizing our politicians–are seen as attacks on The Greatest Nation in the World (TM). Americans–especially white Americans–are always the innocents and the scary people are seeking to destroy us. Never mind how the U.S. has undermined Guatemala for a century. Never mind that we invaded Iraq without our policymakers even knowing the difference between Sunni and Shi’a Islam. Never mind that our tensions with Iran stem back to the U.S. overthrowing Mossadgeh in 1953 and replacing him with the repressive, corrupt Shah. Never mind that it is NAFTA’s agricultural policies that have thrown many Mexicans off their land and forced them to find a job in the North, even if undocumented. None of these things matter to the vast majority of Americans, even as they matter a lot to the affected people.

They should matter to us too. This is the major point of my U.S. Foreign Policy course and I am assigning this op-ed to my students to close out the class next fall. Or maybe I will use it on the first day, really challenge them up front.

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