When I was in Liberia during the civil war in 2003, I met a four-year-old girl named Patience. Monrovia, the capital of the small West African country, was under siege. Its power grid had failed. Rice was scarce. The taps had run dry. Cholera crawled in the tropical heat. Hopped-up government soldiers ran the streets in looted pickup trucks, and nobody knew what the rebels would do if their push for the center was successful.
I met Patience in a dark room off a dirt lot, in a concrete building in an orphanage placed perilously on a thin strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and the river that held back the rebel advance. The night before my arrival, the woman who ran the orphanage told me, two shells from a mortar had passed overhead and fallen—crack, crack—somewhere between the orphanage and the ocean’s shore.
Patience, big-eyed, in stubby braids and a blue-and-white polka-dot dress, watched me from the shadows. Anemic, listless, undersize, suffering from dysentery, she had the measured movements of an old woman and the questioning stare of a toddler. In the same room, another orphan, ten-year-old Emmanuel, leafed through a book of photographs, color printouts, bound in black plastic and covered with a thin transparent sheet: There was green grass and a white-paneled house and a little blond girl smiling. There was a large van and an even larger play set. There was a countertop completely covered with food. “This is a very nice place,” Emmanuel said in a quiet voice. “I would like to go to this place.”
For Emmanuel, the snapshots of suburban America presented an impossible dream, a portrait of manicured abundance as distant and as glorious as a preacher’s description of heaven. For Patience, they represented something else: a promise that had yet to be kept. The pictures in the book were of her room, her yard, her kitchen, her van, her house. She didn’t have to be there, in that dark room on that concrete floor, with not enough to eat, flinching from the cracks and crashes from a war she didn’t understand. She had been adopted—by an American family.
The head of the orphanage gave me the number of the woman who had asked to be Patience’s mother, Ellen Carlson, a trainer at Wells Fargo in Minneapolis, Minnesota. That night, back in my hotel room, I used my cell phone to call her.
Nearly a year had passed since Ellen and her husband submitted the paperwork for Patience’s adoption. The expectant parents had used a photograph from the Internet to introduce her to their family and friends. But the process had turned out to be unexpectedly slow. As the months dragged on, Liberia’s civil war festered and heaved. By the time the authorities in Monrovia had signed off on the adoption, the rebels were not far from the city. All that was left was the American visa. But then the fighting had brought everything to a halt. Ellen had been following Liberia’s civil war from home and was desperate for any kind of news. “We just want her here,” she told me. “We have her bed ready in her bedroom. We have her enrolled in her preschool. Her big sister is waiting for her little sister.”
With the city under siege and bodies piling up outside the American embassy, there was no way for the Carlsons to get Patience out. So instead of a soft bed in a safe room and food enough to feed her, Patience had her book of pictures, a window against which she and the other orphans could only press their faces. On the second-to-last page of the album, Steve and Ellen’s biological daughter, Zoe—the sister Patience had never met—beckoned from a gleaming hallway: “Come join us at preschool soon.”
The last page was white, except for three rows of big black letters, where Ellen had written:
Generally, stories say "The End" right here.
But let's try this—
Ever since I met Patience, in the midst of the fear, the fighting, and the dying, her situation has come to represent to me an uncomfortable truth. Our system of passport controls, immigration restrictions, and closed borders has created a world in which few factors shape a child’s life as much as one she can do nothing about: the flag under which she was born.
After nearly fifteen years of traveling and working as a reporter in Africa, the Middle East, China, and southern Europe, I’ve come to see Patience’s predicament as one of the great moral challenges of our time—on par with some of the great moral challenges that preceded it. On a globe demarcated by national frontiers, with residents divided according to the color of their passports, it seems to be an almost natural way of the world that a young girl in Liberia will face greater challenges, enjoy fewer opportunities, and very likely die at a much earlier age than a girl born in the United States. As an orphan in the middle of a civil war, Patience couldn’t have had more distant life prospects than those her adoptive parents were desperate to give her.
Yet as a distinction, citizenship is entirely artificial. An accident of birth, a quirk in the law, or the whim of a bureaucrat can mean the difference between a life of comfort or a life of struggle. So accustomed are we to this game of geographical roulette that we have been blinded to the fact that it’s morally indefensible to divide the people on Earth into rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged, victims and survivors according to a criterion that is largely arbitrary and completely out of their control.
My own biography is a good example of the sometimes capricious nature of citizenship. I let loose my first scream in 1973 in a hospital in Switzerland—a country that does not grant citizenship to those born within its borders. My mother is from Canada, which at that time did not recognize the children of women who gave birth abroad. My father, a citizen of the United States, was born in Montreal, where my grandfather was working as a professor. To qualify me for American citizenship, he had to prove that either he or at least one of his parents was a citizen and had spent at least ten years in the U.S. If he hadn’t been able to, I could have begun my life officially stateless.
Thirty-one years later, when it was my turn to pass on my nationality to my newborn son, his mother and I encountered another labyrinth of regulations. My wife is Italian and gave birth in Rome, so our son’s right to an Italian passport was uncontested. But his status as an American was more complicated. To register him as a citizen, I had to provide proof—school transcripts, pay slips, passport stamps—that I had lived in the United States for at least five years, two of them after the age of fourteen. To test my claims, the consular officer at the embassy in Rome asked me about the vegetation in my home state of Arizona (hint for future applicants: cactus). Had I been the Italian and my wife the American, the requirements would have been the same—unless we weren’t married. Then it would have been enough for her to prove just one year of continuous residence in the United States.
The point isn’t that these requirements were arduous. They weren’t. The point is that they were arbitrary. These days, a Frenchman’s parents could easily be Moroccan or Senegalese. Being British does not exclude also being Kenyan, Jamaican, or Pakistani. Countries such as Italy and Ireland are now watching the children of Poles, Albanians, and Egyptians stake their claims to their adopted nations. And, of course, there are few countries with as weak a claim to a unitary national identity as the United States, where so many of us trace the thickening branches of our family trees to foreign roots.
The moral philosopher Joseph Carens, a professor at the University of Toronto and the author of The Ethics of Immigration, compares the global system of immigration restrictions to medieval feudalism, where privilege is a birthright and wealth and opportunity are more likely to be inherited than earned. “We’ve constructed a world in which one’s life chances depend heavily on where one is born,” Carens says. “The world is organized into different states with vast inequalities between the states. And that can’t work without closed borders. We take that as given, but this is a human construction. It’s not that anybody sat down and planned it. But it’s not a natural occurrence. It’s not like the weather.”
There are economic grounds for radically rethinking our immigration policies, and there are practical arguments both for and against it. But, as with slavery and apartheid before, the argument that matters most is moral. If citizenship is no different than a private club with arcane rules for admission, how can we continue to allow the color of our passports to shape the fate of millions of children like Patience?
The right to seek shelter from persecution has a judicial history that stretches back to biblical times. In the Book of Joshua, God instructs the Israelites to set up “cities of refuge,” where those who killed someone accidentally can petition for protection. The concept of political asylum is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in international law in the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. Indeed, of all the issues swirling around in the immigration debate, few are less controversial than granting safety to those who risk murder, torture, or discrimination at home.
And yet, overt political persecution isn’t the only threat facing millions of people in the world’s poorest countries, though—or necessarily the greatest one. About a week after our son was born, my wife began to feel sharp pains in her gut, as if she were preparing to deliver again. Her family doctor could find nothing wrong and sent her home. But that night the pain worsened, the nausea mounted, and we rushed to the hospital. As the nurses escorted her to the visiting room, she doubled over and retched a pool of cream-colored vomit onto the shiny tiled floor. Two days later, she was under general anesthetic as a surgeon made three small cuts in her recently swollen belly and pulled out her engorged, inflamed gallbladder. When the operation was finished, the doctor confessed that had he known how far the infection had progressed, he would have insisted on a conventional operation, rather than a laparoscopic one, in order to minimize the risk of blood poisoning. Had he not intervened, my wife almost certainly would have died.
In the rich parts of the globe, maternal mortality is pretty much a thing of the past: a relic of Victorian novels, shelved alongside fainting damsels and duels of honor. But in much of the rest of the world, childbirth remains as risky as ever. According to the World Health Organization, for nearly 300,000 mothers a year, almost all in the world’s poorest countries, each new life is ushered into the room by the specter of death. In developing countries, as many as 1 in 160 women will die as a consequence of childbirth. Their children, deprived of their care, often soon follow.
And it’s not just mothers and their children who are at risk. Take Nigeria, where I lived and worked as a journalist in 2001 and 2002. The country is badly governed, with a terrorism problem that threatens to escalate out of control, but it is generally recognized as close to democratic. Politics are venal, but explicit persecution is rare. The press is lively. Civil society is thriving.
Nigeria’s statistics tell a different story. Life expectancy in the country is 52 years, the 17th lowest in the world, compared with 79 years in the United States and 83 years in Italy. Out of every eight children born in the country, one dies before his or her fifth birthday. Only three out of every five adults are able to read and write. The chance a woman will die as a result of childbirth is better than 1 in 30. If those numbers were a result of government persecution—if a state were intentionally targeting a specific ethnic group, cutting thirty years off the lives of its members, depriving 40 percent of them of an education, and poisoning and killing one child in eight and one mother in thirty—there would be little question that those who managed to escape were deserving of safety and protection.
And yet, if a Nigerian requests asylum in Europe or the United States, he or she faces an uphill battle. For the vast majority of Nigeria’s young and able, the legal routes of travel to safety and a better life, to places where women can give birth without worrying about dying or losing a child, have been securely barred. Those committed to making the journey have little other choice than to turn to a human trafficker. This shadowy job description has come to be synonymous with kidnapping, brutality, and extortion. Most of the time, however, a trafficker can be better thought of as playing a role akin to a travel agent’s (albeit in the same way that a violent bootlegger might resemble the owner of a liquor store).
I once visited the home of a trafficker in the Nigerian city of Benin, a dusty state capital not far from the country’s southern coast, famous locally as the place of origin of many Nigerian prostitutes working in Europe. It was a particularly hot afternoon, and the trafficker met me dressed in only his boxer shorts. He was squat and light-skinned, with a pencil-thin tattoo that ringed his torso. He looked sinister in the dark of his bedroom, but the women who visited him didn’t consider themselves his victims. Most weren’t coerced or conned. They came to him and thought of themselves as his clients: he was someone who could help them improve their lives by arranging a journey they otherwise would not have been able to make.
To be sure, many of the women the trafficker helped travel abroad would find the road much more difficult than they imagined. Before sending them off, he threatened them with black magic curses. In Europe, some faced beatings and had their passports or money confiscated until they paid for their voyage. The women would have preferred to simply take a plane and find work in a factory, an office, or a restaurant. But our laws blocked their way. Pushed out of their home country by poverty, constrained on the other end by barriers to legal immigration, made vulnerable by our attempts to keep them out, the women chose the only option available. They sought out the trafficker, asked him to arrange for them to be smuggled across the desert and over the sea. In exchange, they would sell their bodies and pay him back. We left them little choice.
Less than two months after my son was born, my wife and I brought him to Nairobi, Kenya—a base from which I covered the continent from South Africa to Sudan, from Somalia to Sierra Leone. We lived in a large house overlooking a garden of cascading terraces, at the bottom of which was a wooden fence where in the mornings a family of monkeys would come to play. We hired a gardener to tend to the tropical flowers and a watchman to stand guard at our gate at night. Two maids cleaned the house and took care of our son. Like many middle-class families in Nairobi, we didn’t own a washing machine, so they scrubbed our laundry in a plastic tub. We paid each of our employees the going wage of about $110 a month. When we went out to dinner, it was not unusual for us to spend more on our main courses than on our staff’s combined daily pay.
We paid them so little because they had few other opportunities. Over the preceding years, I had floated from country to country nearly without effort, tracing my career and my curiosity from Nigeria to Turkey, Italy, and Kenya, with a couple forays into Iraq during the first year of the war. My wife worked in China while she was pregnant, and during a break between stories I had visited her there. In contrast, the people who worked for us were stuck in Nairobi. They had left their towns and villages, where jobs were few and pay was pitiful. But even in the capital, many employers offered much less than we did. If our staff had had the connections, the skills, or the moxie to wrangle a visa to Europe or the United States, they likely could have found jobs that earned them in a couple of days what I gave them in a month. In Kenya, what we offered was the best they could find.
In 2008, Michael Clemens, an economist at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., calculated the difference in wages between identically-skilled workers in the United States and forty-two developing countries. On average, a Nigerian working in Nigeria earned one-fifteenth as much as a comparably skilled Nigerian working in America. Indian workers living in India did slightly better, earning about a sixth of what an equally skilled co-national did in the United States. Workers from Mexico multiplied their income 2.4 times simply by stepping across the border. Guatemalans who made the trip tripled their paycheck. Haitians who moved to the United States saw a tenfold jump in earnings.
Clemens’ curiosity was rooted in a trip he made to Mexico City when he was twelve years old. He noticed an economic reality that jumps out at many visitors to the developing world: a worker in Mexico doing the same job as a worker in the United States received a fraction of the wages earned by his American counterpart.
“This was a revelation to a 12-year-old,” he recalled. “I mean, it looks like the vegetable seller is selling the same vegetables. So what is it that makes the difference?” When economists and aid workers struggle with this question, Clemens would later learn, the answers they come up with include corruption, culture, and weak infrastructure. But as a 12-year-old, Clemens had already zeroed in on the most basic reason. “There’s a much simpler answer to all that,” he said. “And that’s that the vegetable seller I knew in Utah is in the United States. The other person is in Mexico.”
Despite all the obstacles placed in the way of potential migrants, simply crossing an international border has proved to be one of the most successful ways to escape from poverty. In a later paper, Clemens showed that more than half of all Mexicans who lifted themselves out of impoverishment did so by moving to the United States, Spain, or other parts of the rich world. Even in India, a vast country undergoing an economic transformation, migration has proved as important a path out of poverty as aid or trade. For every four Indians who have managed to climb out of poverty, one did so by leaving his or her country and moving to the United States. For Haitians, there’s no comparison: four out of five Haitians who have forded the poverty line did so by crossing over into America.
There’s a vibrant debate among scholars of immigration over how immigrants shape their adopted countries. The rising consensus is that even large influxes of people eager to work have little or no impact on native wages, because they don’t just flood the labor market—they also boost the economy by buying goods and services and taking jobs that might otherwise go unfilled. Similarly, worries that unchecked immigration will weigh down the social safety net have proved largely unfounded. Immigrants, who tend to be young and of working age, usually carry more than their own weight, contributing more to the welfare state than they receive in return.
To cite just one study, a survey by the University of Arizona found that in 2004, immigrants made up 14 percent of the state’s workforce, many of them doing jobs native workers would be unlikely to take. Their economic output that year amounted to some $44 billion, resulting in approximately 400,000 additional jobs. They also paid roughly $2.4 billion in taxes while costing the state just $1.4 billion in education, health care, and law enforcement, leaving the balance to be spent on services such as public safety, libraries, and road maintenance.
From the standpoint of economic theory, liberalizing the flow of labor is no different than liberalizing trade. Both redistribute and grow global wealth. The difference is that liberalizing trade disproportionately benefits the rich. Easing immigration restrictions would help the world’s wealthy while offering significant opportunities to the world’s poor. If free trade is a tide that lifts all boats, then so is free labor. But in this scenario, it is the smallest boats that get the biggest boost.
There might once have been a case to be made that each nation should stand on its own and bear responsibility for only its own citizens. With each factory that moves overseas, though, that argument becomes weaker and weaker. We’ve globalized capital, but not labor. The American manufacturer of, say, a washing machine can cash in on China’s low wages; but the Chinese factory worker is barred from picking up and heading to where the pay is better.
As residents of rich countries, we are constantly made more comfortable by the lack of opportunity among workers in the developing world. Behind the tangle of forklifts, cranes, and shipping containers, our lives have become intimately enmeshed with theirs. My maids in Nairobi and the factory workers making washing machines in China would all have preferred to work for better wages. The biggest difference is that the relationship between my clean laundry and my maids’ low wages was visible every day.
During my voyages in Africa, young men would sometimes stop me in the street and ask “How do I get to your country?” For those dreaming of working in Europe, the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa was, tragically, part of the answer.
There are few places in the world where the cost of not having the right passport is more visible than in Lampedusa. Geologically part of the African continent, the island is a thin sliver of upthrust crust in the southern Mediterranean, closer to Tunisia than it is to mainland Sicily, under which it falls administratively. The island has been a place of passage since Classical times. Archaeologists have found evidence of settlement by Greeks and Phoenicians. The Romans used it as a base for their excursions into North Africa—a path that was later traced in reverse, during World War II, when the British Navy occupied the island in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily, the first step in the liberation of Europe.
These days, the British come to Lampedusa mostly for summer tourism. In 2013, the island’s tiny Rabbit Beach was voted by users of the popular travel website TripAdvisor as the best in the world. When I visited in December that year, the island was all but shut down for the off-season. My hotel had cut the power in its unstaffed lobby to conserve electricity. On the main street that runs through the town center, just one restaurant, serving cafeteria-style premade dishes, remained open. During my first walk through the town, the only people I saw were clusters of old Italian men in heavy coats and small groups of young east Africans, lanky in their running suits, walking slowly through the otherwise empty streets.
After a couple of years in Nairobi and a brief stint in Beijing, my family and I had returned to live in Rome. Lampedusa was often in the news, with boatloads of Middle Eastern and African refugees on the front pages of the papers and in the evening broadcasts. Over the past couple of decades, the island has become a place where the rich world meets the poor. Like the deadly southern desert stretches of my home state of Arizona, the island and the sea around it have become a kind of culling point for those desperate to put their skills and exertion to work where they will be most valuable.
In 2013, nearly 43,000 political refugees and economic migrants crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy. Some 15,000 landed in Lampedusa. They made the trip in dangerous and cramped conditions, on inflated rubber boats or rickety wooden trawlers, packed so tightly that many were unable to move. In many cases, the ship didn’t have a captain; a migrant with sailing experience was given a compass and told to bear north. It wasn’t unusual for a trip to take days. On arrival, before being transferred to other parts of Italy, the passengers often had to be treated for dehydration, sunstroke, piercing pains from being pinned in place without moving, and nausea from the sea and the engine fumes.
In October of that year, two months before my visit to Lampedusa, a wooden fishing boat carrying more than 500 migrants from Libya was less than a quarter mile off the island’s coast when its engine failed and its hull began taking on water. If the sun had been out, the boat would have been within sight of land. But it was night, and the passengers risked sinking unseen. Accounts from the ship are fragmented, but the most likely scenario is this one: someone lit a blanket on fire to attract attention from the coast guard on the island and accidentally ignited gas that had spilled from the broken engine. Panicked passengers pushed away from the flames and unbalanced the boat, causing it to capsize. Few on board knew how to swim. Rescuers from the island saved 156 people. They also recovered 368 bodies, including two from an earlier wreck that had been floating in the Mediterranean for months.
Bodies recovered from the sea off the coast of Lampedusa are officially the responsibility of the mayor—in this case Giusi Nicolini, a chain-smoking former environmental campaigner who had won the election the year before on a platform that included a more humanitarian approach to the island’s transient migrant population. I met her in the evening on my first day on Lampedusa, in her office in the town hall, where she showed me pictures of the dead she had taken on her iPad. Flip. Blue body bags were lined on the concrete pier. Flip. “This is a baby of three months,” Nicolini said. “She was put in a sack.” Flip. At the end of a row of body bags, a bundle was wrapped in what look like emergency blankets. “These are the kids. They ran out of bags, so they wrapped them like this. There are two children that are two or three years old and one a bit bigger.” Flip.Scuba divers recovered the bodies of fourteen children. “But there were more,” Nicolini said. “The people on the boat had a precise count of how many were on board, but children don’t pay, and so the children weren’t counted. There could have been between twenty and thirty.” Flip. Flip. Flip. Flip.
On my walk to Nicolini’s office, I had passed by a ship graveyard, a once-empty lot next to the port where authorities stored some of the vessels on which migrants had arrived. Small fishing boats were packed together, sometimes one on top of the other, as if the waves had recoiled from some terrible accident at sea, leaving their smashed hulks high and dry. The boats were small, of the type that would require a crew of two or three. I tried to imagine how ships that size could hold hundreds of people. But I couldn’t.
Nobody keeps an exact count of how many immigrant lives are lost at sea. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 20,000 have drowned over the past twenty years. In 2013, the death toll was roughly 700—those from the Lampedusa boat wreck, which made international headlines, and just about as many who died anonymously. In 2011, when revolutions in Tunisia and Libya sparked an exodus into Italy, about 2,300 people died trying to make the crossing. For many of the migrants, the sea passage isn’t even the most dangerous part of the trip. Their journey may involve riding in an overloaded vehicle across the Sahara Desert, where a broken engine means an awful death.
“The lesson we have to learn from these people is that they don’t have any other choice,” Nicolini told me. “Otherwise they wouldn’t choose to get on those boats and risk their lives. Policies that make their trip even more difficult will not stop them. The only result will be a greater number of deaths.”
“It’s the modern holocaust,” she continued. “We’re a generation that looks at racial laws, at apartheid, at the Nazi Holocaust as closed pages of history, like great injustices that the advent of democracy, the big wars, and so on have put to an end. We’re countries that have constitutions that put humans and human rights above everything else, countries that have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But we don’t realize that the holocaust of today is determined by our laws, that this is the effect of the policies we’ve put in place to defend our fortresses.”
She lit another cigarette. “What do I tell my little niece when she asks me, ‘Why did they die?’” she said. “I tell her it’s because they came from far away. They were on a boat that wasn’t safe. And then she asks me, ‘Why didn’t they take a plane?’ It’s hard to explain to a little girl why we didn’t let them take a plane.”
One morning, toward the end of my stay in Lampedusa, I walked up one of the roads that led out past the edge of town. Square concrete houses gave way to a shallow valley planted with olive trees, which just as quickly yielded to the scrubby white limestone hills that make up most of the island. At the end of the road, some fifteen minutes on, were a small parking lot and a checkpoint that marked the entrance of the reception center run by the Italian government; migrants are housed there before being transferred to other facilities in Sicily or on the mainland. The evening before, an Italian television channel had aired footage taken by a Syrian refugee on his cell phone, in which migrants could be seen being made to strip and line up in a crowded open-air courtyard and hosed down by workers at the center. Nicolini had compared the imagery to that of a concentration camp.
I didn’t have permission to enter the reception center, so I climbed away from the parking lot up a hill, where I could look down at it in the valley below. The center consisted of five white two-story buildings with red roofs and the soot-stained steel frames of two other buildings that had been burned in 2011 by Tunisian migrants protesting threats of deportation. Laundry hung on the fences. People played soccer in the yard. During their stay in Lampedusa, migrants are free to come and go from the center, and some had climbed out of the center onto the hill opposite mine, where they were sunning themselves on its slope.
I traversed the crest of the hill and turned back toward town. A group of eight young African men were climbing out of the valley. They didn’t speak English or Italian. We walked together for a few minutes, and then they cut through a field and I continued my walk back to the port.
Later that day, I stopped by the town church, a pale modern building off one of the town’s main piazzas. In July 2013, months before the shipwreck, Pope Francis had visited the island and delivered a homily in which he challenged the world to search its conscience with regard to refugees. “These brothers and sisters of ours were trying to escape difficult situations to find some serenity and peace,” he said. “They were looking for a better place for themselves and their families, but instead they found death.” He had celebrated Mass with a chalice and a cross carved out of wood taken from one of the wrecked ships in the graveyard. “In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference,” he said. “We have become used to the suffering of others. ‘It doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t concern me. It’s none of my business!’”
The church was open, and I stepped inside. A small group of Eritrean men were sitting in the pews near the door. Two of them got up to speak with me. They had heard that the priest sometimes gave out jackets and were waiting for him to arrive, and while they waited we talked. Both men had been teachers in Eritrea, and they asked me not to print their names for fear of reprisals against their families back home. They told me they had set out from Eritrea in early 2011 and passed illegally through Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya. They had crossed the Sahara packed twenty or thirty to a car. In Libya, in the city of Misurata, they were kept in a small room and beaten until their families sent payment for the trip across the Mediterranean. The journey had taken them more than two years, required them to risk their lives in the desert and at sea, and cost them roughly $10,000 each.
In Asmara, you can buy an airline ticket to Rome for less than $1,000. With a plane change in Cairo, if the connection is good, you’ll be sipping an Italian espresso less than eleven hours after the first liftoff.
So accustomed are we to the obstacles faced by immigrants that the Lampedusas and Benin Cities of the world seem like normal, if terrible, costs to pay for restricting the movement of people. After some 250 years of nationalism, the segregation of the world’s population into separate countries seems as natural as the division of the globe into continents. So it’s important to remember that restricting immigration is a political choice, one whose burden is carried largely by the less fortunate.
Joseph Carens, the philosopher, is right to describe nationality as a birthright reminiscent of medieval feudalism. But as I discovered during my time in Africa, you needn’t go back as far as the Middle Ages to find an unsettling analog to our closed borders. If I’ve come to the conclusion that our immigration policies are one of the great moral challenges of our time, it’s in part because they very much resemble one of the most clear-cut acts of injustice in recent history: an attempt by South Africa’s apartheid regime to preserve racial privileges in the face of worldwide opposition.
The early 1960s were a tumultuous time in white-ruled South Africa. The laws and practices that guaranteed the country’s light-skinned citizens dominance over its darker majority were under attack both at home and abroad. In 1960, a campaign of strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience culminated in the Sharpeville Massacre, in which the police opened fire on a crowd of more than 5,000 demonstrators, killing 69 people and injuring many more. In response, the African National Congress abandoned its policy of nonviolence and went underground (Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962).
Globally, public opinion turned against the apartheid regime. The United Nations called on South Africa to abandon its policy of racial discrimination. Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Britain at the time, warned the country’s government that the “wind of change”—he meant African nationalism—was blowing the continent apart. With every passing month, it was becoming increasingly clear that the world would no longer accept a country that so blatantly divided its citizens into first class and bulk.
One man who had a front-row seat to this period in South African history is Roelof Frederik “Pik” Botha, who served as the country’s minister for foreign affairs during the dying decades of white rule. By the standards of white South African politicians of that time, Botha was a liberal, one of the first to postulate publicly that it would be possible for the country to be ruled by a black president (he was quickly forced to recant).
The Sharpeville Massacre marked the turning point for the white regime, Botha told me when I called him at his home in Pretoria. “That was when South Africa’s pariah status began,” he said. “More and more countries told South Africa, ‘You can’t carry on like this.’” The country’s politicians were in a bind. Apartheid was clearly becoming untenable, but they couldn’t contemplate giving up white privilege. So they settled on a different solution, one that would abolish overt discrimination but still allow them to retain their grip on social, economic, and political power: a partition of South Africa modeled explicitly on existing national borders, with the nation divided into rich and poor countries.
South Africa had already set aside land for the native population. Thirteen percent of the country was designated as native reserves, known as “homelands,” where black Africans had to live unless they could prove they were working for a white employer. Movement in and out of these homelands was restricted. The Natives (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act of 1952, commonly known as the Pass Laws, required nonwhite citizens to carry “passbooks” with their name, address, and photograph or risk imprisonment and expulsion back to the reserves. It didn’t seem like a big leap to go from “homelands” and “passbooks” to “countries” and “passports."
The idea didn’t seem as crazy then as it might today. In the period after World War II, new countries were erupting out of disintegrating colonial empires all over the globe. The border between India, Pakistan, and what would later become Bangladesh wasn’t drawn until 1947, when a British administrator was given five weeks to decide where the division would run. All across Africa, new nations were hoisting new flags: Ghana in 1957, Guinea the year after. By 1960, the continent had seen the creation of sixteen new independent states, from Somalia to Senegal, from Mali to Madagascar.
At the same time, all around South Africa, new nations were coming into being. The Republic of Botswana, just to the north, elected its first government in 1966. Swaziland, in the east, declared independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Most remarkable of all was the transformation of the British Protectorate of Basutoland, a tiny landlocked colony completely surrounded by South Africa. In 1966, it pulled down the Union Jack and joined the roster of nations as the Kingdom of Lesotho.
If such a miniscule patch of land could stand alone as an independent country, why not the 13 percent of South African territory set aside as native reserves? “The dream was: how do you get rid of the immorality of apartheid?” said Botha. “How do you get rid of the reprehensible suppression and racial discrimination? If a sufficient number of black people in their homelands—exactly like Swaziland, like Basutoland, like Botswana—if they could also become independent, then maybe the whites might not feel that much threatened anymore by the overwhelming majority of black people. And apartheid, in its nefarious sense, in its reprehensible sense, could be dismantled.”
“So the idea took root,” he said. “Let us make these nations independent. They can have their own parliaments, their own governments, their own courts, their own judges. Each one must have a capital and a parliament and a president and a prime minister and a cabinet. They will be sovereign, and they will be independent. And then you would have a sort of equality, a constellation of southern African states.”
The first territory to be carved out was Transkei, a swath of Xhosa-speaking countryside bordered by Lesotho on the north and the Indian Ocean on the south. Transkei was rural and poor, but at least it was in one piece. Most of the other homelands, which came to be known as Bantustans, were scattershot across South Africa’s least desirable hinterlands, in careful avoidance of the country’s rich mineral deposits.
Transkei’s newly minted president, Kaiser Matanzima, put on a brave face when he announced himself president of an independent country in 1976. In preparation, the region had been provided with all the trappings of a state. Its flag had three elegant horizontal strips: brown, white, and green. Its official motto was “Unity Is Strength.” For its anthem, it had chosen the anti-apartheid hymn “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”).
The birth of the would-be nation was marked by a 101-gun salute, tribal dancing, and fireworks. But the celebrations were short-lived. That same day, the United Nations General Assembly voted unanimously to reject the region’s “independence” (the scare quotes are from the UN resolution). It condemned “the establishment of Bantustans as designated to consolidate the inhuman policies of apartheid, to destroy the territorial integrity of the country, to perpetuate white minority domination, and to dispossess the African people of South Africa of their inalienable rights.”
For the next twenty years, the apartheid government struggled to turn its plan into reality, to transform the homelands into full-blown nations. But no other government ever agreed to recognize Transkei or the other Bantustans as sovereign. “The central government spent billions on infrastructure in Transkei,” Botha told me. As foreign minister, he served as the go-between for Pretoria and the Bantustans. “They got their own international airport. They got their parliament buildings and court buildings. They got construction work and roads improvement and were assisted technologically, and the same happened [in the other Bantustans] at a tremendous cost. Stadiums were built, hospitals, clinics, schools. Each had its own university for its students. Quite a lot of money was spent.”
For South Africa’s black population, self-governance was being offered at too steep a price: the loss of South African citizenship. There was no disguising the fact that the division of the country into separate but unequal states was not an alternative to apartheid but an extension of it. Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977, called the Bantustans “the greatest single fraud ever invented by white politicians.” Nelson Mandela, in his autobiography, would call their attempted creation “a blueprint for ‘separate development’ or grand apartheid.” Blacks could have their independence. But when they came to where the work was, they would have to do so as immigrants. “The problem was reality,” said Botha. “It did not resolve the issue of racial discrimination. So the dream was turned into a nightmare. It was a dream that was not based on reality.”
To be sure, there are differences between the global system of immigration restrictions and South Africa’s attempt to entrench white privilege through the partitioning of its territory. But it should give us pause to think that when the architects of one of history’s most recognized evils set out to codify their system of injustice, they looked at our borders and passports and saw a lot to like. Intentions aside, the biggest difference between the two is that the South Africans wanted to draw the boundaries and assign the nationalities. We make do with the existing ones.
A world without barriers to immigration should not seem unimaginable. Until the 1880s, the United States placed no restrictions on who came into the country. Nobody checked passports or visas. Lists of immigrants were compiled by the ship companies that brought them. The only controls were medical inspections. In 1910, nearly 15 percent of American residents had been born abroad. (Today, the figure is 13 percent.)
The fears and complaints expressed then are instantly recognizable. Politicians stirred up crowds with warnings that the country would be overrun by Irish-Catholics and Germans. Businessmen and unions sought to bar recent immigrants from jobs. Newspapers worried that the new arrivals would never learn English. There were debates over whether Jews, Irish, or Italians could ever become true Americans (only a minority believed it would be possible).
And yet, the English language didn’t disappear; it was enriched. Immigrants assimilated and intermarried, and the locals expanded their definition of what it meant to be American. The United States entered the 20th century with the most powerful economy in the world, a boon to immigrants and native-born citizens alike.
The unification of Germany provides another example of the successful merger of a poor population with a much richer one. From 1945 until 1990, the country was split in two. West Germany was among the richest nations in the world. East Germany was a struggling middle-income country stunted by decades of communist rule. Per capita income in the west was nearly double that of the east, and many feared that unification would come at the expense of the west. Today, few would argue that joining East and West Germany was a mistake.
Similarly, the European Union has begun to knock down its borders with its poorer eastern neighbors. And though the difference in income between, say, Germany and Romania is no less than that between the United States and Mexico, there are few signs of a coming economic, cultural, or social collapse—the recent nativist backlash notwithstanding.
But the most telling example of how deep economic and cultural rifts can be bridged is still South Africa. By the 1980s, it was clear that not even the splintering of the country into microstates would provide for the maintenance of white privilege. Restrictions on mobility for black and mixed-race South Africans would have to be abolished. Citizens would have to be granted equal rights, no matter the color of their skin. And so the slow dismantling of apartheid began.
Many doubted it would end positively. The apartheid regime had spent years prohibiting blacks from studies that prepared them for anything but the most menial jobs. Decades of brutal repression had seeded both sides with intense distrust. The country’s whites lived in rich environs encircled by much larger communities where people were poor, culturally very different, often uneducated, and unable to speak English or Afrikaans. Predictions for the post-apartheid period included a descent into a race war, economic chaos, and the collapse of the country’s social services.
By 1990, roughly half of South Africa’s white population said they feared for their safety or that of their family. In a column for The New York Times in 1986, the conservative writer William Safire described the consensus view on the future of South Africa. “Two different societies in the same place want the same resources, and ‘eventually’ numbers will triumph over firepower,” he wrote. “That would not be a victory for majority rule as we think of it. A fine judicial system may be overthrown; reverse apartheid may come into being, with minority rights again denied … and the lives of millions would be endangered.”
The consensus view was wrong. The era of apartheid came to a close, and South Africa didn’t descend into civil war. Its economy didn’t collapse. Whites weren’t persecuted. Public services weren’t overwhelmed. Land wasn’t violently seized. In 1994, the black majority elected Nelson Mandela as president, and under his leadership the country pursued a policy of economic stability. Black students now study alongside white classmates. Black and white politicians work together. White workers get their paychecks from black bosses.
In the twenty years since Mandela’s election, black South Africans have seen their economic fortunes improve—in part because their wages rose, but also because the freedom to relocate offered them better access to basic services: schools, healthcare, pensions, electricity, sanitation, and running water. Black incomes began to rise, and the gap between black and white standards of living began to close. Yet there are few signs that the improved situation of the majority has come at the expense of the minority. To be sure, South Africa continues to have problems—many of them the entrenched aftereffects of apartheid. But overall, blacks and whites, whether rich or poor, are better off throughout the country than they were in 1994. Far from bringing disaster, the end of apartheid ushered in higher standards of living and greater racial equality.
What’s most striking about the story of South African apartheid is how similar it is to our efforts to restrict immigration today. Numerically, the parallels could hardly be more perfect. In 1994, there were six times as many nonwhite South Africans as white South Africans, according to data compiled by Michael Clemens. Whites earned roughly eight times as much as their black or mixed-race peers. Today, there are roughly six times as many people living in low- and middle-income countries as there are in high-income countries. Residents of rich countries typically earn about seven times the average income of the rest of the world. If numbers are anything to go by, ending economic and geographic—not to mention political—segregation in South Africa was a bigger challenge than dropping barriers to immigration would be today.
There are endless practical objections to allowing people to move where they can best profit from their willingness to work. But there were practical objections to ending apartheid as well, and practical objections to ending slavery in the United States. Few would argue that the practical objections outweighed the moral imperatives.
Six years after I met Patience in Liberia, I flew into Minneapolis, Minnesota, rented a car, and drove south toward the suburban community of Chaska. It was the day before Thanksgiving. A gray sky hung over hills of yellow grass. I took several wrong turns onto broad, quiet lanes before finally pulling up in front of a stately two-story house. I climbed the steps to the porch and rang the bell. I heard the sound of running feet, and the door was opened by two young girls—sisters. One had white skin and long blond hair I recognized from the picture book in Liberia. The other girl’s skin was black: Patience.
In the end, Ellen and Steve Carlson had succeeded. They had plucked their adopted daughter from the midst of war and poverty and ensconced her in a middle-class American life. Patience had grown since I had seen her last. Gone were the doe eyes, the spindly arms, the listless movements. And in their place bounced a frantic energy and a broad, friendly smile.
From behind the girls, their mother, Ellen, invited me into a house already decked for Christmas. Santa Claus winked from every corner of every room. Plastic holly climbed the banister to the second floor. “My husband says as soon as the last trick-or-treater leaves, I slam the door and start putting up the decorations,” Ellen said as she led me through the hall into the kitchen, where carols were playing on the radio.
The four of us ate lunch: delicious homemade soup and a sad little pumpkin pie I had picked up at the supermarket. Then Patience and Zoe took me on a tour of their house. They showed me their TV room, their toy room, their dad’s computer room (“Soon to be a gun place,” said Patience), and their clubhouse, a low-ceilinged cubby built into a closet under the stairs.
“We used to have a lot more stuff in here, but it was a lot more messy,” said Zoe.
“Everybody used to bump their heads,” said Patience.
On a low box in the corner, the girls had placed pictures of themselves.
“That’s me in my lion suit,” said Zoe.
“I look so cute,” said Patience. “I can’t get over me.”
After my tour, the girls had a friend over, so I sat in the living room with Ellen, listening to their laughter and talking about when I had called from my hotel room in Liberia. “Being a parent, it’s very unnatural being separated from your child,” she said. “I remember going through it. The next day would go on, and then the next day. How could this still be going on? How can we still be apart?”
Ellen’s husband, Steve, came home. He opened a beer, offered one to me, and joined us in the living room. After the war in Liberia came to an end, the Carlsons finally managed—with help from their senator—to get Patience her American visa. By then, she was severely malnourished. “At four years old, she weighed just twenty-two pounds,” said Ellen. When she climbed the stairs, she helped herself up by pushing against her knees with her hands. “She didn’t skip or jump for almost three months,” said Ellen.
“Her hair was thin,” said Steve.
“Yellow,” said Ellen.
“I couldn’t fly to Liberia,” said Steve. “So I flew to Ghana, stayed overnight in a hotel, and then met Patience the next day. Pastor Joe [the Liberian working for the adoption agency] kind of just handed her to me. I almost missed my flight out, because their flight was late.”
“I’ve got this gigantic line to go through,” he said. “And the people—very nice there, very nice people, everybody around that whole airport was very nice to a foreigner like me—they let me through the line and let me go up and go on that plane. I just barely got through the door, sat down, and the plane took off.”
“She was like a little doll,” he continued. “She came in a little mint-green dress. I took her into the bathroom and changed her and threw the dress away. No offense to them. They probably put her in the best clothes they had.”
“She was just skin and bones,” said Ellen. “I totally remember the first time I held her. It was like I had my little infant moment, because she was really the size of a one-year-old.”
“You have the desire to wash them up, put on a clean pair of clothes, and give them a nice hot meal, you know what I mean?” said Steve.
We sat for a while without talking, until finally Ellen broke the silence: “Going through that whole thing, there’s a part of you that just says, ‘We have to get these children out of there! How many can we take?’”
Patience may have found a path into the richer world, but she left many behind her, including Emmanuel, the little boy I had found reading her photo book. The orphanage where I had met the two children turned out to be worse than I could have imagined. A 2005 investigation found that its owner had been selling the food donated by aid agencies, leaving the children so hungry that they had turned to eating frogs and weeds from a nearby swamp. The vast majority of its wards turned out to have been left there by their parents, some of whom thought it was a boarding school.
There’s no indication that Patience—whose adoption was vetted by the U.S. Department of State—had a living parent. But it’s another consequence of an unequal, divided globe that families in the poorest parts of the world will sometimes give up their children for adoption out of hopelessness at being able to provide for them or in a desperate attempt to give them a better life.
I don’t know what happened to Emmanuel; whether he was adopted, reunited with family, or transferred to another institution; whether he’s still living in Liberia or if he’s one of the many who tried to cross over into Lampedusa. But I sometimes think of him when I think of my own children (in 2014, we were joined by twin boys), born with American and European passports and all the opportunity that entails. The last time I saw Emmanuel was as I was leaving the orphanage. He approached me to ask, in a voice I could barely hear, if I could give him a clean pair of underwear.
There are all sorts of barriers preventing a young person in a place like Liberia from living a life like the one Patience enjoys in Minnesota. An immigrant’s life can sometimes be difficult, and there’s no question that many in the poorer parts of the world will happily choose to build their lives in the country they know, rather than gamble at opportunity in a new and unfamiliar place. But there’s one obstacle in particular that doesn’t have to exist. We may not be able to give every impoverished child a white-paneled house and a countertop covered with food. But we can rethink the way we control immigration, and we can let children like Emmanuel know that when they grow up, they—and others like them—will be allowed to take their willingness to work where it will best serve their goals, whatever their nationality.
Back in Minnesota, as Ellen, Steve, and I were finishing our conversation, Patience walked quietly into the room. Steve was holding a picture of her that he had taken on their first day together, and Patience stopped to look at it.
“Do you remember where that picture was taken?” said Ellen. “In the airport in Amsterdam. You and Daddy got on a plane, and it left out of Africa, and it flew to Amsterdam, and you spent a little time in the airport, and then you got on another plane. Do you remember anything from the plane ride?”
“I remember eating chicken,” said Patience.
“Spicy chicken,” said Steve. “I was like, ‘No, don’t eat that, it’s too spicy.’ And she just kept biting at it. So I was like, ‘Alright….’”
“He’s like, ‘She’s downing this chicken!” said Ellen. “I really can’t stop her.’”
“You must have had spicy food over there,” said Steve.
“Mommy, I’m hungry,” said Patience. “Can we go get ice cream?”
Stephan Faris is a founding member of Deca and a contributor to Time, Bloomberg Businessweek,and The Atlantic. Based in Rome, he has lived in and written from Beijing, Nairobi, Istanbul, and Lagos and covered stories across Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including the invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Liberia. His book, Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Arctic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, has been translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese.
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