Adam, Eve and the unholy immigrants

Kanishk Tharoor | | Updated on: Jul 12, 2019
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Borders are sacred spaces and protecting them a Biblical mission in the 21st century

In an extraordinary exchange with the writer and journalist Suketu Mehta, an American border security official reached into the depths of his religion to justify his work. Mehta was visiting the most westerly section of the border between the US and Mexico, a border that has become a continent-spanning flashpoint since the election of President Donald Trump. Under Trump’s policy of “zero tolerance” in terms of immigration enforcement, border security officers have habitually separated children from their parents and kept them in deplorable conditions, resulting in several deaths. The previous administration of Barack Obama was also responsible for ramping up deportations and cracking down on immigrants. Mehta asked the sector chief — who happened to be a devout Christian — how he reconciled his religious beliefs with such policies.

The sector chief spoke of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise. “I go back to the original sin, to the Garden of Eden,” the man said. “There were consequences: They got deported out of the Garden of Eden, and God created a border around it.”

I find this a rather incredible quote and had to re-read it several times as I raced through Mehta’s splendid book on global immigration and belonging, This Land Is Our Land . The sector chief likens his role to that of God, imposing the justice of borders on sinful mankind. Agents of states — kingdoms, empires, republics — have acted in bad faith throughout history, presenting their self-interested policies and decisions as securing the greater good. But this pious mythologising is particularly jarring. It is zealous and dangerous to bathe the cynical actions of modern nation-states in the light of scripture, to project modern borders into the recesses of mythic time.

Borders and the tools that enforce them — passports and other identity documents, checkpoints, surveillance technology, national registers and so on — are decidedly products of the last two centuries. In many cases, modern borders remained porous throughout the 20th century, observed more in theory than in practice. Mehta talks to a man who grew up in Tijuana, across the border in Mexico from the American city of San Diego. As children, the man and his friends would habitually bike up and down the beach, oblivious to where Mexico ended and the US began. Now, such invisible lines in the sand — demarcations drawn out of human imagination, not the physical world — are frighteningly, violently real for millions of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Looked at from another angle, perhaps it isn’t so strange that the border chief would “go back to the original sin” in laying the moral foundations of his work. In the 21st century, borders have become the province of ideological virtue. With nationalist politics growing in strength in Europe, the US, India and elsewhere, borders appear as sacred spaces, where the holy body of the nation comes into being.

Think, for instance, of the tenor of xenophobic rhetoric in modern Europe. The uptick in migrants and refugees coming into the continent from West Asia and Africa has produced panic in many quarters. Their arrival is made to seem like the invasion of a foreign army. Many right-wing politicians and political movements in Europe invoke ancient history in framing this supposed threat. In 2015, as he ordered the construction of fences at the borders of his country, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán insisted that Muslims posed a threat to Christian European culture, recalling the invasions of the Ottoman Empire. In Orbán’s thinking, his razor-wire fence was but another holy rampart in the eternal struggle between Christianity and Islam.

In the US, Trump described his quixotic quest to build a “big, beautiful wall” on the Mexican border as part of “our sacred duty to the American citizens we serve”. A “caravan” of migrants from Central America in 2018 was described in apocalyptic terms, the arrival of a horde of criminals and terrorists keen to destroy the US. For Trump’s nationalist supporters, the border preserves the blessed order of their country from the unholy disorder outside. In a congressional testimony in 2016, another border security official described how it was his religious duty to maintain the laws of “kings and presidents”, without which there would only be “chaos” of Biblical proportions.

And yet this language of sacred mission and purpose is put to profane ends. Migrants move not out of whimsy or malice, but out of necessity — war, violence, poverty, climate change, and a host of other legitimate reasons. While they are not agents of chaos, they were uprooted by chaos, by forces that were often (as Mehta writes in the book) produced by the same wealthy countries that now seek to keep migrants out. The real sin of our era lies not in the transgression of borders, but in the callousness with which borders are imposed.


Kanishk Tharoor



Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among Stars, a collection of short fiction


Published on May 31, 2021

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