During the course of the week, I have been scribbling little notes to myself – on paper napkins, on newspapers, in my notebook – all of them ideas for things I should blog about. Topics include “Supermarkets in America/consumer culture,” “All you can drink Soda,” “The First Amendment – does it work?” But, we’ve just come back from a fascinating meeting with the folks over at the African Development Center, and all I can think about now is the immigrant experience in America. It is of course a land of immigrants, and yet those who were last to arrive – the Somalis, Liberians, Ethiopians and Eritreans in the case of Minnesota – certainly don’t have access to the same opportunities as those who came, say 50 or a 100 years ago.

At the meeting Emma Kasiga – herself an immigrant who came to America from Tanzania in 1996 spoke to us about the difficulties most African immigrants face in getting financial assistance from large, mainstream banks. Something she said during the course of the discussion really struck a chord with me. The banks only care about credit ratings, they don’t care about people’s stories, which when you listen to them often make sense, she said. This is often the case in my country too, where people – particularly those that we classify as “economically backward” – have absolutely no way of getting any assistance from large financial institutions.

In India, we don’t really have immigration of the kind that you see in Europe, or here in America. Nobody around the world is crazy enough to think “Oh, maybe I’ll move to India because I want a better life.” (There is some amount of immigration from Bangladesh – but that’s a whole different story.) But what we do have is an insane amount of internal migration from villages into cities. The main reason why people migrate are poverty and unemployment, other reasons include natural disasters, and risk to personal safety due to violence or riots. The same reasons that drive so many to come to America each year – the hope that at the other end a better life awaits.

The result is that our cities are full of extremely poor people who move there hoping to find jobs or just a safe place to raise their families, and often don’t find either, because they aren’t much more than a statistic, not many care about the stories behind the statistics. For the statistic friendly – India’s latest Census of 2011 says there are nearly 400 million internal migrants in India, over half of the global figure. Nearly 1/3rd of India’s population can be classified as internal migrants. 80% of them are women, 15 million children. There are 500,000 homeless migrant families in our cities. Of course that last figure I don’t trust, statistics can be notoriously wrong in my part of the world. I think the number is much higher.

They are everywhere, and nowhere at the same time. They sleep under flyovers, in sewer lines, on railway platforms, abandoned buildings, streets, everywhere but growing up we learn not to see them. We learn to drive past while they knock on our car windows asking for alms, we learn not to notice them when they huddle in the cold and the rain, we learn not to ever ask for the stories behind the statistics, because that would require us to confront truths about ourselves, and we are not ready for that yet.

A report released by the government a couple of years ago confirmed what everyone already knew – internal migrants face discrimination as ‘outsiders’, which excludes them from access to legal rights, public services and social protection programmes accorded to residents. This, despite the migrants providing cheap labour and typically doing the most dirty, dangerous and degrading jobs that locals do not want to do. Far from being a burden on society, migrants’ cheap labour provides a subsidy and contributes to the national GDP. From what we heard, immigrants in America often face the same situation – they work the farms, and in construction and do the jobs that many Americans might not want to do. The difference is in America, with enough time, and access to education they may find acceptance. In India, the internal migrants, more often than not, continue to be outsiders. Forever.

Anyway, I digress from my primary point that people like them would of course never be entitled to any financial assistance from a large bank (No address proof. No loan. Period). Something along the lines of the African development Center that aims to not just provide financial assistance, but get people engaged within their new communities would go a long way back home.

I went over to talk to Emma after the meeting, and at some point asked her, “Are you a citizen now?” I figured she’s been here a while, she must be a citizen. She stiffened up slightly and sais “Yes, I am but I would caution you not to ask that question so directly to others you might meet here.” She went on to explain that tons of illegal, undocumented migrants live here, and some have been here 10 years or longer. She said that even amongst their own communities, this is not something that is spoken about openly. She said, often if someone refuses to come along on a holiday that would require a passport, you can be certain that they are undocumented, but no body goes around asking directly, like I had done with her. I didn’t realize that a simple question could have the potential to make someone so uncomfortable – like I said earlier, we hardly have any international immigration into India (except from Bangladesh). I think Emma was also amused by my naivete, she has promised me a tour of the Somali areas in the city sometime next week. I really look forward to it, I have already scribbled “Somali neighbourhoods in Minneapolis” as a blog post idea in my notebook.