As spring brings balmy breezes to the continent, gently nudging people to peel off layers of clothing, for Indian Americans it seems also a time, metaphorically, to discard the layers of complacency and smugness they have built around their sparkling new lives in America.
On a Sunday morning in March, many Indian American families in the Bay Area gathered at Lytton Plaza in Palo Alto for a peaceful protest against growing xenophobia. The group paid obeisance to Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian engineer who was killed inside a bar in Olathe, Kansas, on Feb 22 by a U.S. navy veteran who yelled at him to “get out of my country.” Joined by Cupertino Mayor Savita Vaidyanathan, the protestors condemned racial hatred and expressed solidarity with minority communities.
A few days earlier, on Mar 19, members of various Indian American communities came together to rally against hate crimes outside the White House. The recently established Coalition of Indian American Organizations of the USA, which organized the event, submitted a memorandum to Pres. Donald Trump’s seeking his intervention in the rising hate crimes targeting minorities.
While rallies and protests have always been a part of political process, the spurt of demonstrations in America since the election of the new president has touched an all-time high.
Politically active Indians joined the protest movement soon after the elections, with all five Indian Americans in the U.S. Congress — Kamala Harris, Pramila Jayapal, Ami Bera, Raja Krishnamoorthi and Ro Khanna — participating in the Women’s March on Jan 21, the day after Pres Trump’s swearing in ceremony. For many others, the urgency to take a stand became apparent in the weeks that followed.
Discovering themselves targets of a growing anti-immigrant backlash has come as a rude shock to many Indian Americans, who have long basked in their publicly celebrated success as a “model minority.”
While the community was still reeling from the shocking killing in Kansas, news came of Harnish Patel, an Indian origin convenience store owner, who was shot dead outside his home in Lancaster, S.C., on Mar 2. One day later, another Indian, Deep Rai, was shot in the arm by a masked gunman, who shouted “go back to your country.”
These three attacks in a span of less than a month crystallized for many Indians the incendiary climate of hate targeting South Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, Muslims and other ethnicities. An Indian girl in New York was bullied in a subway; Bangladeshi film director Bijon Imtiaz was punched during the California Anti Hate rally; an Indian convenience store owner in Florida had a dumpster set on fire in front of his store by a man who mistook him for a Middle Easterner.
A new report titled Power, Pain, Potential: South Asian at the Forefront of Growth and Hate in the 2016 Election Cycle by the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a nonprofit that advocates for civil rights of South Asian, reported that hate crimes against South Asian Americans more than doubled since 2014. The report documented 207 incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric targeted at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern and Arab communities in the year leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It chillingly concludes that “Hate violence returns to historic levels mirroring the year after 9/11.”
Beyond the fears over their physical safety, the Trump administration’s plans to reform the H1B visa program and introduce extreme vetting at airports have rattled the community. Unwittingly caught in the line of fire, Indians are increasingly coming to grips with the fact that their new life is at risk of being upended.
Rishi Kumar, democratic city council member in Saratoga, Calif., who helped organize the Peace March in Palo Alto, says: “There is a definite unrest in the community. The Indians are unsure of what may be coming next and the fears are not unfounded. There are security issues as many big and small incidents point out that we are made to feel more foreign than ever before. The other big issue is H1B visa scrutiny, which puts many Indians working in the U.S. and those who could come and enrich the economy in a state of peril.”
Kumar adds that many Indians are also apprehensive over the elaborate airport vetting to which their visiting elderly parents could be subjected, “So, many are not planning their visits.”
In addition, while Indian students are the largest group after the Chinese to enroll in American universities, Kumar says, “Today a lot of Indian students are questioning the worthiness of coming to the U.S.”
But it isn’t just Indian immigrants who are discovering that the color of their skin is attracting discriminatory attention. New York based Shenaz Treasury, an Indian origin actress, who has appeared in several American TV shows and holds a green card, said she was interrogated at length at the airport while returning to the United States in February.
As paranoia and panic grips many Indian Americans, activist organizations and Indian origin lawmakers are stepping up to reassure the community. U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who represents Illinois’ 8th district, told Little India: “As a member of Congress, I’ve consistently spoken out on the need to address the surge in hate crimes we’ve witnessed over the last few months. I’ve written to the Attorney General asking him to use the full resources of the Department of Justice to combat these crimes and as a member of the House Oversight Committee, I’ve also called for hearings to investigate these hate-motivated attacks, as well as their root causes.”
or many Indian Americans, it is ironical that a community that prides itself as the most educated and economically well off in the United States with little history of political confrontation or grassroots activism is today finding itself in the crosshairs — perhaps for precisely the same reasons.
The day things changed
Like many Americans, Indians watched in disbelief that fateful day in November as results poured in, electing Republican candidate Donald Trump as president. There was anxiety, but few imagined the effects would emerge so soon.
Shenaz Treasury recalls: “When Trump won the election, that night I was sitting at a bar in Brooklyn. As he won, the atmosphere changed. People were crying, a guy punched the wall, a girl yelled that her parents had voted Trump and they were racists, a Chinese guy said his whole family supported Trump and he didn’t feel he was part of them.”
The results signaled to Treasury that things would not be the same, and the proof came soon enough: “Just the day after the election, a white man in a big SUV passed us on the street. He was smirking at us as his gas-guzzling car was gleaming. For me that is America now. If you have money, you’re welcome. You can make racist, sexist comments if you are rich and still become the president.”
Rishi Kumar said there has been a rise in hate messages even in cosmopolitan, multicultural cities: “An Indian guy at a strip mall was questioned on his affinity towards America by a white because he drove a foreign car.”
feeling of dejection is palpable for Treasury who moved to America in 2010 after she signed a deal with ABC. She says: “I loved the freedom of America when I first came here. It impressed me that everyone was treated equally, the busboy, the waiter, the banker. But this was my perception then. May not have been true, but that’s what I felt at that time. (Barack) Obama was president then. It was inspiring. He and his campaign enchanted me. I wanted the same for India.
“I believed in the American dream. Today I feel differently. Everyone is not treated equally.
“You are what you make, in terms of dollars. And the color of your skin is a big deal.”
Her sentiment is shared by other Indians. Rahul Sinha, a technology professional employed in the Bay Area with a cloud computing company says: “After Trump’s election, the mood was somber. When the travel ban came in, we were stumped with the rhetoric actually playing. However, as the news of H1B visa changes began coming up there was a widespread anxiety. The American dream was diminishing. There are so many Indians like me on H1B visas who have already contributed to the country, we pay taxes, we abide by the law and are raising our kids as Americans. Still if we are affected it will be horrible.”
Immigration rights advocate and attorney Rekha Sharma-Crawford says the the policies are impacting immigrants, including Indian Americans, at a psychological level: “With regular doses of bans on travel and laptops and restrictions on work visas, many have begun to feel like foreigners in their own homes. Additionally, a new storm looms as a fresh attack on the H-1B program has been announced. By disallowing all computer programmers to benefit from the H-1B visa, job security for a great number of Indians coming to the U.S. for work is in jeopardy.”
Saif Shahin, assistant professor of journalism at Bowling Green State University, who frequently writes on Indian American policy issues, says: “A number of bills have been introduced in Congress this year, which seek to make it harder for companies to hire using the H-1B visa category that Indian technology workers are typically brought here on. Most of these bills are not new — they were tabled in the last Congress too and had to be reintroduced when a new Congress was convened this year. But coupled with President Trump’s statements about saving jobs for Americans, these bills have created worries for tech workers.”
The general perception among many Americans is that the H1B program is being abused and deprives Americans of jobs.
In early April, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services determined that entry-level computer programming positions would no longer be considered as specialty occupations. Kumar says: “I have discussed the H1B issue with Silicon Valley CEOs and what people don’t realize is there is a tremendous positive impact of it on the U.S. economy. Today it has become fashionable to slam H1B without understanding the contributions these workers make to the society.”
He adds: “I personally know of a few folks who are stuck in India because of visa issues. There is a resistance in the community and I know people who have given up their green cards moved by the situation now.”
However, Vikram Desai, vice president, Immigration Voice, a non-profit organization advocating for immigrant rights, says the current H1B has flaws for employees too: “Bad employers, having realized a loophole in the system, consciously exploit the H1B visa holders. Without the ability to start a business or to change jobs while queing up for green card, many H1B holders are left to stick with their employers who pay them far less. The purpose of H1B program is not to get cheap labor or curtail job possibilities for Americans and many companies are doing that currently.”
While there is need to reform the H1B program, Desai admits that things could get difficult for Indian professionals.
Peter Jacob, former candidate for U.S. House of Representatives, says: “As much as the H1B program needs reform, we need to make sure it is done fairly. This week alone, the Trump administration quietly filed with courts an attempt to roll back the ability for spouses of those who came over on an H1B to seek work. This is an increasing concern as the cost of living is rising.”
The Trump administration is considering revoking an Obama administration rule that allows nearly 200,000 spouses of high skilled foreign workers to work in the United States.
Sharma-Crawford says: “Since inauguration day, there have been concerns about the H-4 visa EAD rule. There has been ongoing litigation surrounding this program since April 2015. After the District Court dismissed the case in favor of the government, the plaintiffs group called SAVE Jobs USA took an appeal. The appeal was pending when Trump became president. Since taking the oath, the president ordered DHS (Department of Homeland Security) to first request 60 days to review the case and consider the issues. At the end of the 60 days, the government sought an additional 180 days from the court. While it is unclear what the administration will eventually do, this uncertainty is causing tensions to rise in the community. An administration that has such restrictive views on immigration is actually causing many to simply leave.”
Desai says Immigration Voice has filed a motion to intervene in the case “if the Trump administration does not defend the provision.”
Allaying the fears
As many professionals are uprooted, many Indians students, who once saw America as a gleaming dream, are having second thoughts. Shahin says: “Students are fearful they won’t get visas or extensions on visas to study. They are fearful if they return home, they might not be allowed back into the country, even if they have a valid visa. Many students who study here hope to also get a job in the U.S.; they are fearful that it is going be harder in coming years. And they are also fearful for their well-being. Especially since the attacks on Indians in Kansas and Washington, even American-born Indians, who are citizens and may have never even been to India, have grown concerned about how racism has become more open now and this is affecting their daily interactions with other Americans.”
Peter Jacob says: “The current political climate — attempting to cut healthcare, cut access to affordable housing/homes, all the while providing benefits to wealthy big businesses — doesn’t foster the ability for the next generation to achieve the American Dream.”
He adds, “As far as healthcare goes, many families that have elderly grandparents who are citizens benefit from Medicaid. Cutting benefits and expansion impacts them as well. Additionally, getting rid of the ability to have kids on parents’ plans until 26 would place greater economic stress on families. As far as purchasing homes, Trump on his first day, got rid of FHA mortgage fee cuts to protect over 1 million homeowners.”
Increasingly, many Indians are reassessing their passive stance. Social and political organizations are urging them to reconnect with their local lawmakers, get involved and raise a voice.
Civil rights activist and lawyer Valarie Kaur has been exhorting Indians to become more politically active: “A movement for justice is rising up in America. In the last few months, we fought the first Muslim ban, and now we are fighting the second. We fought to protect health care in America, and now we are fighting the next policy crisis. I’m proud of these victories.”
Kaur cautions, however: “No number of policy wins will solve the underlying conditions that gave rise to this presidency and this era of rage in America. We need a new way of seeing one another, talking to one another, and doing democracy. We need a new public ethic.”
Rishi Kumar says: “Our non-involvement has been damaging. We have built our perception as a soft community. Not all of us register to vote; we rarely get involved in grassroots level political process. It’s distressing, but when candidates come knocking doors for votes, they often skip Indian Americans as we are not seen as high frequency voters. We should not be just the silent, successful demographic in America. We need to establish a platform and take our issues in the most peaceful way of political activism.”
Sharma-Crawford believes that the community has coddled its successful minority image to its peril: “Indian Americans have for too long turned their backs on the substantial number of undocumented Indians in the U.S.
“But turning a blind eye will do little to help the situation or strengthen the community. Many who need help in order to address the havoc that comes from immigration raids are avoiding getting help and being prepared. This is an issue the Indian community will have to find the grace to be able to overcome; to actually empower those needing help to actually obtain it.”
Treasury is appalled at the support Trump enjoyed among some Indians: “Last year I even got a call from some Indians to host a Trump celebratory event which I promptly refused, of course. It was called Hindus for Trump. It made me sad. The number of Indians that support Trump who hated on me for my anti-Trump posts surprises me. I don’t get it. Feels like self-hate to me.”
Shahin adds: “Many Indians, in fact, wanted Trump to become president. Since his election, however, they have found themselves to be living in fear. These fears are partly invoked by the president’s statements about immigration and jobs and his efforts to ban immigration from some parts of the world. They are also partly the result of a spurt in hate crimes on the street, especially attacks targeting Indians.”
Jacob concurs: “I’ve met many Indians who admitted that they voted for Donald Trump, but now feel ‘scammed’ and generally uncertain about the future of our nation. Many are worried about being victim of harassment and hate crimes. This has not only been a concern for our Muslim brothers and sisters, but also among others. We see hate crimes toward our Sikh brothers and sisters as well. There are also those in the business world who are worried about their non-Indian clients now that Trump has emboldened a level of bigotry. Many Silicon Valley CEOs are disturbed by Trump advisor Steve Bannon and his words about there being too many Asian and Indian executives. However, there is hope. I’m seeing firsthand the increasing activism within the Indian community. They are showing up to rallies and getting involved locally.”
Congressman Krishnamoorthi said: “The United States is a nation of immigrants, but the recent heated rhetoric and spate of crimes run directly against this legacy. I think it’s vital our community continue to remain actively involved in all aspects of American life as we continue to contribute to an even brighter and more inclusive future for our country.”