In the name of saving American jobs in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Donald Trump has hit the pause button on immigration. “By pausing immigration, we’ll help put unemployed Americans first in line for jobs as America reopens,” he said. The order might only affect green card applicants for now but then most of the 800,000 waiting for green cards are Indians.
But Trump’s move, a clear attempt to bolster his base ahead of the US election, shakes the very foundation of the image of America in the minds of many. This is a country where the immigrant story has had its fullest most Technicolor rendition, where politicians routinely boast about their immigrant roots. The American Dream is the immigrant story — coming to America with sixty dollars in his pocket and ending up as a Silicon Valley startup entrepreneur or a Nobel laureate or the owner of a chain of motels.
I was one of those immigrants, the quintessential upper-middle class Indian brain drain story. In a way being an immigrant was the most valuable life lesson I could have learned, to leave my comfort zone and understand what it meant to be the other, to be different in skin colour, in accent, in the turmeric stains under my fingernails. But I also learned that my immigrant story was built on the stories of many other immigrants around me — the Mexican farmworker picking lettuce, the Chinese ladies running dim sum kitchens, the Bangladeshi waiters at the Indian restaurant, the Arab corner store owner, the Vietnamese nail salon. The hidden victims of the 9/11 carnage were scores of immigrants without papers — deliverymen, construction workers, busboys and janitors. Trump’s executive order punches a hole in that very idea of the American Dream being available to anyone willing to work for it.
But it should not come as a complete surprise. American history has always been a complicated tango between immigrant grit and nativist xenophobia. The Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 is the most notorious, invoking the idea of the “yellow peril” long before Trump talked about the “Chinese virus”. The Indian subcontinent once fell under the “Asiatic Barred Zone”. Chinese immigrants were lynched. Indian immigrants were routinely turned away because they were regarded as infected by hookworm. In 1923, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind that South Asians could not become naturalised citizens. Writer Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America tells the story of Vaishno Das Bagai, an Indian immigrant who had opened a general store in San Francisco and set up his life there with his wife and children. The court ruling devastated him. In 1928, he turned on the gas and ended his life. His suicide note read “What have I made of myself and my children? We cannot exercise our rights.”
Yet it is also true that America is where immigrants thrived from farmer-turned-congressman Dalip Singh Saund to Google’s Sundar Pichai. They left the red tape and lumbering bureaucracy of India and reinvented themselves in America, owning that coveted 3BR-3BA home in a suburban cul-de-sac. Indians, now a 4 million strong diaspora, have been happy to reap the benefits of being anointed the “model minority”. They were the winners of spelling bees, whiz kids with Ivy League degrees, hot shot bankers, academics and doctors, sometimes forgetting they were also gas station workers, janitors and working the graveyard shift at donut stores. The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that the median income for Indian-American families was almost twice the national average. The 1910 government commission that deemed Indians “the most undesirable of Asiatics” was a distant memory.
Many Indians bought into that model minority myth and the mantra for success was to be nonthreatening, keep your head down, focus on your grades, and drive your Honda Accord. The Berkeley South Asian Radical History Walking tour busts that myth, telling the stories of Indian protesters that go all the way back to 1908. But as Indian-Americans have prospered economically, they have often distanced themselves from the struggles of African Americans and other immigrant communities, preferring to sit on the sidelines of civil rights debates though reaping its benefits.
Some Indian-Americans insisted that Trump’s electoral rhetoric was aimed at those crossing the border illegally, not “good” immigrants like them. After all, he took pains to appear before Indian audiences and declare his love for India. He made a cameo appearance at the Howdy Modi rally in Houston. But as the executive order shows, in the end when the axe falls on immigrants everyone is vulnerable. This order might be rescinded after 60 days. But its message will reverberate far longer.
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