At a conference for Indian lawyers in New York two years ago, I remember an attendee who said that “America should let in more Indians … After all, we’re a model minority. We make positive contributions to this country, unlike some other criminal minorities.” It was shamefully obvious who he was referring to. His remarks were met with cheers by the (largely Hindu) audience. This did not surprise me. Upper-caste Hindus are far too invested in notions of class to believe that all Americans are created equal. But I was curious about what they attributed our “model minority” status to.
I asked some Indian-American friends for their explanation of Indian immigrant success. (The Pew Research Center reported in 2010 that the median income for Indian-American families was nearly twice the national average.) “It’s our culture,” said one friend. “We work hard,” he said, as if we had a monopoly on that quality. Another shrugged and said, “We just want a chance to prove our smarts, and America gives people that chance.”
Nobody I asked mentioned anything about structural inequalities, or brought up the fact that lower-class Indians cannot afford to immigrate. They attributed their success to pure merit. Saying anything else would mean acknowledging that the odds are stacked in our favor. We do well because we are not like those minorities. We aren’t illegal; we aren’t terrorists.
Unfortunately, in Donald Trump’s America, we are still out of luck.
On February 22, two engineers, Alok Madasani and Srinivas Kuchibhotla, were drinking at their usual after-work hangout in Olathe, Kansas, when a stranger asked them about their visas. According to Madasani, they didn’t react. Even when the man suggested that they were in the U.S. illegally, they responded by getting a manager, who escorted the stranger out of the bar. After he left, conversation resumed.
But the stranger came back and opened fire. The shooting, in which Kuchibhotla died and two others were injured, was characterized as a “senseless act of violence.” Kuchibhotla’s manager described him as an excellent employee, with an exceptional personality. He was in the U.S. on an H-1B visa, reserved for immigrants with special skills. He did everything right. He wasn’t Muslim or Middle Eastern, as the shooter thought him to be. He was the “good kind” of Indian immigrant, the kind that many Indians thought our current administration supported. After all, it was only last October, at an event organized by the Republican Hindu Coalition, that Trump said he was a “big fan of Hindus.”
Kuchibhotla was the “good kind” of Indian immigrant, the kind that many Indians thought our current administration supported.
In Trump’s mind, there is a clear dichotomy between countries like India (safe; profitable for business) and countries that produce the “evil people” he keeps tweeting about. This view is shared by the founder and head of the Republican Hindu Coalition, Shalabh “Shalli” Kumar, who contributed $898,800 to the Trump campaign. Last July, Kumar said that he was in full agreement with Trump’s views on Muslims. “If you need to profile, what is the fuss?” It is a careless statement: It comes from somebody confident in the knowledge that he will never be profiled. (It also ignores the fact that there are 176 million Muslims in India.)
To people like Kumar, Trump’s business-first attitude is heroic. And there are many more Indians who have grudging admiration for Trump, if not reverence. During the run-up to the presidential election, I saw many Facebook statuses, even among my more progressive Indian friends, who argued that Trump might be good for Indians by boosting bilateral trade and creating more jobs for highly qualified engineers. The idea of Trump is appealing to the Indian imagination. It’s not just his show of support for India, or the many deals he’s promised to broker with the Indian government. It’s not just the fact that he’s promised to crack down on Islamic terrorism, which Indians take to mean that he will support us against Pakistan (a Muslim-majority nation). We also respond positively to Trump, the man: his wealth, his extravagance, the fact that he’s self-made.
His outrageous statements are echoed by those of older Indian politicians, who have never let “political correctness” stand in the way of airing their beliefs. Hindu nationalists, who are threatened by growing diversity back home, can relate to his nostalgic statements about a better America. The deep conservatism of Trump — his xenophobia, his sexism — are all things that most Indians have grown up with.
In the days after the Kansas shooting, I saw a radical change on my Facebook feed. For the first time, Indian Trump supporters were afraid — some even urging their friends and relatives to leave America. One of them shared a quote from Alok Madasani’s father: “I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances.”
Those who had so confidently suggested that “Trump was good for India” had begun to realize the truth: Being a model minority will not protect us. Doing things lawfully will not exclude us from discrimination. Our place is with Muslims, the marginalized, LGBT individuals, people of color in America: all the people whose safety Trump does not prioritize, the communities whose safety he does not tweet about.
Trump may not add India to the list of countries on his refugee ban, but that doesn’t mean that his presidency will be as beneficial to the Indians who supported him so vociferously. The proposed High-Skilled Integrity and Fairness Act of 2017 — the first bill Trump proposed as president — will double the minimum wages for H-1B workers in order to prevent high-skill jobs from going to non-U.S. citizens.
The threat of hate is in the air, and immigrants in America, even ones on lawful visas, even non-Pakistanis, even non-Muslims, are no longer safe. The average racist is not necessarily cognizant of the difference between a Sikh man and a Muslim one. The man who killed Kuchibhotla mistook his victims to be Middle Eastern. A hard-working immigrant, a member of the model minority, is dead. We know now what many of us refused to admit before: Prejudice is boundless. The tragedy is that it’s too late.
Priya-Alika Elias is a writer and lawyer.