As Dreamers fight in Congress for legal protection for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, not one but three different Indian American groups are now advocating strongly in favor of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies at the expense of all other immigrant communities. These groups—including the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC), Immigration Voice, and Skilled Immigrants In America coalition—want to secure more H-1B visas and green cards for themselves and their communities, and have become actively complicit in the Trump administration’s nationalist immigration agenda.
Most Americans see South Asian-Americans as a monolithic group made up of middle class, upwardly mobile model minority families. But in reality, we are a complex group of communities with conflicting interests. Over 3.4 million South Asians live in the United States; Indians comprise the largest segment of the South Asian community, making up over 80 percent of the total population. They are followed by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, Bhutanese, and Maldivians.
The latest wave of Indian immigrants came here as part of the tech boom and were overwhelmingly hired through the H-1B visa program, under which workers are sponsored by their U.S. employers. These visas allowed tech companies to hire Indian technology talent at discounted salaries. H-1B visa holders often are unable to advance professionally because of the limits of their visas and because they must have an employer to sponsor them both to obtain and to renew their visas. For these reasons, many H-1B visa holders are eager to apply for green cards, because it confers more permanent status, ensures more equitable workplace conditions, and offers greater security for their spouses and children who want to stay in the United States.
Among the many dysfunctional aspects of the current U.S. immigration system is the backlog of both temporary work visas and green cards. In 2016, the State Department estimated that 5 million people were waiting abroad, indefinitely, for approval of temporary visas. The more permanent green card is extremely hard to secure. Per-country caps mandate that no single country gets more than 7 percent of the 140,000 employment-based green cards allotted each year. Large numbers of Indian nationals both within and outside the United States have applied and are waiting for green cards, but given the caps and at current rates of processing, even those whose cards have been provisionally approved might have to wait from 50 to 70 years to actually get one.
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There is no question that this is a heartbreaking problem. No individual or family should have to wait so long for their lives to be settled, no matter where they immigrate from originally. But all immigrants, not just South Asians, are facing difficult choices as the Trump administration erects impossible barriers to just immigration policies for millions of families across the country.
South Asians are a complex mix of subgroups often divided by caste, religion, and nationhood. Indian Hindu immigrants are able to take such divisive and desperate positions against other immigrants in the United States because they are part of a larger caste-oriented/based mindset that defines the South Asian experience. Most Indian-Americans have different caste, political, religious, and class privileges than do immigrants and refugees from Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka, for example, and certainly more than immigrants from other regions. And Indian immigrants often use those privileges to gain proximity to whiteness, which in this context means proximity to the power of the state, or more specifically, the Trump administration.
Under caste apartheid, South Asian immigrants are socialized to preserve their caste group status at the expense of others in society, with each individual fighting to maintain their own caste’s privilege and reinforcing the larger hierarchy of caste. Think of it like a social example of crabs in a barrel, where each community must fight for their position by actively putting down another. In this way, the structures of caste have been fundamentally damaging to cross-community solidarity building. This is why a key part of this system is the assertion of “upper” castes, which should be privileged because of “merit” and “skill,” as opposed to those “beneath” them in the system. Skill, here, has always been in the eye of the beholder. Skill is a casteist and classist dog whistle that helps to create categories of “good educated” immigrants against “bad” immigrants that are undocumented and/or in working class jobs.
This is the context in which I approached the recent Indian mobilizations in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, February 3, where more than 800 Savarna (“upper caste”) Republican Hindu Coalition members rallied to support Trump’s proposal to implement a “merit-based” immigration system in the country and demanded discontinuation of country quotas for green card approvals.
Under the banner of the RHC, these marchers came from around the country, holding signs saying “Trump loves Hindus,” “Trump loves India,” and “Indians love Trump.” The demonstrators also referred to their children as the “DALCA” group, an acronym for a lamb curry dish that, in this instance, also reminded bystanders that the “L” stands for “legal” immigrants. “No DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] without DALCA,” the demonstrators chanted.
The Republican Hindu Coalition was started by Chicago business owner Shalabh Kumar, one of the largest individual donors to Trump’s campaign. This group had the dubious honor of hosting what was apparently the only immigrant campaign rally for Trump’s electoral campaign in 2016. It is grounded in a right-wing Hindu fundamentalist worldview that promotes a fascist vision of Hindu imperialism based on their own histories of caste, class, and religious bigotry. Their political beliefs keep them closely aligned with Trump’s white supremacist agenda, including supporting the Islamophobic war on terror. In 2016, the Republican Hindu Coalition campaigned within Hindu immigrant networks around the country pushing Hindu immigrants to become key voters for Trump in swing states like Ohio and Florida.
It is therefore no surprise that it would come forward at this pivotal moment in support of Trump’s efforts to limit immigration from other countries. The coalition sees limiting immigration from other groups as a benefit to its own aspirations. Moreover, like other right-wing supremacist groups, the RHC has been buoyed by the Trump administration and is running congressional candidates like Vandana Jhingan, in Illinois, who issued this statement in the wake of the government shutdown for DACA:
The Congressman has to put our American citizens, soldiers and children ahead of illegal immigrants. And he needs to support immigration policies that respect the rule of law, solve skilled immigration problem, limits chain migration, ends the unfair lottery system, and prioritizes the 200,000 legal dreamers waiting in line first while securing our borders.
Krishna Bansal, national policy and political director of RHC, explains that the coalition wants to end family reunification immigration policy as it stands, and use the resulting surplus of visas to address the long wait for green cards among H-1B visa holders from South Asia. Further, the group is arguing for higher fees for these H-1B visas, which can immediately raise $4 billion for Trump’s wall. It also ties its advocacy to DACA recipients’ battle, arguing that while there are 700,000 DACA kids, there are 200,000 “DALCA” kids—children of legal immigrants-in-line from India, who have never broken the law, but who simply age out at 21 and have to go back. Parents without green cards are not considered residents, and their children born outside the United States have no standing once they become adults. As a result, even if their parents remain under an H-1B visa, their kids have to apply and pay as foreign students to go to college, for example, and are limited in the kinds of internships for which they might apply. Or, lacking their own visas, they must go back to their countries of origin to seek work. A parent’s green card would change that situation.
This push by the RHC dovetails with the additional advocacy by Immigration Voice, an Indian immigrant group that has been advocating for H-1B visa holders by introducing the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2017. This bill is sponsored by Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-KS) and has one of the largest number of both Democrat and Republican co-sponsors of any immigration bill.
The bill would “amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to eliminate the per-country numerical limitation for employment-based immigrants, to increase the per-country numerical limitation for family-sponsored immigrants.”
Aman Kapoor, co-founder and president of Immigration Voice, said in a press release that:
Indian high-skilled workers will gladly, enthusiastically, and happily pay for the border security or the wall if given an opportunity to do so in order to get fair treatment on green card waiting times. This is a win-win (situation) for everybody, it allows President Trump to fulfill his campaign promises to build a wall that is not paid for by American citizens and would end the incentive to hire foreign workers over Americans. It would help to grow our economy by allowing highly skilled immigrants to start their own companies and hire American workers. And, finally, it would provide a critical and non-controversial funding source for the kind of DACA compromise that many members in both parties have said is necessary.
The money for the wall and DACA would come by charging an extra $2,500 from those applying for a green card. With an estimated 1.5 million applicants from India alone, the sum would raise close to $4 billion.
A similar bill called I-Squared is supported by Skilled Immigrants In America. While it is devoid of some of the divisive strategies of the other groups, the group still is using the language of skill and merit, while also copying the language of DACA recipients, or Dreamers, and using the hashtag #H4Dreamers. In fact, in one of its campaigns, the group says, “Do you know that most of the congress members are either completely unaware of this problem or totally indifferent to it as major political parties cater to their vote-banks and ignoring the plights of law-abiding, tax-paying, high-skilled immigrants?”
To say that all of this is a problem is an understatement.
Arguments made by Trump and his supporters for restricting immigration are in part based on the myth that an immigrant whose job that requires education contributes more to the economy than an immigrant whose job does not. But that is simply not true.
All immigrants, regardless of legal status, contribute to the U.S. economy. The 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants living the United States today contribute $11.64 billion in state and local taxes each year. The Social Security Administration estimates that unauthorized immigrants contribute a net of $13 billion in payroll taxes annually, which helps to strengthen the Social Security system.
So contrary to the rhetoric, the economic contribution of “skilled” workers like H-1B visa holders in the technology sector, are just as valuable to the economy than immigrants working in the service and health care sectors or in other industries. These assertions are based on long-simmering class, racial, and for South Asian-Americans, caste prejudices.
Skill is not at play here; bigotry is.
We have seen this casteist mindset play out in other white supremacist contexts with Indian immigrants. For example in South Africa, Indians including Gandhi participated in the subjugation of African Zulu peoples. In the United States’ own immigration history, the arguments of the first Indian to fight for citizenship, Bhagat Singh Thind, were based on the fact that because he was an upper caste Aryan, he was the equivalent of a brown-white person who had been protected from race-mixing with “lower races” through the caste system and that, on being granted citizenship, he would continue this ideal and support anti-miscegenation laws in his new U.S. homeland as well.
This caste-informed mindset fits neatly within the H-1B arguments that many of Indian immigrants are now making. That Indian immigrants would be willing to sacrifice the immigration possibilities of all other immigrants and support the ending of family reunification and the building of the wall is the ultimate form of a casteist state of mind. It privileges their lives as Indian immigrants over the lives of other immigrants, including the other South Asian immigrant communities. Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indo-Caribbean, and Sri Lankan immigrants all have benefited from, and would benefit from, maintaining a fair and open family reunification policy, but are not included in the vision put forth by right-wing Indian groups.
To argue against family reunification for immigrants, regardless of current economic position, is to argue against humane immigration policy. It buys into the racist and anti-Black Trump mentality that immigration from some countries is better than others. We must call out this white supremacist idea that there are “shithole” countries and ideal countries for immigration. There is no place for validating racist narratives like this, period.
It is even more heartbreaking that Indian-Americans would be willing to engage in the divisive tactic of funding the wall. These individuals are not only on the wrong side of history, but they are sowing divides between themselves and the rest of the immigration movement while feeding into the anti-immigrant racism that is part of the ecosystem of hate crimes. The violence of their choices and the willingness of Indian immigrants to throw millions of families under the bus is painful. And yet this is also part of the socialization of caste that must be fought at its core.
There is no win for the South Asian community if a select group of Indian-Americans become complicit with the Trump agenda and wins green cards for a select few. The larger damage will be done to millions of family members and to the larger immigration movement. We cannot allow the inherited racist and casteist tendencies of a few to shape a dialogue pitting Indians as a model minority against other immigrants.
The time now is for progressive Indian immigrants to actively push back on this these efforts, using every platform and family network we have. Progressive South Asian-Americans must address the fissures created and exacerbated by white supremacy. We have to ask ourselves, what do these choices do to us as a community? And how do they affect our relationships with other communities of color, particularly when they converge with the larger problem of white supremacy? Every single progressive South Asian organizer and organization in the country must call out those in our communities who are leading these misguided policy campaigns and defeat this legislation.
We can draw upon our other rich history as South Asian-Americans that is also reflective of powerful solidarity across caste, class, and racial lines. This includes the work of groups like Desis Rising Up and Moving, Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, South Asian Americans Leading Together, the South Asian Histories for All coalition, and individuals like Ravi Ragbir from New Sanctuary Coalition, Chaumtoli Huq of Law at the Margins, or Maari Zwick-Maitreyi of Dalit History Month as examples of how South Asian-Americans are fighting to unite, not divide, immigrant communities. We must now also deepen our vision for solidarity by doing the internal work on our internal hegemonies of caste, class, and anti-Blackness so that we can contribute as a community with full force against white supremacy.
Let us wage love in the face of desperation. We must transcend the politics of white supremacy with compassion, but also fierce commitment to unity for all immigrants.