If Indians thought Trump would be different just because he showed up at a song-and-dance Hindu rally, they have only themselves to blame.
“I am a big fan of Hindu, and I am a big fan of India. Big, big fan.”
Thus spake Donald Trump as he lapped up the adulation being dished out by the Republican Hindu Coalition and its head Shalabh Kumar, the man who gave the Trump campaign $1.1 million dollars.
Now the shit is hitting the big big fan. Trump has paid back his No.1 desi friend handsomely. The Department of Homeland Security is mulling a proposal to tweak their H-1B rules that might force around five lakh Indians, mostly techies, to come back to the motherland.
H-1B workers can usually file for an extension while waiting for their green cards to be approved. No more, says this proposal. Under Donald Trump’s ‘Buy American, Hire American’ initiative, the H-1B visa-holder will have to exit the US and wait for that permanent residency card if their application is still pending at the end of six years on an H-1B. That wait is already more than a decade long at this stage.
The H-1B limbo hell could get a whole lot hotter if this goes through.
Naturally, this is causing much heartburn in Delhi. The Indian government has said it is monitoring the reports carefully, “It is one of our high-priority areas of engagement with our interlocutors in the US. We are working with the stakeholders in the US Congress as well as the US administration on this issue.”
But if Indians thought Trump would be different just because he showed up at a song-and-dance rally organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition, they have only themselves to blame. This is a case of Trump being entirely consistent for a change.
Shalabh Kumar had promised Trump would be the “most pro-India President since the birth of the US”. But throughout his campaign, he ranted about Hillary Clinton, as the champion of outsourcing, about American jobs for American workers. He said, “The H-1B program is neither high-skilled nor immigration: these are temporary foreign workers, imported from abroad, for the explicit purpose of substituting for American workers at lower pay… I will end forever the use of the H-1B as a cheap labor program, and institute an absolute requirement to hire American workers for every visa and immigration program. No exceptions.”
Indians have often thought they were the exception, the model minority with their college degrees and spelling bees. When Trump talked about booting out the ‘murderer and rapist’ Mexicans and ‘terrorist’ Muslims, many Indians in America nodded approvingly. Now as he turns on the H-1B workers, they have to accept that Indians are also just brown in Trump’s America, not some browner shade of pale.
Trump has applauded the ‘good immigrant’ saying that generations of “Indians and Hindu Americans have strengthened our country” with their “values of hard work, education and enterprise”. But his idea of being American has never really included them though their $1.1million cheques were always welcome. Trump, it turns out, is a big fan of India. Indians on H-1B, not so much.
These new policy suggestions, whether they become reality or not, were inevitable. As someone who went through the H-1B slog, I could see that the welcome mat was very definitely being rolled back over the years. Trump had already overturned Obama-era rules that allowed spouses of H-1B visa-holders to work in the US. The H-1B system was choked and its visa cap exhausted almost instantaneously. H-1B had long become characterised as a Made in India/China Trojan horse sneaking into the American Dream.
When I lived in Silicon Valley, the joke went that Sunnyvale had really become Surya Nagari because of all the H-1B techies flooding its apartment complexes, their parking spots filled with so many safe and trusty Honda Accords that it was nicknamed the ‘Hindu Accord’. The strip malls smelled of dosas and biryani, the Indian movie theater showed cricket matches live late at night, and Silicon Valley offices sounded more like Hyderabad than Santa Clara. As Bharati Mukherjee wrote in her book The Tree Bride, in the voice of her heroine Tara, “During the twenty years I’ve been in California, an immigrant fog of South Asians has crept into America.” And she wondered who would be its chronicler – a “twenty first century Fitzgerald to make it come alive. The Great Gupta, perhaps.”
That American story could not be chronicled without the H-1B, but writer Amitava Kumar once wondered where the Indian cybertechie exists in the imagination of the West. Many saw the India cash-and-carry markets and Tandoori ‘palaces’ popping up in strip malls all over Silicon Valley, but the drearier side of the H-1B story was often left untold—the lower wages, the insecure jobs, the lack of benefits, the limbo of waiting for that coveted green card, and the humiliations of being benched when business was slow. We talk about the Sundar Pichais and Satya Nadellas as the model poster children of H-1B but not about, what an article in the magazine Little India, called the far more numerous Oracle Raos with far less money and far less clout, “hired on contract and moved at the whimsy of the client’s capital”.
Trump’s proposal makes it clear that to America the H-1B is about databases and operating systems and coding languages, not about human beings who have set up lives with families in American suburbia, whose children go to school, lives that cannot be uprooted at a moment’s notice and sent packing just because the bureaucratic process is backlogged.
Yet perhaps Trump is ultimately doing India a favour. As America rolls up its welcome mat, Mexico’s ambassador to India said his country would be more than happy to welcome them.
But why should it be Mexico? Why not India itself? If Acche Din have truly arrived, 70 years after Independence, the next Sundar Pichais and Satya Nadellas should not have to become the poster boys of someone else’s H-1B story. They should be poster boys of the India Story right here at home. Perhaps Trump’s policies could kickstart what Indian governments (and Indian mothers) could not – reversing the brain drain.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author