As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to Houston for a Howdy, Modi! blitzkrieg, there is a new wrinkle in Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant politics – Indians trying to ‘illegally’ cross the US-Mexico border.
The popular image of Indian immigrants in the United States is typically that of a young and educated person pursuing higher education, being later joined by their spouse and other family members. Like the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s book Namesake, Indian-origin immigrants are thought to be fluent in English, living ‘legally’ in the US with white-collar jobs.
Yet, this image does not represent the increasing number of Indians crossing into the US “illegally” from the border in the south, joining other migrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
Gurupreet Kaur, a six-year-old girl from India, died of heatstroke in June while crossing the US-Mexico border through the Arizona desert with her parents who were “desperate” to seek asylum in the US. That is exactly what Indian immigrants are willing to put themselves through to secure a better life in Trump’s US now.
The lives of Indian immigrants and their American dream in the US are increasingly starting to look like ‘Mexican’ lives. The general perception in the United States as well as elsewhere, like in India, is that only ‘Mexicans’ cross the border.
In the fiscal year 2018, close to 9,000 Indian nationals were ‘apprehended’ at the southwest border of the US; this is almost thrice the number from the previous year, when around 3,000 Indian nationals were detained.
The estimates from 2017 on ‘unauthorised’ Indian immigrants living in the US has been pegged at 5,25,000 individuals. This number includes both the people who ‘overstay’ their visas as well as those who cross the southern border without “legal” papers. These numbers have gone up significantly from the estimated 2,40,000 and 4,00,000 ‘unauthorised’ Indian-origin immigrants living in the US in 2000 and 2010 respectively.
The ideal immigrants
More than half of the 4.4 million ’Asian Indians’ living in the US are young (18-49 years of age). Emigrants from India are mostly concentrated in four states: around 7.5 lakh live in California and about 4 lakh live in Texas, New Jersey, and New York each. So, it is not at all surprising that Modi has chosen to address more than 50,000 attendees in Houston, Texas as part of the “Howdy, Modi!” summit on 22 September.
Roughly 73 per cent Indians in the US hold a bachelor’s degree or have higher education. This higher-than-average level of education and their relative success in the science and technology sectors compared to other immigrant groups are linked to the popular perception that Indians are a “model minority” group, whose children win the Scripps National Spelling Bee competition year after year.
Taking political sides
For Indians, living legally or otherwise, being on the ‘right’ political side also matters. The support for Trump, who is known for his anti-immigration stand, among Indian-origin individuals remains significant. Almost half of the Indians in US identify themselves as Democrats, 22 per cent as Republicans, and 30 per cent as neither. A survey conducted in 2018 among ‘Asian American voters’ revealed that 70 per cent of the Indian-American electorate reported having a “favourable impression” of the Democratic Party. In the same survey, 36 per cent responders said they have a “favourable impression” of the Republican Party, and 30 per cent indicated having a “favourable impression of Donald Trump”. This support for the Republican Party is higher than that found in the 2016 US Presidential elections among Asian Indians – almost 85 per cent voted for Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and the rest voted for Trump.
Many Republican Asian Indians, especially those who cheer the US President’s anti-Islamic stance, are supportive of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. In the words of Adi Sathi, chief of staff at the Young Republican National Federation, “When it comes to immigration, most Asian-Americans are legal immigrants.” He adds that his parents “worked for many years to get their citizenship legally” and are “very supportive” of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. Having themselves done the ‘hard work,’ many Indian-origin Americans support anti-immigration and anti-refugee policies.
However, it is equally true that other Republican Indian-Americans are ambiguous about their support for Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Political trends that influence citizenship acquisition directly affect the Indian-American community given that around 36 per cent of them do not have American citizenship. So, it is not surprising to find members of the Republican Hindu Coalition, a platform that gives voice to Hindu Americans and whose founding Chairman Shalabh Kumar is reportedly “close to Trump”, supporting immigration reform to “clear green card backlog for high skilled immigrants” or “end country limit” while demanding “strictly merit-based point system” for entry into the United States.
Trump, who calls himself “a big fan of Hindu”, and his administration have not supported the Indian community as promised. According to South Asian Americans Leading Together’s (SAALT) April 2019 report, the Department of Homeland Security is in the process of reviewing 7 lakh files for denaturalisation, which include Indian nationals who have acquired American nationality “fraudulently”. In January 2018, Baljinder Singh, an Indian national from New Jersey, was divested of his American citizenship because “he used a false name when he entered the United States”.
The overall increase in the proportion of ‘unauthorised’ Indian nationals in the US means that Indian-origin individuals are being increasingly targeted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials. Six “aliens” of Indian origin were arrested by the ICE in August 2018; nine South Asian restaurant employees were taken into custody by the ICE at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility” in Washington DC in July.
Cases of Indian nationals being subject to emotional and physical violence in the United States have become more and more common. For example, Suhas Khamgaonkar faces deportation after her husband, a chemical engineer whose employer in the US had sponsored him, died of heart attack. She has been living in the US “legally” since 2005, but may now be forced to leave her 21-year-old daughter behind if sent back.
In March, seven Punjabi Indian asylum-seekers, who have been left to rot in an El Paso immigration detention centre for many months, reported of being “sent to solitary confinement, pushed and dragged along the floor, and subjected to a torturous two weeks of force-feeding as they engaged in an ongoing hunger strike”.
In May, Simratpal Singh, a 21-year-old Indian national, was found “unresponsive” after being in the custody of the country’s immigration customs department in a jail in Arizona. His death was termed a suicide by a medical examiner.
At the mouth of the shark
Knowing the perils involved, it is difficult to comprehend why Indians are still embarking on risk-prone journeys. But as Gurupreet Kaur’s parents said in a joint statement after their daughter’s death: “We trust that every parent, regardless of origin, colour or creed, will understand that no mother or father ever puts their child in harm’s way unless they are desperate.”
The desperation they talk about includes stories of “political and religious persecution” in India. Sukhwinder, an Indian national detained at the Imperial Regional Detention Facility for trying to enter the US from Mexico, said he was assaulted and threatened by supporters of Narendra Modi’s nationalist government, and later by the police as well.
So, even if the US authorities take their own time to assess whether these allegations made by such immigrants are “true” or not, one thing is clear. As British-Somali poet Warsan Shire writes:
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark”.
The author is a doctoral scholar studying sociology. Her research focuses on the study of race, religion, and secularism in France. She speaks Gujarati, Hindi-Urdu, French, and Arabic. She tweets @shreya_parikh. Views are personal.