Travel visas and green cards, hecklers and hijabs: these are just some of the issues that are haunting people of Indian origin in Trump’s America
On November 8, 2016, Raaheela Ahmed, 23, trumped formidable opponents to be elected a representative on the Board of Education in Prince George’s County in Bowie town, Maryland, 30 km northeast of Washington. The population here is nearly half African-American, a handful of Muslims or South Asians, and the rest white Christians. Ahmed is an American first, but she is also Muslim, Indian and Pakistani. She is brown. She is an Ahmadi in Pakistan, where law forbids her from identifying herself as Muslim. She wears all these identities, and a hijab. That day, many people told Raaheela that they had voted for her and for Trump in the Presidential elections. She knew why.
The crisp winter breeze carries the whiff of marigold, incense, freshly fried vada and sambar as I walk to the Siva Vishnu temple in Lanham, 20 km from Washington. The conversations swirling around are in Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi and the shrines are for as many gods — Venkateshwara, Ayyappa, Andal, Durga, Karthikeya, Krishna, Lakshmi, Vishnu. Narayanachar L. Dialakote, a priest at this temple, represented Hinduism at the customary National Prayer Service attended by the new President the day after he was sworn in. Dialakote prayed in Sanskrit that the new ruler may “work in the interests of all… to treat everyone with equal justice.”
Someone in the crowd says in Tamil, “I cancelled my ticket. I am not planning to go to India until things are clear.” Later it turns out that everyone knows someone who had cancelled a trip to India. “You don’t know when or whether you can come back,” says Vijay Shanmugham, an IT professional in his early 30s from Chennai. He has been on an H-1B visa for the last 10 years.
But don’t blame Trump, says Anil T., an American citizen who grew up in Warangal in Telangana. “He (Trump) is trying to do something for his people; why can’t we just wait?” He thinks reports of social frictions in the U.S are exaggerated. “Telugu-speaking people can’t stay together in one State in India; what are we getting worked up about?”
Trump has certainly brought questions of identity to the foreground of socio-political consciousness in America, but they were never too far away, says Raaheela. Growing up in pre-Trump America, was she conscious of her identity? “All the time,” she says. “I have to constantly ask myself how to present myself in the best possible manner. Because for many people who meet me, I may be the only Muslim or the only Pakistani or the only Indian that they may ever meet… My presentation could leave them with a wrong impression about all that I represent.”
Raaheela is the eldest daughter of Shukoor Ahmed from Hyderabad in India, who migrated to the U.S. in 1988 when he was 23. He married Nabeela, who had come to the U.S. from Pakistan when she was five. Nabeela’s grandparents moved to Pakistan from India in 1947. Shukoor’s father used to be conflicted about whether he wanted to be buried in American soil or in Qadian in India where Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, was born. As it turned out, the family buried him in India near his mother.
Uncertainty is a constant feature of life for temporary work visa holders but it’s suddenly in their face after Trump’s ascent. Dozens of H-1B workers are stuck in India as U.S consulates have withheld visas. “Those who are not working directly for a U.S. client are under threat. Thousands of H-1B workers work for body-shop companies that are four or five layers away from the original contract in the chain. They get short-term assignments,” says an IT professional who works for an Indian tech company contracted by an American bank. There are various business models that cut corners in American law to keep such low-cost employees in the U.S. Jins Thomas, originally from Kerala, works in Philadelphia and voted for Trump. He is a manager with an American multinational that has contracted a lot of its IT work to an Indian company. “I see a lot of Americans losing their jobs. I feel it is not fair,” he says, adding, “My brother-in-law was laid off when his job went to an H-1B guest worker.” But he agrees that the travel ban is extreme and unfair.
Support for stricter immigration laws comes not entirely from white Americans — many among early Indian-origin immigrants who are now U.S. citizens strongly support it. They fear for their jobs but are also suspicious that unregulated immigration might dilute what they think is their own hard-won integration, rights, and status.
The rhetoric that fuelled Trump and the presence of a large number of H-1B opponents in his administration and in Congress are keeping people on the edge. Even routine procedures have become unsettling in the Trump regime, as Mythili Sampathkumar, a New York-based writer, realised recently. Her 68-year-old father was selected for an additional screening at the Washington Dulles airport recently, a first for the U.S. citizen who has been living here since 1983. “I don’t want to speculate or make assumptions. But when you have all this other stuff around, you suddenly feel it may not be random anymore,” says Mythili. Her friend, also an American citizen of Indian origin, was standing in a queue at her regular grocery store in Cleveland, Ohio, when someone suddenly yelled out, ‘You are a foreigner; why don’t you go back to your country.’ “She was completely taken aback,” says Mythili.
“The Trump presidency allows people to talk about Muslims or immigrants in a way that has now become socially acceptable,” says Raaheela. While juggling multiple identities has been a constant struggle for her and sister Shabnam, the travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim majority countries troubles them more than anything else in the past.“It worries me,” Raaheela says. “He has targeted a specific group of people, a group I identify with. It makes me nervous about additional profiling at airports, makes me nervous about what is next… there are folks that I care about. We have our family in Pakistan, India, London, Dubai…Will I ever be able to see them. Will they ever be able to come here?” But Shabnam interjects, “I have a lot of faith in humanity.”
If humanity does not work, business sense will, says Rajeshwar Rao, a registered Republican, originally from Kakkinada in Andhra Pradesh, who is enjoying a plate of vada-sambar at the temple canteen. He came as a TCS employee in 2000 and became a citizen in 2012. “He (Trump) will gain some experience and things will be better. India is too good a business opportunity for America; if he does not allow Indians to make money, how will India buy billions worth of arms from the U.S.,” he asks. Rajeshwar supports the travel ban but disapproves of the rhetoric around it. “He should have done it the way Obama would have done it. Quietly.”
The Ahmed family was conflicted on one question while launching Raaheela’s campaign — whether to have her wearing a hijab in the campaign photos. “We thought: she is South Asian, she is a young girl… should we also show her in hijab?” Finally, though, they decided “to go all out with their identity.”
“Nobody cared,” says Raaheela. “What mattered was that I had ideas for the school board and I was not a career politician looking for a new job. That is why the same people voted for Trump and for me,” she says.
Her sister Shabnam, also a budding community activist, sees a heightened curiosity and openness among the general public towards Muslims and other minority communities.
“Not only have more people become aware of Islam, but also of a lot of other issues such as undocumented people, immigrants, LGBT rights — all issues our country is grappling with. This election opened the eyes of the general population to what minority groups have been saying for a long time.”
Raaheela’s mother Nabeela, a pharmacist, has noticed a change in the patients she interacts with. “I have been seeing the same people for at least 10 years now. They usually say ‘Hi doc, how are you’ and all that, but after Trump has become President, I notice they are conversing more with me, they are trying to be reassuring. One of them is a police officer. He told me, ‘Hey doc, I know you are a Muslim. If you need any help, if anyone ever troubles you, I am giving you my card, call me’.”
Every action does not always get the reaction that demagogues would like it to.