A young Indian-American man stepped out for a drink and one racially motivated incident later, he was dead. A woman from the community wondered aloud to the New York Times: “Why do they want to hurt the Indians? We want to make America beautiful. We don’t want to spoil it.”
This may sound eerily familiar to those tracking the murder of 32-year-old Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Olathe, Kansas, on February 22, but the incident referred to occurred almost 30 years earlier. In 1987, Navroze Mody, just 30, was mugged in Hoboken, New Jersey, by a gang of youth. His crime lay in his identity, at a time when the Dotbusters terrorised immigrants from India in parts of the state that were more like suburbs of New York City. The brutal assault left Mody in a coma, and four days later, he succumbed to the injuries. His parents were stunned just as Kuchibhotla’s in Hyderabad.
Days after the latest tragedy, US President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the United States Congress. His administration has been listening to the anguish expressed by New Delhi. That may be partly why he began the hour-long oration with a reference to “last week’s shooting in Kansas”.
Trump himself has lauded Indian-Americans for supporting him, and the community is considered a model minority, but all that obviously didn’t factor into disarming Kuchibhotla’s killer. That hate criminal, an alcoholic with a gun, shattered a young family and its aspirations while shell shocking a community. Kuchibhotla was a victim of what I once described as trickle-down xenophobia.
Trump’s speech may have begun with condemnation of “hate and evil in all of its very ugly forms” but it aggravated concerns over immigration, even among those seeking a legal pathway to America. The immigrant, regardless of documentation, is either a jobs thief or wage depressor, in this worldview. It is in the context of that thinking that the H1B and L1 visas, used by the majority of Indians, are in danger of being clipped.
To be fair, Trump did approvingly cite Canada’s merit-based immigration system, one that has seen Indians among the top three source countries for immigration over the past decade. But at one-tenth of the US population, the numbers Canada deals with are paltry compared to America’s annual intake. Critics have disparaged the employer-based visa system as creating a culture of cybercoolies in the US. Permanent residency in America is a process so prolonged that it feeds into that sense of captivity to the capriciousness of the hiring firm. And even that green card, as Trump’s recent executive order proved, is a glorified visa minus the security that citizenship offers. A fix is merited and if delivered, will be liberating for future immigrants.
The problem is that while Trump has promised a “big, beautiful door” in the wall he has pledged to build on America’s southern border, he could well erect many other barriers elsewhere in the system, closing windows of opportunity for immigrants from nations like India.
The Dotbusters gang of the 1980s got its name from the bindi worn by many Indian women of the area. Over the next three decades, New Jersey’s Indian-American community shook aside the attempts to terrorise them and now form a thriving presence in the region. In Jersey City, for instance, where Mody lived, you can actually find shopkeepers who will prepare a fresh paan, and stores selling 110-volt versions of idli grinders. But that change occurred during a period when immigration hadn’t turned into a word of invective. This may be baking a loaf out of breadcrumbs, but the current situation isn’t likely to improve imminently.
Even so, the American magnet will lose some attraction, but will not repel incomers just as Kuchibhotla’s wife has said she wants to return to the US as soon as possible. But new immigrants, if drawn in by a more efficient system, may find themselves warier in a land that has become stranger. Security of status has two flavours — not being prey to workplace whims or to bigotry. Fixing one flaw may not be enough.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal