Indian-Americans are in a unique position. We are alienated from India from years of distance, but attempting to carve out a position in this racially stratified society.
It is tempting to stay apolitical. I would argue that apathy will become an existential threat to the Indian-American community in the coming years.
More often than not, we are perceived as some sort of vague brown in America. To some eyes, we’re biracial. To others, we present as Latino. To others, we look like Saudi Arabians or Egyptians or Yemeni or Iranian. Racial profiling is not nuanced. It is the institutionalising of a base and simplistic hatred. It is a wall built brick by brick in the fog of fear.
This hatred is a potent weapon when wielded by those in power. Since Donald Trump took office and signed an executive order banning those, including permanent US residents, from seven Muslim-majority countries, we’ve seen customs and border patrol agents go rogue. At Dulles International Airport outside of Washington DC, border agents refused entry to lawyers, despite a district judge’s ruling that they must let the detained have representation. A district judge in the New York area ordered a stay on the ban, deeming it unconstitutional. This should have meant that the detained were released until the case worked its way up the courts. Some agents refused to release these people. When law enforcement breaks with the accepted channels of legislation, we must be on guard.
To the enforcers, we are simply brown. And all it takes for the law to change again is a signature. And who are the enforcers now? President Trump has nominated Julie Kirchner to be Chief of Staff of the Customs and Border Protection agency. Kirchner is the former heard of an anti-immigrant hate group called the Federation for American Immigration Reform. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the organization has advocated for a complete moratorium on immigration. It has pushed the narrative that immigrants engage in “competitive breeding” to overtake the European-American population.
This fear mongering is an old tactic. In the 1920s, quotas dropped dramatically to keep America white. During World War II, Japanese-American citizens were rounded up and interned as a result of Executive Order 9066. And Indian-Americans were legally discriminated against and prevented from becoming citizens of this country until the mid-20th century simply because we were not white.
We hear about the effects of these xenophobic policies from Holocaust survivors, including White House aide Jared Kushner’s grandmother, about being turned away by America because these nativist ideas had taken root after a swell of migration from Eastern Europe. When Jewish people needed to escape, there was nowhere to go.
When I hear stories of the tens of thousands of people barred entry from the seven banned countries, I am reminded of childhood trips back to India. My trips to see my grandparents are not dissimilar to an Iranian-American woman’s trip home to see her parents or a Yemeni-American visiting the family he had to leave behind to make a better life.
I now have the protection of my US passport but I am still brown in America. When traveling, I have experienced the indignity of being pulled out of a line and searched again. This is the most diluted experience of institutional racism and profiling. Implicit in this form of profiling, however, is the threat of state violence and coercion that undergirds interactions between oppressed groups and authorities on a day-to-day basis. Being brown in Arizona means being stopped and asked for papers. Being black in America means that calling the police to protect you is likely to hurt more than it helps.
Stoking paranoia will mean that more and more people are classified as “threats.” Trump has engaged in this political dog whistling with his comments about Mexico sending “their rapists.” He has created the same atmosphere of suspicion with the executive order banning people from the seven Muslim-majority countries.
The most alarming result of this xenophobia is that these ideas start to sound reasonable to people, even though the implementation of these ideas means state and state-sanctioned violence. If people are fleeing violence, like most Syrian refugees, they should be welcomed and sheltered. If people are looking for a way out of their desperate poverty, they should be treated with dignity.
The final piece of the puzzle is the motivation of the political and corporate elite. The motives behind sowing racial hatred are many-fold. Closing the border delivers convenient propaganda to fundamentalist groups like Islamic State. We are not made safer by a ban or a wall, but there is money to be made when immigrant detention centers are privatised. Ultra-exclusive nationalism is a tactic that prompts people to compete savagely for fewer and fewer jobs, instead of looking upward to see that very few people have very many resources. Why let them have us duke it out down here when life is already hard?