As President Trump delivered his address in the U.S. Congress Feb. 5, responses from Indian-Americans predictably went along party lines. They ranged from those who did not watch it to those fully committed to the President’s agenda.
In-between were Indians who are not citizens but permanent residents, seemingly stuck in a groove.
The part that caught everyone’s attention was to do with immigrants – whether it was the border wall, or more specifically, the President’s statement, “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever, but they have to come in legally,” which ordinarily should have gladdened the hearts of many Indians, an overwhelming majority of whom have come to this country legally. But there are hundreds of thousands waiting in line with H-1B visas, H-4 visas, working away and hoping things will change. They see a huge gap between word and deed.
Yet, it was an inspiring speech for those Republicans committed to the President.
“I am delighted and elated with what the President had to say yesterday,” said Puneet Ahluwalia, a political strategist and lobbyist who had been on Trump’s transition team on Asian American outreach. “He laid a very clear approach to what he saw as a bipartisan approach to making American great again.”
“In the Indian community, if there is a complete misunderstanding – it’s because Democratic Indians don’t want to support him,” Ahluwalia asserted, acknowledging that more than 60 percent of Indian-Americans are Democrat leaning.
“The agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It’s the agenda of the American people,” President Trump declared at the outset, noting that despite differences, the 115th Congress just ended, had passed legislation to fight the opioid crisis, a farm bill, and Veterans Affairs reforms, and criminal justice reforms as this year’s session began.
“Many of us have campaigned on the same core promises: to defend American jobs and demand fair trade for American workers; to rebuild and revitalize our nation’s infrastructure; to reduce the price of healthcare and prescription drugs; to create an immigration system that is safe, lawful, modern, and secure; and to pursue a foreign policy that puts America’s interests first,” (emphasis mine) the President said.
But, the President said, “No issue better illustrates the divide between America’s working class and America’s political class than illegal immigration. Wealthy politicians and donors push for open borders while living their lives behind walls, and gates, and guards.”
“Meanwhile, working-class Americans are left to pay the price for mass illegal migration: reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net. Tolerance for illegal immigration is not compassionate; it is actually very cruel,” said the President.
His statistics about ICE arrests and assaults by illegal entrants, were all to Ahluwalia’s satisfaction but not so the Democratic Party Indian-Americans. Some news channels also pointed out inconsistencies in the numbers.
By speaking now about a “commonsense” proposal of the ‘wall’ that was now described by the President as “a smart, strategic, see-through steel barrier — not just a simple concrete wall,” the President may have won over some more of those sitting on the fence. He spoke of humanitarian assistance, more law enforcement, drug detection, preventing child smuggling, all being part of the “crisis on the southern border,” something denied by Democrats and others.
For Ann Kalayil, founder of the Chicago-based South Asian American Policy Research Institute (SAAPRI), and former Obama administration official, the picture is radically different.
“The whole crux of the speech and action was fixated on the wall. That symbolizes for me an anti-immigrant stance,” Kalayil said. “The United States is a country of immigrants, and to be fixated on the wall …,” brings up historical issues about that border, Kalayil said.
“For our (Indian community), it only takes something minor to get you out of status,” Kalayil contended. “There are Indians and South Asians in the groups comprising the Undocumented and Dreamers (those brought here as children by parents). I personally know a bright young man who is now out of status,” she said. “I would like to tell my Republican friends that President Trump’s view on immigration is … just flawed. It is Eurocentric, and it does not even acknowledge Native Americans!”
Ohio State Representative Niraj Antani, a Republican has a different point of view. “Obviously, President Trump highlighted border security which is important to our nation,” Antani said. “I am a son of immigrants and illegal immigration is an insult to every sacrifice they made to be here. And most Indians are legal … they stood in line, got green cards …,” Antani said.
Antani added that the President was focused on the economy and it was doing “extremely well” in terms of jobs created and other reforms.
Neha Mahajan, co-founder of Skilled Immigrants in America, who is on an H-4 employment authorization status, told News India Times there is a big gap between what is said at the national level and what transpired for immigrants like her on the ground.
“One of the few takeaways that I have is that the rhetoric that if you come legally and with right documents, America welcomes you. But that is not the case,” Mahajan said. “Agencies are doing everything to tighten regulations and pushing people away. There is a big disconnect between what the President is saying about legal immigration and the ground reality.”
She also latches on the President Trump’s points about a growing economy and high level of employment, and low unemployment, including of women. “If that is the case, then why is the Department of Homeland Security going after EADs,” she questioned, referring to spouses of H-1B visa applicants who have been allowed to work under an Obama administration rule. “Their (DHS, USCIS) whole case is that we are taking away American jobs.” Mahajan claimed that the number of denials and ‘requests for evidence’ in visa processing had “tripled in the last two years.” Considering that this applies to H-1B visa holders, she said, “These are people who have been vetted for so many years – so what is wrong with them now?”
State Rep. Antani, when asked about the visa situation of Indian applicants for skilled worker visas, said, “These problems of H1-B and other visas have been going on for some time, even under other administrations.”
One of the highlights of the day, was U.S. Senator Kamala Harris delivering a prequel to SOTU, in a speech broadcast over social media, to highlight her agenda for the nation, as a candidate for the 2020 race.
Congressman Ro Khanna, D-California, who has called the border wall funding a ‘manufactured crisis’ in the past, appeared on several talk shows to speak about his views on U.S. energy and foreign policy.
Referring to the President’s SOTU, Khanna tweeted, “We need to transcend division and truly reconcile on issues like race, gender, and economic inequality. America can, and will, do better. #SOTU2019”
He has supported the outreach to North Korea saying “Partisan politics shouldn’t get in the way of pursuing progressive foreign policy goals.”
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, who has worked with legislators across the aisle said, “Last night our President used his #SOTU to call for an end to “ridiculous partisan investigations.” That’s not going to happen,” adding, “These investigations are necessary and they will follow the facts where they lead until the American people get the answers the country needs.”
He was referring to President Trump’s remarks, “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Rep. Ami Bera, D-California, who was just appointed chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, will now be wielding considerable influence on what transpires in the House relating to various foreign policy issues. “Our Subcommittee will have broad jurisdiction to conduct oversight into America’s foreign policy. Our goal is to hold government accountable, support the mission of our diplomats, and investigate abuses when they occur,” Bera said in a statement.
Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, who had boycotted last year’s SOTU, came this year with the whole cohort of Democratic women legislators dressed in white in honor of the Suffragettes, noted how climate change had not featured in the President’s speech.
“#SOTU Fact : A border wall won’t keep opioids out of the country. It’s not a national security necessity. Border apprehensions remain near historic lows. BOTH of Trump’s @DHSgov secretaries dismissed the efficacy of a border wall. I could go on and on. Just not correct,” Jayapal said.
“We knew he was going to ignore the crisis of climate change. That’s why I invited a pioneering scientist who has done the research to show that climate change is REAL,” Jayapal tweeted. She, like the other Democratic legislators, has supported giving Dreamers a permanent status, and vehemently opposed the kind of border wall envisioned by President Trump. She has also called for Medicare for all. She tweeted continuously through SOTU, expressing disagreement on numerous issues articulated by the President.