Indian-Americans have mixed feeling about the incoming administration of President Donald Trump
Indian-Americans welcomed the dawn of a Donald Trump era much like the rest of the country – with feelings of excitement, trepidation and outright cynicism, based on their ideological bent.
President Trump’s speech, despite including calls for unity, did little to bridge the political divide. One long-time Democratic activist said he did not even listen to it, and his reaction, while extreme, reflects the continued despondent mood among the 70 percent of Indian-Americans who are Democrats; Indian-American Republicans on the other hand, were elated despite the calls for protectionism, the president’s call for “Buy American, Hire American.” They are certain it would not affect trade relations with India negatively.
The president’s call for unity among all people in America may not have gone far enough to assuage the fears of others, when he said, “whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag.”
“Did not hear it,” was the cryptic reaction about the Trump inaugural address from Shekar Narasimhan, a businessman, Democratic activist and former member of the Democratic National Committee who worked to get out the vote for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Narasimhan did listen to President Obama’s last press conference where the outgoing president said there would come a day when America would have “a woman president, a Latino president, a Jewish president, a Hindu president.’’
Ohio State Rep. Niraj Antani sent a statement from the Washington Mall, saying he was “very impressed” with the inaugural address. “He spoke about mentoring American exceptionalism and helping every American, the same things he did on the campaign trail.”
Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times and recipient of India’s Padma Shri award, was also at the inauguration. It was a “populist” speech that he liked he said. “I would not read it as negative for India. There might be more trade deals with India with the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership) out of the way,” Dr. Parikh surmised.
Sampat Shivangi, president of the Indian-American Forum for Political Education, who traveled from Mississippi to attend the inauguration, believes Trump is “not discarding the world and was inclusive.” While the “Hire American” promise from Trump may hamper some Indians coming on H-1B, “I do not think he will be unjust to Indians.”
Puneet Ahluwalia, a Republican activist who played a role during the Trump transition, for outreach to Asian Americans, saw it as a positive and optimistic speech. “It was about creating jobs inside the country, with a message to people to get off welfare, and saying if you are brown, black or white, we all breathe the same air,” Ahluwalia said. As for H-1B, he said Indian and American companies will have to start finding complementary areas for creating jobs in both countries.
“As a proud American, I have nothing to celebrate in this inauguration,” Narasimhan said. “We just put in office the most divisive and insult-prone leader that could ever have been imagined. This represents my family’s views, our values and that of a majority of Americans,” he asserted
His litany of complaints against what a Trump administration would look like included “tax cuts for the rich, deficits rising, and lurching from crisis to crisis, most of their own making.”
Alternate realities continue to co-exist among Indian-Americans. One sees doom, gloom and dire consequences while another bright and shining lights of a glorious America. Trump supporters are scathing in their criticism of the Obama presidency, while opponents are equally scathing about the man sworn-in Jan. 20 to the Oval Office. There appear to be few grey areas of give and take.
Eight years ago, “hope and change” were the words that accompanied President Barack Obama to the White House. Now, several Indian-Americans interviewed for this article called Trump the “Change President” riding in on the slogan “Making America Great Again,” a premise vehemently questioned by opponents.
Antani concluded that Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a president from the same party would bring in that change. “And people looking for change will see it in the first hundred says,” Antani, a Republican, predicted. That included regulatory reform that was business-friendly rather than the “job-killing policies” of outgoing President Obama. “A lot of Ohioans are disenchanted with Washington, but President Trump’s inaugural address sought to restore their hope for our country,” Antani said.
“Overtime rules are just killing the motel industry,” where Indian-Americans dominate, he noted. Obamacare had “severely affected” Indian-American physicians. But things will be a “lot different” now.
Antani’s litany of complaints included foreign policy and immigration.
“President Obama had a failed policy toward India – what did he do to make things better? I don’t see anything, “said Antani. He credited the U.S.-India civil nuclear cooperation deal to the George W. Bush administration, and accused Obama of continuing friendly relations with “enemies of India,” like Pakistan and China.
“Under a Trump administration it will be different,” he was sure.
Ahluwalia said he was “optimistic and excited” to see Trump unveiling his agenda on economic growth, a strong international presence, fighting ISIS, and being a stable force in the Middle East and South Asia in partnership with India. “We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones – and unite the civilized world against Radical Islamic Terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth,” Trump declared in the opening speech of his administration.
“So far what I’ve seen is the caliber of the high-level people, especially generals, to fight ISIS, a top national security issue; those who will fix the “Big Government” of Obama and make it “for the people”,” Ahluwalia said. He praised Vice President Mike Pence for “interpreting” Trump’s agenda of growing jobs, building a border wall with Mexico, and changing Obamacare.
Antani spoke out strongly on issues of undocumented immigration. “I want robust legal immigration, and illegal immigration has to be cracked down upon,” he said, agreeing with one of Trump’s top agenda items.
“It is an insult to my parents, all my uncles, my whole extended family which came here legally,” Antani said.
“The door has to be open to legal immigration and the system needs fixing,” said Ahluwalia, emphasizing that family unification should be speeded up.
“Right now expectations are so low (from Trump), that whatever he will do, he will look good,” said Dr. Parikh. “He is like a populist leader. He will deliver quite a bit,” Dr. Parikh predicted, for example, tightening immigration, reducing corporate tax and personal income tax, and getting rid of the estate tax, steps that will boost the stock market and the economy. But Trump must tread carefully on foreign relations. “For example, he cannot disturb NATO, or move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It will disrupt talks between the parties to the conflict,” Parikh said. Relations with India however, will be “much better” with more trade deals, he believed. President Trump will change once he is running the country, “I’m sure, because he has good advisers,” Parikh predicted.
Swati, who wanted just her first name used, is an Independent, but right now, feels “kind of lost” and nursing “a sense of fatalism.”
On the economy, she sees Trump riding on the coat tails of Obama’s success in getting the country out of the worst recession since the Depression, she said.
“As an Indian-American, healthcare is a big thing for me. I don’t see why America as a leading country, cannot provide citizens with healthcare,” Swati said, accusing the healthcare industry of holding the system hostage. While it will not affect her personally, she is worried that repealing Obamacare would affect those around her.
Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Silicon Valley, a former technology entrepreneur, columnist and author of books on skilled labor and the growth of the technology industry, indicated Trump had been changing his position on issues. “Now I see a lot of pragmatism from him,” Wadhwa said. But Trump’s economic plan he contended, will “make the rich richer,” and not do well by those who supported and elected him. “Hillary Clinton was criticized for being in Wall Street’s pockets, but Trump’s cabinet is basically like handing over to Goldman Sachs,” said Wadhwa who had taken the middle-ground until recently. “I would rather pay more taxes so that everyone can have healthcare,” he said on Trumps plans to cut corporate and property taxes.
But Trump’s views on the H-1B visa, Wadhwa said, were sensible. “Trump says give the visas to those companies who give highest salaries and not those who play the system,” he said. “I support him on that and I like what I’m hearing on the skills front.”
Like most of the Indian-Americans interviewed, Wadhwa also believes the “legal” immigration system needs to be fixed. Some 4 million people are stuck in he calls an “immigration limbo” more than half a million of them doctors, scientists, researchers, and engineers on temporary work visas waiting for permanent residence. “Some are stuck for 15 to 20 years waiting for green cards and can’t go back, can’t buy homes. But I don’t know where Trump is on that issue,” Wadhwa said.
Democrat Narasimhan differs from Wadhwa on H-1B which he says will have restrictions placed on it or possibly, eliminated. On the undocumented immigrants front, he sees “deportations (which would include the 500,000 Indians who are here undocumented), and an expensive border wall.”
As Democrats nurse their wounds however, they will not be sitting moping. During the Trump administration, Narasimhan predicts a groundswell of organizing from the grassroots-up in all 50 states, supporting progressive candidates and focusing on addressing income inequality and gaps in education and job skills. Some of these strategies were used by the Tea Party to grow in strength.
Narasimhan is however, willing to give Trump a chance. “Actions speak louder than words but he does love to talk so we need to see what he (and) the Republican Congress actually do.”
Some Indian lawmakers in Congress are ready to work with Republicans. “This morning I heard him (Trump) talk about making health care accessible for everyone — you’ll find people willing to work with him,” Rep. Ami Bera, D-California, told KCRA, a Sacramento television news channel, Jan. 15. Two other areas Bera saw possible cooperation with Trump were lowering drug prices and manufacturing cars in America.
As for immigration restrictions and talk of a wall, Swati said laws are already on the books to prevent illegal immigration. They just need to be enforced. “And Trump’s behavior towards women, which has been documented, is just … not nice,” Swati concluded.