If you have been an Indian student or employee in the United States, you’ve probably had at least one uncomfortable encounter with a US immigration officer. The struggles, and even humiliations, people undergo to get visas, green cards and citizenship become bruises we quickly cover up in our effort to claim the status of lawful and happy immigrants. And since many of our US-born colleagues and friends don’t understand what’s involved in emigrating, we keep our bruises private.
I’ll share two short, unremarkable stories, typical for a middle-class Indian. In 1992, when I was accepted to a university in the US from India, getting my student visa felt almost as difficult as getting the graduate school offer. It started with the train ride from Bengaluru to Chennai, where the US consulate, one of three in the country then, was located. I spent the overnight journey outside the toilet area in the train coach, because there were no reserved seats available at short notice. In Chennai, I joined a line at the consulate that by 6 am stretched several blocks around the building. There was no guarantee that I would reach the desk before the office cut off interviews for the day. And there was no guarantee that the admission offer, Graduate Record Examination scores, and dummy airline ticket would matter at the interview. A lot rested on whether I could prove that my father’s life savings would prevent me from ending up destitute in the United States. Rumours circulated in the line that applicants with no siblings had got a visa more easily because they were more likely to return. (I was not an only child.) While in line, I also discovered that my money for the fee, a tidy sum, had been stolen en route. I sought, and luckily got, the help of others around me to make the payment. I did end up getting my student visa – but I almost did not.
Fast forward 14 years. After a long wait, I became eligible for citizenship. Like others, I had to take a test that meant studying one hundred facts about US civics. Even as an instructor of college courses on US politics, I found many questions on the list arcane, and marvelled at how applicants with less education could answer them. After passing the oral test, I was asked by the officer to write down the response to his question: “What is your name?” It was a test of language proficiency. When I finished, he chastised me for not including a period (full stop) at the end of my name, “because it was a sentence”. At that point, I had been teaching college students for 10 years.
The immigrant experience
These are the memories that flashed before me on Friday when I learned of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning refugees and travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen). My own struggles had been far from dramatic. But they connected me to those who, on a much more harrowing scale, had suddenly found their efforts to gain legal status nullified. In addition to fearing for their lives and surviving horrific conflict, as many refugees had, they had each also worked hard to get their visas – as refugees, students, H-1B workers, or as permanent residents.
Refugees often undergo vetting for two years, with multiple interviews and background checks. Green card holders have to prove they are preferable to US candidates who could apply for their jobs. Student visa holders have cleared academic and financial hurdles to get permission to enter the country. H-1B visa holders have met skill requirements and also often survived a lottery. These challenges are what most immigrants have in common with those who have just been banned from entering the US. Each of us has spent years waiting, or standing in long lines, or dealing with arrogant interviewers.
Friday’s executive order is deeply cruel to those seeking refuge. It slams the door on desperately grasping hands. It is also, on a secondary but important level, an insult to everyone who has tried to emigrate to the US. In one stroke, it deems as trivial the challenges we’ve experienced – in my case, they were minor, but in many cases of those barred, they are much starker. Many immigrants have already had to undergo extreme vetting just to be able to get to the United States. The White House is treating their vetting as if it never happened.
Not all Indian immigrants here share an empathy for those barred, though. Some, such as members of the Hindu Republican Coalition, declared their support for Trump’s measure on Monday, calling for its expansion to cover travelers from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Others, such as Hindus for Justice, have declared solidarity with all those affected by the ban. The coalition of South Asian activists called Desis Rising Up and Moving was at the forefront of protests at JFK airport in New York City on Saturday. Indians in the technology sector, which relies heavily on immigrant labour, are also beginning to express opposition to the executive order. The chief executive officers of Google and Microsoft, Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, spoke out against it. (Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, joined protestors at San Francisco airport this weekend.)
Given Trump’s threat to limit H-1B visas in favour of American workers and a bill currently in Congress to reform the H-1B rules (which sent Indian technology stocks into a nosedive on Tuesday), this is a good time for Indian immigrants to consider their connections with other immigrant groups. We have shared struggles, and we also now share vulnerability.
Ashwini Tambe is Associate Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland-College Park.