Opinion

An Indian immigrant’s fight for US citizenship in 1923 holds lessons in Trump’s America

Immigrants must come together to defeat a broken immigration system and laws that pit them against each other.

Ninety five years ago in February, the United States Supreme Court delivered a crushing blow to Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind by declaring that he was racially ineligible to become a naturalised citizen of the country. It did not matter to the court that after his arrival in Oregon from India in 1913, Thind had worked in lumber mills, paid his way through Berkeley, and enlisted in the United States Army. The court found that Thind did not meet the legal criteria for naturalisation, which required applicants to be “free white persons” or of African descent or nativity.

At the time of Thind’s request for naturalisation, American politicians and media were peddling nativist and racist narratives about non-white immigrants. Indian immigrants who came to the West Coast to till farms and work in lumber mills found that they were prohibited from owning land or becoming citizens. Migrant labourers feared the wrath of Asian Exclusion Leagues that threatened to run them out of town – once the work season was completed, of course.

Perhaps because of this political context, Thind chose to frame his arguments for naturalisation through a particular racial lens. In his brief to the US Supreme Court, he identified himself as “… a high caste Hindu of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab, India”. He argued that since he came from “… the original home of the Aryan conquerers…, it must be held that [he] belongs to the Caucasian or white race”.

In relying on arguments based in caste, bloodline and colour, Thind did not challenge the racial prerequisite of whiteness for naturalisation as the unconstitutional, discriminatory and morally abhorrent qualification we now know it to be. Nor did he choose to align himself with persons of African descent who were eligible for naturalisation. A nuanced historic understanding of the desperate political circumstances that Thind and other Asian immigrants faced in the 1920s may provide some balance to the legitimate critiques we can make today about his reliance on caste and colour arguments, his choice to identify as white rather than black or African, and his decision not to question the racial premise behind naturalisation laws. Thind made these choices at a time when there was no immigrant rights movement, no thoughtful analyses around racial dynamics, and no positive representations of immigrants in popular culture or media.

Divide and conquer

However, today, we are in a different place. Yes, inhumane immigration laws and xenophobic narratives persist in this country. And yes, Indian immigrants of all immigration statuses face devastating barriers to work, live, and be united with family members because of the broken immigration system. Despite these conditions, we must come together to unify our stories and experiences and to build solidarity with immigrants of all backgrounds and statuses.

Consider the stories of two young Indian Americans, Shynitha Pulluri and Bupen Ram. Pulluri, a high school student in Maine, has an H-4 visa tied to an H-1B visa-holder parent. American companies bring employees to America on H-1B visas, and then sponsor them for green cards; their spouses and minor children receive H-4 visas to live in the United States. Pulluri aspires to be a cardiologist. Her prospects of studying and staying in the United States depend on whether she can convert her dependent visa to a green card through her H-1B parent. But the bureaucratic backlog in processing green cards is at an all-time high, upwards of 70 years. If her H-1B parent has not received a green card by the time Pulluri turns 21, she will age out and lose her dependent status.

Ram is a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient. An Indian born in Fiji, he and his family came to America to flee a political coup. His family paid $10,000 to get green cards. When they got to California, they learned the deal was a hoax. Ram’s adolescence was marked by fear that his undocumented status would become public. Ram, who works on diversity and inclusion issues, is one of 700,000 Dreamers – as recipients of this policy are called – whose status will expire if Congress does not take immediate action. Each day, about 122 Dreamers lose their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection. Among them are 3,182 Indian and 1,685 Pakistani Dreamers.

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and supporters outside Disneyland in Anaheim, California. (Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients and supporters outside Disneyland in Anaheim, California. (Credit: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

Both Pulluri and Ram receive our support. But, some Indian Americans and politicians are choosing one of these remarkable young people over the other and dividing already marginalised communities. Recently, groups like the Republican Hindu Coalition and Immigration Voice have been manipulating the age-old divisive narrative of “good versus bad immigrants” and wielding the rhetoric of immigrant exceptionalism to signal that H-4 visa-holders like Pulluri are more deserving of immigration benefits than Dreamers like Ram. At a rally this month, Republican Hindu Coalition members used language like “highly-skilled”, “educated”, “legal” to create divisions between immigrants. Executive member Shiva Moopanar told India West: “These are children of highly-skilled parents who have paid taxes and contributed to this country. They should be given a priority for green cards and citizenship.”

The implicit argument here is that people who are not skilled or educated at particular levels should receive fewer options or benefits. But, these narratives only replicate hierarchical structures that rely upon caste and class to maintain the power of an elite group of people. As Dalit American activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan compellingly writes: “Skill is a casteist and classist dog whistle that helps to create categories of ‘good educated’ immigrants against ‘bad’ immigrants that are undocumented and/or in working class jobs.” We should also remember that many of us have families with people who have mixed immigration statuses. Who among us would be able to choose between our H-1B or undocumented family members and say one is more deserving than the other? Instead of using divisive narratives as prerequisites for policy choices, let us dismantle them altogether and remember that all immigrants are equally deserving of fair and humane treatment, regardless of their status.

We must also be careful not to secure our own survival at the cost of alienating other immigrant communities. Consider the proposal making its rounds through Congress to impose green card processing fees that can provide the funds to build the bricks of President Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border. The Fresno Bee quotes Leon Fresco, an attorney for Immigration Voice, expressing enthusiastic support for such an idea, saying: “[T]he Indian high-skilled workers will gladly, enthusiastically and happily pay for the wall if given an opportunity to do so in order to get fair treatment on green card waiting times.” In a letter to their House of Representatives colleagues, Republican Kevin Yoder and Democrat Tulsi Gabbard make a case for this trade-off by writing: “These critical funds can be used to enhance the likelihood of passage of a DACA deal, by either enabling Congress to pay for border security or other items…” Such a compromise reflects an utter disregard for the perspectives of Latinx, Asian and black immigrants who oppose the wall, as well as those who live in militarised border towns and have endured loss of life, environmental degradation, and family separations.

A Republican Hindu Coalition rally in support of Donald Trump’s proposal for a “merit-based” immigration system in the United States. (Credit: YouTube)
A Republican Hindu Coalition rally in support of Donald Trump’s proposal for a “merit-based” immigration system in the United States. (Credit: YouTube)

Trump tactics

Such policy machinations and divisive rhetoric only perpetuate the hostile and divisive political climate being fostered by Trump and the Republican Party. Trump’s remarks about shithole countries echo early 20th-century descriptions of Asian immigrants as the brown horde and the yellow peril coming to take American jobs, terrorise American residents, and dilute American neighbourhoods and schools with their undesirable customs and faiths. The Trump administration’s push for a merit-based immigration system to bring in the “best and the brightest” – the ideal immigrants who will become America’s model minorities – seeks to pit brown and black immigrants against each other.

Let us also be clear that the Trump administration has no special love for Indian immigrants who fall in the “skilled labour” category. Last year, it considered a proposal under the “Buy American, Hire American” plan that would have eliminated the ability to extend H-1B visa status, potentially leading to deportations. Currently, the administration is weighing a regulation to get rid of the ability of spouses of H-1B visa holders to work in this country, another attempt to take economic independence away from immigrant women, and rehauling the family immigration system that many South Asian immigrants have relied upon to build lives in the United States.

Additionally, Trump’s no-tolerance policy on immigrants has led to the detention and deportation of people in Indian American and South Asian communities. Indian American immigrant rights activist Ravi Ragbir was detained for 18 days; Rojina Akter, a Bangladeshi American mother of three in New Jersey, faces potential deportation; and Sikh American Baljinder Singh was denaturalised through Operation Janus, which is apparently targeting South Asians in its current iteration. Clearly, there is no love lost between the Trump administration and South Asian immigrants in the United States, regardless of immigration status, skill level, or educational achievement. We must realise that in this political climate, none of us has an invisibility cloak to keep us safe and protected. That is why we must bond together, not create further divisions within our own communities.

Communities of colour have always been asked to turn on the most marginalised in order to secure the survival of some. We are told that things are so scarce, bleak and desperate that there are no other options. Risking our futures on the ideals of equality and solidarity and linking ourselves with black immigrants facing the end of the temporary protected status or refugees navigating the Muslim ban is a sure-fail approach, we are led to believe. After all, divide and conquer is the go-to tool used to advance white supremacy, imperialism, and nativism. In this moment, if we take up this weapon and pit our own people against each other, we become allies of the Trump administration’s dangerous anti-immigrant agenda that threatens all of us not just now but for decades to come.

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Solidarity and support

Instead, let us stand with both Shynitha Pulluri and Bupen Ram. Let us start by laying blame at the foot of the US’s racist immigration system, rather than targeting an H-4 visa holder or a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient for individual choices they may have made out of desperation, a lack of knowledge, unscrupulous traffickers, or holes in immigration laws. Let us envision inclusive and equitable policy solutions that do not capitalise upon and manipulate fissures within and across immigrant communities. The Dreamers themselves offer a model for solidarity practice in their demand that they will not accept a policy solution for themselves if it leads to greater enforcement and family separation. Let us be clear with policymakers that immigrant communities cannot be blackmailed, carved apart or pitted against each other at any cost.

We must also do more work to build bridges within Indian immigrant communities. Those of us who have citizenship, caste, and class privileges must disrupt the “good versus bad immigrant” and model minority narratives that still hold sway within our own families and networks of uncles and aunties. We must lovingly and firmly interrogate our families, faith institutions, non-profits, and professional associations about where they stand. We can do this by sharing stories and narratives about South Asian immigration experiences to identify similarities, by making collective public statements of solidarity, by learning more about the troubled histories of immigration laws and narratives, by holding accountable the organisations that express viewpoints and stances on our behalf that differ from our own values, and by showing our support for Latinx and black immigrants.

In the 95 years since the Thind decision, our collective understanding of racial identity, oppression, and solidarity has been transformed, in large part due to various peoples’ movements of the past and present. We understand that climbing the racial ladder and pursuing the illusory safety of whiteness will never innoculate us from bigotry and hate violence. We know that selling out and disadvantaging segments of our own communities and other immigrants will sidetrack us from obtaining equity and fair treatment for everyone. And we can rely upon the analyses, stories, organisations, movements, and resources we have developed over the many decades since the Thind decision to resist efforts that pit our communities against each other. We can lean on the strength and power in the unifying stories, experiences, and numbers of communities of colour and immigrants.

It is possible for us to be a country where Pulluri and Ram, and so many others like them, can both survive and thrive. This is how we can honour and learn from the legacy of Bhagat Singh Thind and his fight for equality in the country he cherished so much.

Deepa Iyer is the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, a fellow at Race Forward, and the host of the Solidarity Is This podcast. Her Twitter handle is @dviyer

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