It was a sight few New Yorkers could have imagined but there it was on the night of November 8 – the huge, glowering face of Donald Trump illuminated in lights across the Empire State Building as the new President-elect of the United States. Half of the country has been walking around since that day in a surreal nightmare. The ones in deepest despair include the millions of illegal immigrants whom Trump had vowed in his vitriolic election campaign to deport. For these hidden shadow people, life is suddenly harder as a harsh searchlight is turned on them.
“People without immigration status are particularly concerned about the policies of the new administration, given the campaign rhetoric and 100-day plan articulated by Mr. Trump,” said Deepa Iyer, Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, and author of We too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. “They fear detention, deportation and separation from their loved ones in the US. This is also an issue affecting South Asian Americans.”
It does, indeed. Indians are the fastest growing undocumented population in the US, increasing by 43% between 2009 and 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. And though it is not clear what policies might affect the people here on legal immigrant visas, the xenophobia stoked by Trump will have a bearing on them too. There are also many mixed immigration status families – so what affects undocumented people could well affect their family members who might be citizens or legal residents.
“It’s my hope that South Asians will not retreat into a bubble of ‘this doesn’t affect me’ if they see proposals that target undocumented people or Muslims,” said Iyer, an attorney who has worked on civil and immigrant rights issues for 15 years. “This is the time to practice empathy and activism.”
There is panic and tears, especially amongst the young who fear what tomorrow might bring.
President Barack Obama had introduced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which gave undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children work authorisation and protection from deportation. Would this be dismembered, and would families be torn apart? Trump has shown such animosity towards almost every group – Mexicans, gays, the disabled, illegal immigrants, Muslims, women – is anyone safe? What about Roe vs. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court verdict on abortion? What about healthcare? There is a fear that long-cherished and hard-won rights could disappear.
Annetta Seecharran is the executive director of Chhaya CDC, a social service organisation for South Asian immigrants, and has been a social justice activist for 20 years. There are countless stories of intimidation after Donald Trump’s victory, and she shared a small, personal one. Her elderly mother and three-year-old daughter were accosted by a woman with a fierce dog who told them: “You’re afraid of the dog? We are afraid of you – go back to your country!”
“There was always a hostile climate against folks who look like us, but now there’s a more hateful rhetoric and [this] is the outcome of this election which has somehow emboldened them and licensed them to act out their biases without consequences,” said Seecharran, while recalling the atmosphere of unease and fear after 9/11, when Muslims were being detained. “The hate crimes have increased – this is not a myth. What we are seeing is a lot of fear about what’s going to happen. There’s also the threat of deportation. It’s a human rights issue, the fear that some crazy policy will completely change their lives.”
Chhaya is a certified agency which helps low-income people like nannies and restaurant workers get housing and there is a concern that this much-needed programme may disappear. Seecharran said, “We also have citizenship workshops and many who attend are really anxious to get an earlier appointment before things change. The concern is that there will be real policy changes on immigration, on DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. There is no hope for comprehensive immigration reform now. Even if you’re here with a green card, if you commit a crime, you can still be deported. You are vulnerable.”
So volatile is the climate that in some quarters there is fear even among those who are here legally or are in the final steps of becoming legal immigrants. Can things change at the whim of a presidential veto? Why would an employer want to take trouble with visas?
Suneeta Dewan, an immigration lawyer in Manhattan, predicts things will get more complicated. “The ones who will really suffer, unfortunately, are the ones who are undocumented. For legal immigrants there will be tighter regulations and greater enforcements. They may also push companies to hire US workers and in order to do that, they may introduce a step or two before an H1B [visa] can be filed.” Since there is a definite shortage of skilled workers, she says, there will be a continued demand for H1B workers. The one thing that may happen is workers from certain countries that are perceived as exporters of terrorism – such as Pakistan, Syria and Libya – may be impacted.
However, whether one is a legal or illegal immigrant is moot when you are attacked by racists. That is why activists and community organisers are trying to be a voice of comfort and support for the community, says Seecharran. A massive town hall meeting is being planned in partnership with the Latino community, and the police are being invited to build alliances and play a constructive role in safeguarding immigrants.
Rohi Mirza Pandya, a young New York professional and mother, had this to share: “I was at a South Asian Town Hall meeting last night and we were all saying that we felt scared by just being brown… walking down the street is now a weird feeling, especially if we are going down unfamiliar isolated streets…we don’t know if someone is friendly or might just randomly attack us because of the color of our skin.”
The silver lining in a very dark scenario is the resilience of the people – they still protest and march peacefully. Several South Asian groups have organised to face the new challenges. Many South Asian women are part of Pantsuit Nation, a Facebook group with over 3.5 million members who share their angst and activism. A huge women’s march is planned for Washington DC on the day after Trump’s inauguration, and many South Asians are taking part in this.
California’s new Senator Kamala Harris, who is the first Indian-American to be elected a senator, is also taking on the immigration fight with Donald Trump. Earlier California’s Attorney-General, she has said, “Demagoguing or outright attacking communities of color is not a real plan – it is a recipe for disaster.”
For immigrants in New York, there is a particular comfort in being in the multicultural capital of America under the glow of Lady Liberty’s lamp. The city and state government have expressed support for all immigrants. “If anyone feels that they are under attack, I want them to know that the state of New York – the state that has the Statue of Liberty in its harbor – is their refuge,” wrote NY Governor Andrew Cuomo in an open letter to all New Yorkers: “Whether you are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, black or white or brown, we respect all people in the state of New York.
“It’s the very core of what we believe and who we are. But it’s not just what we say, we passed laws that reflect it, and we will continue to do so, no matter what happens nationally. We won’t allow a federal government that attacks immigrants to do so in our state.”