Green Cards and Red Lights: The Problem with Indian American Activism

Trump Country?

With the visible entrenchment of white supremacy in all sectors of U.S. life, Donald Trump and his allies have made many attempts to limit immigration from the Global South and cut opportunities for permanent residency, and eventually citizenship.  One clear example is the unprecedented federal governmental shutdown, which Trump hoped to use to win over $5 billion for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Alongside the sheer lunacy, inhumane consideration of mobility, and racist foundations of this border wall plan, there have been other attacks on immigrants and immigrant America.  The one that I want to consider today concerns the time line for application for green cards (permanent residence).  Trump’s desired changes to H-1B visas would result in an extended timeline for such visa holders to secure their green cards. “At the current rate of issuances in the Employment-Based Second Preference (EB-2) visa program for immigrants with advanced degrees, Indian applicants have to wait 151 years for a green card and permanent residency,” Jessica Kwong reports in Newsweek. Such a move creates a case for the deportation of many highly-skilled visa holders when their term runs out. 

Kwong noted that this policy especially affected South Asian highly-skilled employees, as they make up the largest number of H-1B visa holders.  Furthermore, there was a disproportionate waiting period for those skilled workers from India in comparison to migrants from other countries.  In response, there has been a movement by Indians in the United States calling for a change to these proposed H1-B backlogs. 

I live in New York City, and there have been a few marches and media productions organized by Indian Americans to call attention to this issue.  It is this type of advocacy and its impact that I want to discuss in detail.  What is left out in these actions, and what silences come from this activism? 

For one thing, the incessant stress on “skilled” workers is an interesting and problematic starting point.  Here we see a strategy to legitimate the presence of these workers from India—that they are the best of the best.  Such a strategy does two things simultaneously.  One, it justifies and validates the presence of these Indian workers as the “right” type of immigrant and the rightful heirs to a green card and, possibly, U.S. citizenship.  Two, it calls out subtly those who are not worthy of such entry and rights.  This strategy takes the onus of “foreigner” from the bodies of these skilled workers and puts it on others from different class, caste, educational, ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds. 

Thus, it displaces the realm of the unwanted “foreigner” onto working-class and not highly-skilled people from India and elsewhere.  In fact, Jasbir Puar, in Terrorist Assemblages (2007) and Nayan Shah, in Stranger Intimacy (2012) have illuminated how, in early U.S. history, the racial category of “Hindoo” became a census category and classification system of the U.S. government used to label early farmers, who were mostly Muslims and Sikhs, from the Punjab region of India.  These men were seen as sexually, culturally, religiously, and racially incompatible with U.S. citizenship and its framework of rights. 

While some of these activists use the language of the “American Dream” as a way to usher in quicker assess to Green Cards, what they are doing reflects more of the reality of U.S. history and its racism rather than any dream.  Dreams offer hope for all, not just the elite members of a community.  Just take a quick glance at the words at the bottom of Lady Liberty to make sense of this contradiction:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

To spread the light of liberty world-wide for every land.

United States history betrays this motto, as poor communities from Asia, Latin America, and Africa have been persecuted, deported, chained, enslaved, and forced to live in a racially stratified society.  Lady Liberty only made good on her promises with immigrant communities such as the Irish, Polish, and Italians who were able to work rigorously and partake in anti-black racism and anti-Chinese sentiment, as David Roediger illustrates in Wages of Whiteness (1991) and Working Toward Whiteness (2004), as a means to secure their whiteness.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Alien Land Laws, Barred Zones Act of 1917, anti-miscegenation laws, and a variety of other policies provide insight into the violence white nativists inflicted on the poor, working-class, and queer communities from other shores. 

In fact, only with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act do we see the abolishing of the 1917 “Barred Zones” act that severely curtailed immigrations from Asia.  Yet the 1965 act opened U.S. borders primarily to professionals—not your poor, tired, and wretched—coming from Asia, who were necessary to combat the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. 

This class of professionals coming from India post-1965 deserves closer examination.  The brilliant work of Sonja Thomas, in Privileged Minorities (2018), outlines the connections between caste, religion, class, gender, and race among Syrian Christians in the southern Indian state of Kerala.  Her study of Syrian Christians and their use of “Brahminic” origin stories to distance themselves from the darker (Dravidian) races of India mirrors how we think about immigration and Indian diasporic communities in the United States.  Most of the people who were able to take advantage of this opening in immigration law were those who had financial resources, education, and structural power–which also happened to mostly high-caste, financially well-off migrants from India. 

We must engage with Thomas’s scholarship to understand that Indian diasporas in the United States are already formed through particular class, caste, and racial histories.  Thus, the activism for quick access to Green Cards must be situated in this history, and we can see how these demands might not be a call for justice for all immigrants.  We need to break down the demographics of the Indian community in the U.S. and how the power of the high-caste, upper-class, heterosexual Hindi-speaking Hindu community has come in to stand for all of the Indian and South Asian diasporas.  Without interrogating the discursive power of “Hindu” and “India,” we would then fail to both attend to the heterogeneity within India and fail to account for the lives of those most precarious communities who would benefit from migration—not only the highly-skilled Indians. 

With the increased upper-caste Hindu fundamentalist violence against the Dalits (formerly known by the pejorative “untouchables”), the U.S. is not providing space for the most vulnerable communities in India.  Rather, as Equality Labs’ research on caste in the U.S. shows, Dalit communities are severely underrepresented in relation to high-caste professionals in the United States.  Importantly, the report also gives important evidence of high-caste professional monopolizing South Asian cultural organizations, maintaining control of who could be the voice of South Asian America and caste discrimination in sites such as schools, workplaces, and places of worship.

By depicting high-skilled, upper-class technocrats as victims of an unjust system, such forms of advocacy then fail to address how this type of anti-immigrant process is tied up with other forms of oppression.  Power never operates through a single process or issue.  For one, this narrative does not account for the power of upper-caste Indian professionals and their control of so many sectors of diasporic life.  Additionally, such activism for high-skilled workers ignores the slipperiness and dominance of race.  As the brilliant Lisa Lowe has shown in The Intimacies of Four Continents (2015), race, racism, and racial stratification is multiple, expansive, and contradictory. 

Activists in the Indian diaspora must recognize how efforts to stymie high-skilled workers and control global capital work in concert with the dehumanization of immigrants, refugees, racial minorities, sexual minorities, and religious minorities.  Yes, these oppressions are conncted: the backlog for the Green Card, the removal of children at the U.S.-Mexican border, increasing xenophobia, refugee bans, anti-black violence, death of trans women of color, indigenous dispossession, and the Muslim ban, to name only a few. 

However, Indians congratulated and thanked Donald Trump, over Twitter, for his promise to “encourage talented and highly skilled people to pursue career options in the United States.”  These types of alliances, such as Hindu support for Trump in the United States, also require a forgetting of the various high-skilled Hindu Indian Americans killed by white racists in the last two years.  Such forms of activism ask to sleep with power, instead of dismantling it in a way that makes equality and equity accessible as human rights. 

Furthermore, the focus on Indian highly-skilled workers does nothing to fight against the Muslim ban. After all, India has the second largest population of Muslims in the world.  Furthermore, it cuts short the possibilities for solidarity during these precarious times between Indian Americans and Pakistani Americans and Bangladeshi Americans.  For example, the call for access to Green Cards and increased immigration pathways for highly-skilled workers does not help the migration of folks from Pakistan, who, during my research for Desi Hoop Dreams, talked about the decrease in the number of Pakistani Muslims in Atlanta and their continued detention and deportation. 

Similarly, it fails to account for the long histories of movement and travel between South Asia and West Asia (the area that people in the West typically call the “Middle East”).  In fact, my newest research project is on Kurds in the United States and their historical relationships with India.  During my research, several Kurds aligned themselves with Indians and claimed membership in the Indo-European language family.  

In fact, this is not new.  In the ground-breaking work of Neda Maghbouleh, The Limits of Whiteness (2017), she illustrates how Indians, such as Bhagat Singh Thind in 1923, tried to claim whiteness in the United States through tracing an Aryan history and kinship with Persians.  Kurds from South Kurdistan (the region we term Iraq) encountered genocidal violence and displacement at the hands of Arabs.  As a result, they have used the language of “Aryan” to draw kinship lines with Persians, Afghanis, and Indians and in opposition to Arabs.  However, the Indian diasporic activism for highly-skilled workers is limited by its religious and ethnic base, making links with Kurdish communities in the United States unlikely. 

Some of the Kurds that I have gotten to know, who are key figures in Tennessee and the Kurdish diaspora, are children of illiterate, agrarian refugees.  Their parents were not the high-skilled workers coveted by U.S. empire.  Calling for rights only for the relatively privileged does nothing for our most marginalized and vulnerable populations, both within South Asia and in the globe at large.  With the refugee crisis as the new “normal” in our world, the fight for Green Card access must take place in concert with advocacy for people who are most vulnerable to multiple types of state violence.

What I am calling for is not an end to the pathway from H1-B to green card holders and then citizenship.  Rather, it is a demand for a type of human rights network and mobility that secures lives and livelihood for a wide swath of people.  Sonja Thomas’s important book, Privileged Minorities, shows how caste, religion, and gender are tied up in conceptions of Indian identity with clear racial implications.  Thus, for Indians to advocate for justice in the United States, we need to admit the problematic hierarchies within our own communities, while calling for an expansive concept of racial, gendered, sexual, caste, and class justice.  What this then requires is that we ask more questions rather than providing readymade answers. 

Thus, I leave with a few more questions:

What are ways through which the call for immigrant justice can also be tied with racial justice?

What types of bridges need to happen with beauty salon workers, taxi drivers, kiosk workers, nannies, queer South Asians, domestic workers, and restaurant workers for us to create sustainable South Asian American diasporic communities?

What aspects of our humanity and commitment to social justice are we losing when we fasten our concept of  “rights” to the status and power of  “high-skilled” workers?

Stanley Thangaraj is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the City College of New York.  His monograph, Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (New York University Press, 2016), looks at the ways that young South Asian American men negotiated their place in the racial landscape of the United States and their diasporic identity through basketball masculinity.  He is also the co-author of “Leisure and the Racing of National Populism” in Leisure Studies with Aarti Ratna, Daniel Burdsey, and Erica Rand.  His newest work is on Kurdish communities in Nashville, TN and the northeastern United States. 

4 thoughts

  1. Excellent post, Stan. I always appreciate your brilliant analyses and thoughtful discussions around intersectionality, power, and the racial order. I agree with you fully that we need to critically analyze and reflect on how discourses on workers’ rights in the U.S. are classed, gendered, and racialized. You’re right that many racialized bodies are inherently devalued in our communities and White-dominated society when immigrants with more discretionary time, resources, and social capital are centered in these conversations. I also think a both/and framework could be helpful, as even affluent im/migrants of color experience various undesirable types of racialization that leads to many disproportionate outcomes as they’re coming to realize in the current political climate. My hope is these affluent activists will forge solidarities to also support and uplift other racialized workers who struggle to be legitimized.

  2. Stan, thank you for such a thought provoking article. I believe that immigrant rights is very tied to social justice. Through the recent executive orders, we’ve mostly banned the non-white, non-Christian, immigrants of color from the US. Our current immigration system is racially and economically unjust, it is not comparable to our time, our Nation’s values, or the statements of Lady Liberty.

  3. As always, Dr. Thangaraj provides nuanced analysis of how our current toxic political moment is fraught with xenophobia and white supremacy. Thank you for bringing to light that even in our communities, we must always be cognizant of our complicity.

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