History Repeats Itself: South Asians Once Again Not Welcome In The U.S.

The message is loud and clear:  South Asians not welcome here.  

One week ago, President Trump signed an executive order that authorizes changes to the H-1B visa program and requires the federal government to conduct a thorough review of the program and its supposed abuses.  Modifications, large and small, to the H-1B visa program will impact immigrants from across the globe seeking to work at U.S. hospitals and research facilities, universities as well as Fortune 500 companies in the technical sector.  But, they will disproportionately impact South Asians seeking to immigrate to the U.S. as more than seventy percent of the 85,000 H-1B visas issued every year go to individuals from India and Pakistan, according to 2013 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services report.  More recent analysis from Computerworld of 2014 data indicates the percentage could be as high as 86%.

The issuance of the executive order comes less than two months after the February 22nd killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla and the shooting of Alok Madasani in Olathe, Kansas, the March 2nd homicide of Harnish Patel outside his home in Lancaster, South Carolina and the March 3rd shooting of Deep Rai in Kent, Washington.  All four victims were South Asian and both the Olathe and Kent incidents involved shooters yelling “Go back to your country,” as they aimed their guns at the victims.

We’ve been here before. In 1907, 200 South Asian lumber mill workers were severely beaten, robbed and ultimately driven out by a mob of 500 White residents in Bellingham, Washington.   Most of the attackers belonged to the Asiatic Exclusion League which held that the United States was a “white man’s country” and claimed that such immigrants prevented White men from owning homes and achieving a middle-class life.  It sought to oppose any immigrant labor from South Asia as well as China, Japan and Korea.  Members of the league got their wish when in 1917 Congress overwhelmingly passed the Immigration Act that banned entry into the United States of “alcoholics,” “criminals and convicts” and individuals from India, as well as those from Afghanistan, Malaysia and Central Asia.  In a significant turn toward nativism, the law served to address perceived threats to the American cultural identity and concerns about jobs going to non-native workers.  Much like the Chinese Exclusion Act dealt with the supposed “yellow peril,” the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, as the 1917 law was also known, took care of the alleged “Hindu menace.” The ban against Indians remained in place for almost thirty years until the Luce-Celler Act in 1946 allowed only one hundred South Asian immigrants to enter the United States every year.  A substantial number of South Asian immigrants was not permitted in the U.S. until 1965, almost fifty years after the complete exclusion.

While signing the order on Tuesday, April 18, President Trump stated that he wanted to “restore the American dream” and “end the theft of American prosperity.”  Members of the Kenosha, Wisconsin audience donned the “Make America Great Again” hats in apparent support for Trump’s “buy American, hire American” plan.

Efforts to alter the H-1B program by President Trump signal the first step in a dramatic shift to recent American immigration policy, one that harkens back to 1917 and the policy to prevent South Asian immigration.  The policy change appears to be in line with xenophobic views toward the H-1B program espoused by the president’s chief strategist and former Breitbart News executive chairman Steve Bannon, who suggested that there were too many individuals of South Asian or Asian descent in Silicon Valley in a November 2015 radio interview with Trump.  Like the comment, articles in Breitbart such as the April 22, 2016 piece entitled “Intel Lays Off 12,000 After Seeking to Import 14,523 Foreign Professionals in 2010” echo the rhetoric of the Asiatic Exclusion League of the early 1900s and its racist views toward South Asians.

We’ve been here before, but we can choose a different path moving forward.  2017 need not repeat the mistakes of 1907 and 1917.  As a nation, we can decide instead that we will not allow racism to prevent us from inviting into our country individuals who seek to treat our sick, teach in our universities and develop new software to run our computers as well as those who work in our lumber mills, drive our taxicabs and staff our convenient stores.  We can forego proposed xenophobic policies to ban Indian and Pakistani immigrants and other H-1B visa holders as we seek real solutions to improve the employment opportunities and overall economic prospects of all Americans.  And we can say, “South Asians are welcome here.”