“If they’re illegal, they don’t deserve to stay.”
My mouth dropped as I heard these words from one of my relatives, an immigrant himself.
My family emigrated to the United States from India about 30 years ago. They were fortunate enough to have been able to stay.
Over the past couple of weeks, the fault lines in the American immigration system have begun to show themselves. The Trump administration’s fickle policies have been of concern to international students, many from South Asian countries. One week, they’re banned from entry into the U.S. without enrollment in a live class, and the next they’re allowed again.
As my relative and I kept arguing, I realized the flaw in his thinking.
He viewed immigration as a meritocracy. He worked meticulously, and he was rewarded with a visa. Those who didn’t get a visa simply didn’t try hard enough.
The reality of legal Indian immigration is more complicated than my family member suggested, mired in government regulation. Immigration policy has allowed the state to use and exploit Indian immigrants by capitalizing on the community’s financial success but restricting future entries into this country. Today, Indians are the quickest growing undocumented population in the U.S. Between 2009 and 2014, there was a 43% jump in the number of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. from India.
It’s a miscalculation of economics. Studies show that immigrants grow the economy, but are still being turned away. In order to address this issue, there must be a shift in American policymaking.
In the latter half of the 1900s, a series of immigration policies opened the doors for more immigrants to enter and stay in the U.S., owing fully to the history of the civil rights movement. After the decades-long fight of black activists, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were passed. During this period, there was mounting political pressure to abolish racial quotas and discriminatory policies in the U.S. federal system.
This long-standing work culminated in the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which abolished exclusions based on national origin. Following this, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1990 expanded visas for skilled workers, focusing on boosting immigrants with technical talent. Technology companies voraciously hired Indian workers, who had the requisite education and were cheaper than hiring locally. South Asian immigrants were able to get access to U.S. visas due to the historical organizing by our black brothers and sisters.
Today, Indian-Americans are viewed as the “model minority.” This label affixed to Asian immigrants is born out of deeply anti-black sentiment. In lauding the “model minority,” the white establishment has created divisions among racial groups. Insidious parallels have been drawn between Asian immigrants and black folks in this country. Being the “model minority” implies that other minority groups have to follow suit, despite their systematic oppression and the lasting impacts of slavery. Indian Americans have reaped benefits at the expense of black folks.
Our struggle should be viewed as a collective one, in solidarity with other groups of color rather than against them.
While there is collective anger for the policies against international students, little is being discussed with regards to ICE’s human rights abuses. Migrant children are separated from their parents at the border. Immigrants are viewed as disposable because of their status.
President Trump has now spun a narrative that immigrants harm the economy by stealing American jobs. The praises that Indian immigrants once received have now soured, mired by collectively mobilized hatred, stemming from misguided economic calculus. We are left in a grey area: Trump poses for pictures with Prime Minister Modi for Indian-American campaign donations while simultaneously denying entry for families of those same, coveted donors.
While America has capitalized on the financial success of this group, there are over 300,000 Indians still waiting for family-sponsored green cards. Today, it is much tougher for a highly educated Indian person to obtain an H1-B visa to move to the U.S. If my family wanted to leave India today, they probably wouldn’t be able to make it.
Immigrants should no longer be viewed as use-and-throw seals in the leaking pipe of the American economy. Policy should not just favor immigrants when there is a gap in our labor force since there are more economic benefits to immigrants than just industry-specific work.
The solution might answer my relative’s insensitive questions. We must make legal immigration easier for those seeking a better life in America. It is imperative to increase ceilings on visas to incorporate more than merely corporate-sponsored candidates.
The key to this solution is consistency. Immigration quotas should not fluctuate drastically. We must welcome immigrants instead of adopting policies that disenfranchise them.
While it might be easy to buy into rhetoric that immigrants take away from the opportunities of Americans, it is important to recognize that there is no roof on economic advancement. Immigrants, through entrepreneurship and population growth, actually create opportunity for all Americans. We cannot let powerful language guide bad policy.
It’s our duty to understand why folks of color have made America great. It’s time to be open, with our minds and our borders.
Swathi Ramprasad is a junior at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.