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Why Arizona’s Immigration Law Matters to Indian Americans, Too

Posted: Jul 12, 2012

When the United States Supreme Court ruled 5-3 on Arizona Senate Bill 1070 — possibly the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure in recent U.S. history-- On June 25, civil rights activists and Hispanic groups cried foul, but the response in the Arizona’s Indian American community, as far as one can tell, was one of deafening silence (with one or two notable exceptions).

Their high court overturned three sections of the law. One made it a misdemeanor in Arizona for an immigrant not to be carrying documentation of lawful presence in the country. Another part the justices tossed out allowed state police to arrest someone without a warrant in some situations, and another section the court voiced made it unlawful in the state for an individual to apply for employment without federal work authorization.

However, the justices agreed to uphold the portion of the law allowing Arizona police to investigate the immigration status of an individual if there is “reasonable suspicion” that individual is in the country illegally.

Indian American Silence on “Reasonable Suspicion”

While advocates for Latino immigrants objected that “reasonable suspicion” is a mere euphemism for having brown skin, mainstream Indian American organizations have made no statement one way or the other.

Those are the same organizations that spring into action every August to host colorful parades to mark India’s independence. They include the regional or linguistic groups that host massive cultural jamborees during the Fourth of July weekend—and they are the same professional Indian American organizations that hobnob with federal lawmakers.

This insularity may come back to haunt us. Even though the specific debate is about Arizona’s immigration law, the broader issues it raises are of vital importance to the Indian American community — for that matter, for U.S. society in general.

The U.S. is today going through a difficult time. The economy is performing abysmally, massive unemployment continues — and it isn’t coincidental that this time of economic insecurity has been accompanied by vicious anti-immigrant sentiment often spilling over into outright, racist xenophobia. Views on immigration have also taken on a distinct partisan hue.

In a recent post, the National Journal’s political analyst Ronald Brownstein underscored the implications of this development revealed in the just released Pew Research 2012 Values Survey.

“Combining partisanship and education most vividly captures the centrifugal forces driving apart Democrats and Republicans on immigration-related issues. Among college-educated whites who identify as Democrats — an increasingly central pillar of the party's coalition — over four-in-five say that the immigrants do not threaten American values. But nearly two-thirds of Republicans without a college degree — an increasingly central pillar of the GOP coalition — do consider immigrants a threat to American traditions.”

There you have it.

Anti-Immigrant Lock on GOP

Anti-immigrant sentiment is not only deeply susceptible to socioeconomic factors--unfortunately it now has a lock on the Republican Party.

So where in all this does the Indian American community fit in? Not at all, you may well think, but you would be quite wrong.

Anti-immigrant sentiment can easily open the floodgates to old-fashioned racial prejudice. Indian Americans who think their affluence and education protects them are living in a fool’s paradise.

If they think Indian Americans are immune to racial prejudice, they need only to look back at the poignant history of racial prejudice faced by early Indian immigrants to the U.S. in the beginning of the 20th century.

For a wider perspective, look at the global Indian diasporic experience. Remember how Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a train in South Africa? Indians had to leave Fiji in huge numbers, and were severely discriminated against in East Africa when dictator Idi Amin literally packed tens of thousands of Indians off to Britain.

In the 1980s, skinhead attacks targeted South Asians in Britain, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vowed not to allow Britain to be “swamped” by immigrants (read brown folks.)

In Canada, South Asians were targeted in attacks, and author Bharati Mukherjee left Canada in disgust after what she saw as the Canadian government’s racist apathy in investigating when an Air-India flight originating from Canada was blown up in 1985.

In the U.S., the 1987 “Dot Buster” attacks on Indian American women in New Jersey targeted because of the bindi dot Hindu women wear on their foreheads, should serve as a reminder that simply being different could make one vulnerable. [A young bank manager, Navroze Mody, was beaten to death by thugs calling themselves Dot Busters.]

Lulled by Affluence

Affluence and education have lulled the Indian American community into believing it is immune, and mainstream politicians have been complicit, trying to woo away Indian Americans from the larger struggle for immigrant rights with the canard of the “model minority.”

But the current fevered debate over immigration is of enormous significance to Indian Americans — indeed all Americans — for two key reasons.

The first is demographic — as the U.S. inexorably moves toward a more diverse population — a “browner” America, if you will — the bitter hostility toward immigrants with racial overtones is a ticking political time bomb that could blow up into a big socio-political confrontation.

The second — and perhaps most important — reason is more philosophical and moral. It centers around a very basic question: What kind of a country do you want your kids to grow up in?

Will it be a country where people are torn by ethnic schisms into sullen, color-coded communities, wary, suspicious and resentful of each other?

Or will it be a country where diversity is celebrated, and each person, in the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”?

Indian Americans have a choice. As an affluent, highly educated community with growing political connections, they can bring their considerable influence to bear in the struggle for the nation’s conscience, or they can be passive observers.

One organization — South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)— showed the way as it took a stand on the Arizona immigration law.

“SAALT commends the recent decision to block the most egregious aspects of the Arizona law, which would have clearly led to law enforcement’s profiling of those who appear foreign. As South Asian community members have experienced since September 11th, profiling undermines trust between communities and police and diminishes public safety. We call upon state and local policymakers not to resort to anti-immigrant proposals that violate the basic rights of individuals and result in targeting of certain communities in this country,” SAALT Executive Director Deepa Iyer said in a statement.

Mainstream Indian American organizations that have been AWOL: Take note.

Ashfaque Swapan is a staff reporter at India West.

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