Among overseas Indians, the Indian Americans are the most significant in terms of education, prosperity and political influence even though they are only less than two percent of the population of the United States. It is said of them that though they live in the US, their hearts are in India and their wealth is in Switzerland. In recent years, they have become sensitive to India’s needs and have begun to invest in India and even return to India in small numbers to work here. They have also been playing a positive role in influencing public opinion in the US, particularly at the time of the Indian nuclear tests (1998) and the India-US Nuclear Deal (2008).
Indian Americans, known also as Asian Indians or “Desis”, as different from American Indians or Red Indians, numbering about four million, consist of naturalized American citizens, Green Card holders, H1-B visa holders, short term visitors and illegal immigrants. About 87 percent of them are foreign born, only 56 percent are American citizens. They are the most highly educated, generally prosperous and many of them are sympathetic to the Democratic Party. Among them, except for American citizens, all sections have become restless about their future after the advent of president Donald Trump.
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During the presidential elections 2016, the majority of the Indian Americans voted for Hillary Clinton, not only because they are Democrats, but also because of an attachment to the Clintons. Though George Bush and some of the Republican Presidents have done more for India than the Clintons, Indians have been generally inclined towards the Clintons. Some families are bipartisan in the sense that some of them vote Republicans and others vote Democrats.
Many Indian Americans, particularly the richer ones, were attracted by Trump because of the promise of tax reform and business friendliness. They believed that Trump would fight terrorism, ban Muslims, oppose China and build good business relations with India. Although Trump had pledged that he would restrict foreign workers in the US, Indian Americans were confident that the US would not be able to manage their IT industry without the Indian companies and the Indian work force.
The most important Trump impact is that he has brought out questions of identity of Americans to the foreground by talking about outsiders capturing power from Washington and the interests of the white majority being protected. From being “a salad bowl”, in which all ingredients are mixed, the US is looking more like an Indian “thali”, in which the components are distinct and they mix only as needed. This has caused concern among the American citizens of Indian origin also because they could be victims of fascist tendencies because of their color and customs. Particularly vulnerable are the Muslims from India, who may be suspect in the eyes of the Trump administration. All citizens may be equal, but the whites are claiming to be more equal than the rest. Green card holders are as good as citizens, but getting green cards may become difficult in the future.
The most affected are the H1-B visa holders, who are expected to leave the US on expiry of their visas. This category of foreign workers was the target of Trump as they have supposedly taken away jobs that belong to the natives. Trump began by saying that he would investigate any misuse of the visa, but the intention was to reduce the number of visas in this category so that the jobs can go to local people. This was ambitious, because it was known that it would take more than seven to nine years to replace all the Indian IT workers. In fact, the H1-B visa issue was considered the litmus test of Trump’s friendship for India. But this was one of the issues, which Trump took up at the very beginning of his presidency. The methodology he used was to double the minimum salary required for a foreigner to qualify for the H-1B Visa. This would make it unattractive for companies to hire foreign workers. The uncertainty created by the order would be like a Damocles’ sword over the heads of many IT experts and companies.
The illegal immigrants and short term visa holders among the Indian Americans have very little chance of changing their status, even though Trump had said at some stage that he would not like brilliant students and others to leave the US because of the new policies.
Many expect that there may be some respite in the campaign against Indian IT workers on account of the pressure from American IT companies, who are afraid that they will collapse without the Indian workers. Hopes are also pinned on an early meeting between Trump and Modi at which this issue will come up. If the US and India become partners in the fight against terrorism, in containing China and in promoting business, there is a chance that the visa issue will also receive attention. An Indian American, Shalabh Kumar, who extended support of the Indian community to Trump and organized a community event, which Trump attended, has been in and out of Delhi, promising some concrete action by Trump to strengthen US-India relations. He claims to be a close adviser to Trump already and expects to be named the US Ambassador to India. Several Indians, including Pepsico’s Indira Nooyi, have already joined the advisory team. Nicky Haley, who, together with Bobby Jindal, had become one of the two Indian Americans to become Governors, has already been confirmed as the US Ambassador to the UN, a Cabinet level post and indicated that she shares Trump’s UN skepticism. In other words, Indians are already part of the brains trust of Donald Trump. For the first time, five Indian Americans are in the US Congress, enhancing the influence of the community in US affairs.
A telephone call made by Trump to Modi was devoid of any drama that characterized a couple of other calls he made to the presidents of Taiwan and Australia. They talked about terrorism, China, defense cooperation and Modi was invited to visit the US. Trump’s goodwill for India is beyond doubt and the similarities between the two leaders may prove to be an asset. But there is no guarantee that India will become a partner of Trump in his various initiatives. But the Indian Americans are counting on a sudden improvement in relations between India and the US and an end to their uncertain days.
India has a major stake in the welfare of Indian Americans as India-US cooperation is contingent on it. The US under Trump also has vital interests in India. Therefore, it will be only a matter of time for the Indian Americans to feel comfortable under the new dispensation. There are already signs that Trump is moderating his maverick stance on several issues.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)