Diwali and the Desi Wall of Shame

This week, President Trump held a Diwali celebration at the White House. Here’s the video and a link to the transcript. If you didn’t watch or read it (I don’t blame you), here are the highlights:

In his remarks before lighting the diya, POTUS congratulated the Indians flanking him as “special people”. He singled out particular appointees including Seema Verma (Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services), Ajit Pai (Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission), Raj Shah (White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary and Deputy Assistant to the President), Neil Chatterjee (Chairman of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) Uttam Dhillon (Acting Administrator of Drug Enforcement), and Manisha Singh (Acting Under Secretary of State Department).

Image for post
Picture included in Donald J. Trump’s Tweet, November 13, 2018 (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1062450942707228672)

There is a lot to digest about the language and the optics in this 10-minute video clip. Perhaps most significantly, POTUS announced that Neomi Rao will be his appointee to take Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s vacant seat on the DC Circuit Court.

Interestingly, the immediate public response to the Diwali celebration was one of dismay - but not necessarily for the reasons you might think. A lot of people seemed to be deeply offended by a post from POTUS’ account which described the holiday as one celebrated by Buddhists, Jains, and Sikhs. How could the White House have neglected to mention Hindus, wondered many people. (P.S. Trump followed up with another tweet that explicitly identified Hindus, prompting the Hindu American Foundation to encouragingly tweet, “We knew you’d get it right eventually!”).

Pause and re-set. The message we should actually be taking from the Diwali celebration is that this Administration continues to implement policies that harm Indian Americans and other communities of color — with the full support of Indian-American appointees.

Here’s a partial list of how Indian Americans are being harmed on a daily basis (feel free to add more in the comments) by the Administration’s policies:

People with undocumented status: The Administration’s aggressive enforcement policies mean that undocumented people are constantly at risk. In 2014, India ranked as the fourth (behind Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala) top birth country for unauthorized immigrants. About 500,000 unauthorized immigrants from India were living in the US in 2014, a sharp increase over the past decade. Among those numbers include 2,640 DACA recipients from India, whose lives are in jeopardy because of the Administration’s position on the program which provides temporary work authorization and freedom from deportation.

People with H-1B visas and their dependents: The Administration has indicated that the spouses of H-1B visa holders are going to lose the ability to work in the United States, which could affect over 105,000 families. And children of H-1B visa-holders could age out due to the decades-long wait to receive green cards.

People seeking asylum: The Administration’s new asylum ban affects individuals from India and other South Asian countries who seek to enter the U.S. for refuge from persecution. This includes women escaping domestic violence and people escaping faith-based targeting, including Sikhs who are crossing over the southern border in greater numbers of late.

People seeking to reunify with family members. For Asian Americans, the family immigration system has long been a cornerstone to bring family members to the United States. President Trump has threatened to cut the family immigration system and impede family reunification. Read more from the Value Our Families Coalition here.

People entering the United States. The intended changes to the definition of “public charge” could mean that low-income family members won’t be able to reunify with loved ones, and place even higher barriers on people attempting to enter the U.S. when they apply for visas. Take action now by submitting a comment about the public charge changes here.

Green card holders and even naturalized U.S. citizens: Operation Janus (which is conducting investigations into naturalized Americans), and the attacks on birthright citizenship are all potentially harmful to many Indian Americans and other South Asian immigrants.

As though this weren’t enough, the Administration’s rollbacks on civil rights protections mean that people in our communities who are queer or trans, or who have disabilities, or who practice different faiths can’t rely on anti-discrimination laws.

These hateful policies have only exacerbated hate violence against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and other communities. This week, the FBI released its annual report which documented 7,175 hate crimes in 2017, representing a 17 percent increase from 2016. While the data is incomplete for various reasons, non-profit organizations have been pointing out for years now that discriminatory and divisive policies and rhetoric contribute to a climate of hate that targets people of color, faith-based communities, and immigrants (for more, see reports from SAALT, Arab American Institute, and CAIR).

Other communities are suffering as well. The Administration has rescinded temporary protected status (TPS) for Nepal, El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, Sudan and Honduras (the ultimate fate of TPS is in the hands of the judiciary). The government is already implementing the Muslim ban and the zero tolerance family separation policy. All these policies affect Indian Americans too because they cumulatively create an atmosphere of instability and fear for all immigrants in the United States.

So, given this grim landscape, what can Indian Americans do?

Don’t turn away. It’s natural to feel numb these days. Pace yourself in terms of your consumption of news and information, but pay attention.

Raise awareness about immigration and civil rights issues in your communities, families, and places of worship through forums, discussions, and outreach. Ensure that vulnerable families and communities are aware of their rights, can access legal counsel, and have safety plans in place.

Support South Asian organizations delivering vital services and organizing communities, including Desis Rising Up and Moving, South Asian Americans Leading Together, South Asian Network, LGBTQ organizations like Satrang, South Asian women’s organizations like Raksha and Manavi (there might be one in your city), and more. See a list curated by SAALT here. You can support by volunteering (but be aware that small organizations might not be able to slot you in quickly) or by donating money.

Get familiar with the #DesiWallOfShame and the people who are on it, and why. It’s important to hold people who are at the highest echelons of the Administration accountable for their actions, their silence, and their acceptance of harmful policies and rhetoric targeting communities of color and immigrants. If you’re not sure why Indian American appointees in the Trump Administration should be held accountable (because they are simply doing their jobs), please read up here, here, and here.

Have those messy conversations with people in your own community, place of worship, and family who might share views and opinions espoused by the Trump Administration. These conversations are extremely challenging and frustrating but we have to begin them now. Use stories to develop empathy and statistics to offer proof, and remember that this is a process that involves multiple conversations.

Acknowledge and dismantle internalized racism: We all carry internal biases towards others. And, some people even aspire to whiteness, believing its promises of perceived power and immunity from discrimination, and take racial bribes that lead to anti-Black racism and wedge politics against other communities of color. For too long, many Indian Americans have lived in a state of “racial probation” (in Vijay Prashad’s words) but we cannot sit on the sidelines. We must pledge to dismantling anti-Black racism, white supremacy, Islamophobia, misogyny and homophobia (to name a few) within ourselves and our communities through honest personal reflection, courageous and messy conversations, and risky solidarity practices.

Going back to the subject of this post (Diwali): if you’re Hindu, learn about caste privilege and caste discrimination, how to acknowledge and dismantle it, and the effects on non-Hindus, especially Dalit communities. I recommend this primer by Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Varatharajah as a starting point.

*Practice solidarity. It’s easy to get caught up in the narratives of competition and scarcity that pit communities of color against each other. Resist wedge politics, and show up for all communities consistently.

Author of We Too Sing America; Host of Solidarity is This podcast; Senior Advisor at Building Movement Project; South Asian American activist/lawyer. @dviyer

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