The scene at the Kansas bar was every immigrant’s nightmare. Two Indian H-1B guestworkers, Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani, were sharing an after-work whiskey in a bar in Olathe, Kansas. A white American, Adam Purington, hurled racist insults at them and was thrown out. But he returned with a shotgun, shouted “Get out of my country,” and opened fire. He killed Srinivas and wounded Alok, as well as an American man who tried to stop him. The shooting sent shockwaves through the United States and India. Unsurprisingly, the White House rejected any connection between President Donald Trump’s hate-filled rhetoric and the shooting.
But the shooting reveals what happens when the realities of globalism meet Trump’s economic nationalism. On one hand, US immigration policy imports Indian migrant workers. On the other hand, the new political rhetoric encourages Americans to see those workers as a threat. The shooting also showed the two impulses that have always coexisted in America: The racist and nativist impulses of the shooter, and the embracing impulse of another white man, Ian Grillot, who tried to stop the shooter and got shot himself.
Indians have always had faith in the American impulse to embrace and protect migrants. But the painful reality is that racism is the stronger impulse now — boosted by Trump’s rhetoric and economic nationalism. I understand the optimistic view of the US: America gave me a scholarship to come to college and I believed I had come to a welcoming place. Donald Trump’s America is different. Race-based violence against people of colour in the US isn’t new. The Black Lives Matter movement emerged to demand an end to police violence targeting African Americans. What is new is that the president ran on an openly xenophobic and anti-
immigrant platform, and upon his election, embraced the view that brown people are a threat. This gives a new boldness to Americans who may be ready to turn their racial and economic resentment into violence. Hate crimes and threats are surging — against Jews, Muslims, Latin Americans, African Americans and Asians.
I feel the difference every day. In the small Southern towns where I organise workers, I have a safety plan in case I am attacked. In downtown Washington D.C., I keep a safe distance from white strangers coming out of bars and restaurants. Imagine, then, what it is like for a newly arrived Indian migrant worker in a small city in Kansas. Many Indians seek refuge in the idea that being “the right kind of migrant” will keep them safe. Faced with racial threats, Indians often explain that they are doctors or engineers, that they came to the US legally, or that they are not Muslims from countries deemed national security threats. In reality, Indian immigrants are also domestic workers, nurses, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and construction workers. Indians make up the fastest-growing group of undocumented workers in the US. And increasingly, they’re not just in major cities; they’re in towns like Olathe.
It’s time Indians abandon the myth that posing as a “model minority” will keep us safe. In a climate of economic nationalism, an emboldened racist will not limit his violence to a nationality or visa category. According to the heartbreaking reports, Srinivas and Alok told the shooter they were on H-1B visas. It didn’t stop him from firing. The only safety for Indian workers in America is in allying with the growing civic movement — led by people of colour — that works to push this country away from the impulses of the shooter and toward those of the protector.
The Indian government has, at times, been reluctant to come to the defence of Indian migrant workers in the US. It is time to overcome that reluctance. India cannot continue to send its nationals into an atmosphere of White House-sanctioned xenophobia, wait for the inevitable violence, and then rush diplomats to funerals. India needs to press Trump to stand up for the best traditions of racial tolerance, openness, and the defence of civil and human rights. It is not enough to ask for more H-1B visas. India must press Trump to reject his demonisation and criminalisation of immigrants, and
instead adopt policies that let them access their rights.
Unfortunately, the attack in Kansas won’t be the last of its kind. But the world’s two great democracies — and the millions of people who bridge them — can turn the tide from fear and hatred back toward tolerance and love.
The writer is the executive director, National Guestworker Alliance, which represents migrant workers in the US