As the November election results rolled in, many in India cheered the election of five Indian Americans to the United States Congress—the most in America’s history. In January, President Donald Trump told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India was a “true friend and partner.” But in the past two weeks, three shootings targeting Indian immigrants in the United States have sent shockwaves through the Indian American community. Now, the rising anti-immigration sentiment perpetuated by Trump is raising serious questions about the relationships between individual Americans and people of Indian descent – and about the U.S.-India relationship itself.
In recent years, the U.S.-India relationship has blossomed. After years of mutual suspicion during the Cold War and a rocky relationship after India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, the United States and India have developed a genuine partnership. Cooperation on issues ranging from energy to defense to trade have grown as the two countries have publicly embraced one another, evidenced most recently in a series of summit meetings between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Modi. Indians and Indian Americans are an essential part of American society, and make up the second largest immigrant group in the United States. To many, this bilateral partnership seems only natural, as the United States and India are the world’s two largest democracies.
But recent events threaten to place a significant strain on U.S.-India relations. Since the shootings of Indian Americans in the last few weeks, the outcry from the Indian diaspora and Indian citizens has been swift and loud. Many families fear sending their children to the United States for university. Some Indian students no longer feel welcome.
The immediate consequences of this rising fear could be extensive. Indian students, the second largest international student group in the United States, contribute $3.6 billion to the U.S. economy alone. Many universities depend on international students to pay full tuition, at times paying three times more than in-state students. If student enrollment declines, tuition will go up, affecting domestic and international students.
The tourism industry in the United States – which supports 7.6 million U.S. jobs—could also take a hit. The New Year kicked off the U.S.-India 2017 Travel and Tourism Partnership, but those who wish to visit the United States are now rethinking their vacations. As the world’s second largest country, its citizens are poised to expand tourism around the world, and Indian tourists already spend over $11.8 billion in U.S. markets. But Indian citizens are calling upon the Indian Ministry of External Affairs to issue a travel warning to the United States.
Many U.S. industries are also dependent on Indian immigrants, who are the largest recipients of H-1B visas in the United States. In addition to Indian-owned companies, American giants such as Amazon, Deloitte, Accenture, and IBM are top sponsors of workers on H-1B visas. Because of actions by the Trump administration, however, business executives have already lost the ability to fast track visas for employees that they deem essential to their operations. If high-skilled Indian immigrants are unwilling to come to the United States, corporations will lose an essential part of the workforce.
Beyond the economic impact, the rise in anti-immigrant, racist behavior in the United States is damaging the nation’s standing as a model of democracy, tolerance, and freedom. Indian newspapers have written that these killings have “cracked the rose tinted glasses with which Indians tend to look at the U.S.” Trump’s immigration ban and rhetoric are transforming how people around the world view the United States. The United States has strong institutions and laws that protect against racism and intolerance, but those protections are not invulnerable; they require people to fight for their values, and for all people to treat one another as equal human beings. This is a problem that democracies are susceptible to, and one must not forget that India and the governing Bharatiya Janata Party, for its part, also has work to do to engender tolerance and inclusiveness of Muslims in an environment of rising Hindu nationalism.
In the midst of these dark recent events in the Indian American community, there are clear signs that the American people will not stand for this kind of hate – just look at Ian Grillot, the 24-year-old man who rushed the gunman in the Kansas shooting of Indian Americans Alok Madasani and Srinivas Kuchibhotla (Kuchibhotla died from the shooting).
Mr. Trump’s actions targeting immigrants have already sparked a national conversation about the state of American democracy. But the ripple effects of his actions could also extend to unexpected places, including threatening U.S.-India relations just as they were beginning to take off.
(Michael H. Fuchs is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and was most recently Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Stefanie Merchant is a Special Assistant for National Security and International Policy at the Center.)