Indians have long experienced both anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States (for which Donald Trump is usually blamed nowadays) and the practice of welcoming them, as illustrated by the cases of two early pioneers, Bhagat Singh Thind and Dalip Singh Saund. The explosion of refugee travel worldwide is leading to drawbridges being pulled up and the election to power of racially exclusive national governments but the two trends have always co-existed in the US.
Thind was a Sikh who entered the US in 1913, served with the American forces in World War I, and made history by petitioning for citizenship on the grounds that he was "a descendant of the Aryans of India, belonging to the Caucasian race (and, therefore) white..." The courts ruled he might be Aryan but wasn’t white as the term was popularly understood. Amritsar-born Saund’s experience was altogether different. Arriving at the notorious Ellis Island after travelling steerage from Southampton to New York in 1919, he waited heart in mouth in the queue when a police inspector took him out of the line, had his papers stamped, shook his hand, and told him proudly, "You are now a free man in a free country!" The policeman also reassuringly whispered to the young immigrant that there was no CID (British India's dreaded Criminal Intelligence Department) to shadow him in the US.
Saund made his way to California and worked in a cotton-picking gang in Imperial Valley. He studied in his spare time, won a doctorate in mathematics from Berkeley with his thesis, "On functions associated with the elliptic cylinder”, became an American citizen in 1949, was elected a county judge in Westmorland in 1953, and to Congress on the Democratic ticket three years later–the first Indian to be so honoured. The achievement was additionally remarkable for he won from a normally Republican district, defeating a famous woman flier married to a wealthy industrialist. Also unusual for a novice, he was at once included in the House foreign affairs committee. According to Saund, 35 out of 45 US states had done away with segregation by 1957.
There were only 196 Indian immigrants between 1820 and 1870 when the number rose to 586. Some 6,000 Indian labourers went to the west coast between 1898 and 1914. Political refugees from the Ghadar party increased their ranks. The 1917 Immigration Act was weighted against Indians, and a 1923 decision of the US Supreme Court declared Indians ineligible for citizenship. It was not until 1965 that explicit national discrimination was abolished to attract scientists and engineers to develop an economy that the Vietnam war had galvanized. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society needed third world doctors. Gradually, Indians acquired money and position.
But the ups and downs continued. An old video of Ronald Reagan praising immigrants was doing the rounds online while tempers bubbled over Mr Trump’s derisive reference to four progressive Democratic women politicians－Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley and Ilhan Omar－who are not WASPs or White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But the “melting pot” ideal was challenged long before Thind and Saund made history. The Alien and Sedition Acts that Congress passed as long ago as 1798 made it harder to become citizens and easier to kick out foreigners. It was unwise, explained one Congressman at the time, to “invite hordes of Wild Irishmen, nor the turbulent and disorderly of all the world, to come here with a view to distract our tranquility.”
The nativist argument, refined in the 19th century, sounded very like Mr Trump’s. It claimed that although immigrants could be very valuable, the quality of life in the US demanded a stable population of like-minded people with a natural affinity for liberty, which meant WASPs. But even letting in too many WASP too fast might threaten to overwhelm the native-born. The existing order always tries to protect itself from newcomers, a phenomenon that is evident in Singapore too where locals resent the government’s plans for more settlers from China and India. Elements in the US suspected Irish, Italian, Jewish and Chinese migrants (there were not enough Indians then to provoke fear) of threatening their republic. But the rigours to which refugees are subjected today on the US-Mexico border existed in a worse form on Ellis Island notwithstanding Saund’s unusually happy experience.
Nor is Mr Trump the first American president to push the “America First” concept. Theodore Roosevelt denounced “hyphenated Americans” as migrants of dubious patriotism who would turn the US into a “tangle of squabbling nationalities.” Nine years later the Republican administration introduced quotas based on countries of origin favouring North Europe and also imposed higher tariffs to protect US-made goods from competition. Mr Trump represents a return to this older Republican tradition, skipping over the Reagan years which were unusually liberal on migration and trade. Mr Trump’s concern is the same as it was in the late 18th century: the fear is that politicians like Ms Omar, who was born in Somalia but came to the US as a child and has been a US citizen longer than Melania Trump, the First Lady, will melt into American society instead of trying to change it. Singapore’s veteran Lee Kuan Yew also said he wanted more people from China and India because they blended with the existing background, which Europeans did not. To that extent, although highly successful in educational and financial terms, today’s Indian migrants to the US – mainly of the IT community－are aliens until they make a conscious effort to integrate.
Life wasn’t easy for the early pioneers. Gobindram J Watumull, Hawaii's legendary "GJ", demonstrated that whereas the Chinese will go wherever there is land and water, Indians will just go. Honolulu was a pit stop for him on the long sea voyage to the American mainland. When his ship docked there in 1917, the young Sindhi went ashore and stayed to found a business empire, but could not acquire citizenship until the Oriental Immigration Act was revised in 1949. "The big problem was colour, pure and simple," recalled even Philadelphia-born (1930) Amar Bose whose sound system is a household name all over the world. "There wasn't a restaurant in Philadelphia where I could be served. In those days you couldn't even rent a house." Sikhs were called "ragheads." They might have echoed Rabindranath Tagore who declared bitterly after an unhappy brush with immigration officials at San Francisco that Christ Himself would be refused admission to the US “because, first of all, He would not have the necessary money and secondly He would be an Asiatic.” But that won’t deter ambitious young Indians for whom the US Green Card is the world’s most treasured prize.
The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.