Why are immigrants turning on each other in the US?

Although there is significant illegal immigration from India to the US, most Indians who come to America arrive with a decent education that places them on a fast track to success

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By Chidanand Rajghatta

Published: Wed 31 Aug 2022, 11:05 PM

“Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” is an offensive idiom that once had wide currency in America to describe a situation where there are too many people giving orders and not enough people to carry them out. The “Indians” in this case were Native Americans, crudely referred to also as “Injuns,” who were exterminated by invaders – euphemistically called explorers – who landed on American shores without as much as a by-your-leave, let alone with visas or passports. Although history is written by victors, the story of how America was built on the genocide of millions of Native Americans and became a land of immigrants is all too well known.

The real Indians out in the east have every reason to feel thankful that Christopher Columbus and his ilk got their cartography and navigation all wrong, although it is hard to imagine 120 million people could have been annihilated as easily as 12 million -- the rough number of Native Americans who were decimated in the conquest of America. When India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru came to the United States in 1949 on the first of his three official visits, American President Harry Truman greeted him by noting, “Destiny willed it that our country should have been discovered in the search for a new route to yours. I hope your visit, too, will be in a sense a discovery of the United States of America.”

So it was with a distinct sense of irony therefore that one saw and heard in a viral video last week an American citizen near Dallas, Texas, berate a group of women from India (also US citizens) that “there are too many of your effing/expletive Indians in America” and “you curry-assed people are ruining this country.” The fact that the perpetrator of this racist rant was a woman of Mexican heritage made the incident all the more incongruous considering that Mexicans -- and more broadly people of Hispanic heritage -- are the biggest group of immigrants, both legal and illegal, to and in America.

The woman was eventually arrested and is likely to be charged with a hate crime, but what triggered her unprovoked outburst, including lashing out physically at the four Indian women, remains unexplained. Just a bad day in the office? Inebriation? Or some deeper, hidden grievance? As it turns out, a couple of days before this incident, another American of immigrant stock, this time a man of Indian-origin in California, roundly abused another Indian, a newer arrival, because he ordered a vegetarian meal at a fast food restaurant, telling him “B****, this ain’t India! You ***ed India up, and now you’re ***ing America up.” He too faces hate crime charges.

It’s interesting that both offending parties accused their fellow immigrants, who possibly came to the United States later than them, of “ruining” America. How so? Because the first group of four women was coming out of a swish restaurant after dinner when they were accosted by the Mexican-American woman who presumably had fallen on hard times? Or because, in the second incident, the Indian customer was out-of-sync with the mainstream by ordering a vegetarian meal?

It is hard to divine the motive. But the fact is Indian-Americans are by far the most successful community in the US, with the highest median family income and the best academic qualifications of all ethnic groups, including native white Americans. They are admired, respected, and praised, but one suspects there is also a degree of envy. Typically, such envy should come from native-born legacy majorities. Why would it come from other minorities who are also of immigrant stock and who have come to America a few years or a few decades earlier?

The answer, it appears, lies in what is variously called the “crab mentality” or “pull the ladder” syndrome. Immigrants and immigrant-descendants who are still struggling to make it resent newer immigrants who have attained success faster. They would like to pull the ladder and shut the door on them. Although there is significant blue-collar and illegal immigration from India to the US, most Indians who come to America arrive with a decent education that places them on a fast track to success.

Such xenophobia, prejudice against people from other countries, is universal, and it exists in many countries. In fact, it exists across regions and even within countries. In India itself, the more settled “natives” of cities such as Mumbai and Bengaluru resent “outsiders” from other parts of the country who come there for better economic opportunities. Typically, those who migrate or immigrate in search of opportunities tend to work hard, very hard, in their early years. A generation or two later, they have made it and they ease off to enjoy the fruits of their success. They now have time to resent others coming in, often forgetting their own aspirations and struggles. If they have failed to make it, the resentment will be even greater.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington.

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