The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

San Jose immigrants suffer from growing economic divide

Friends and family of Taptejdeep Singh place candles at a memorial during a vigil in San Jose a day after a mass shooting. (John Brecher/for The Washington Post)

Taptejdeep Singh came to San Jose to pursue the American Dream.

Like thousands before him, he was drawn to the “Capital of Silicon Valley” for its wealth, technology and innovation. What he found instead was a deeply unequal city, where housing prices have skyrocketed, economic inequality is spiking and residential segregation divides communities.

In this economically perilous place, Singh’s job at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority was a lifeline, a union job with stable hours that paid a living wage for people without a college degree. It even offered benefits like health care and pension, a rarity in the area.

Last month, a shooter killed Singh and eight others on the job, an attack that has shaken the region and left mourning families longing for answers. It was also an assault on a workplace that attracted immigrants from across the city, helping them find their financial footing in an increasingly unaffordable region.

“There’s a great divide here,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a recent interview. “Housing has become so horrifically expensive, and there’s no question that is the greatest threat to our economic mobility going forward.”

Bagga Singh, an Indian immigrant and Taptejdeep’s cousin, was proud of his cousin’s work at the VTA. It was among the more stable jobs held by members of their extended immigrant family in Silicon Valley.

Their life in California is decidedly better than the life they had in the Punjab region of India, he said, but it doesn’t compare to the lifestyles of the wealthy tech professionals in the area.

“It’s a good place to live,” Singh said. “If you can afford it.”

'American nightmare'

Before the large office parks sprang up and the tech professionals moved in, San Jose was primarily known for its rich diversity.

The city, which has a population of about one million, is 35 percent Asian, 31 percent Latino, 25 percent White and 3 percent African American, according to the U.S. Census. More than half of the families here speak a language other than English at home.

César Chávez, the labor leader, got his start in San Jose in 1948 as an agricultural worker; he soon became an organizer for a civil rights group. Black communist activist Angela Davis was imprisoned here before a local jury found her not guilty in 1972. A native of the region, she’s now a professor at the nearby University of California, Santa Cruz.

The narrative of San Jose as a welcoming melting pot is a “story that [the city] likes to tell itself,” said Juan Pedroza, a sociology professor at University of California, Santa Cruz. “And that was mostly pretty true until recently.”

The Internet boom of the late 1990s changed all that. Though some of the wealthiest companies in the world flocked to the Bay Area, their arrival didn’t translate into jobs that benefit all residents.

“You think about the high-tech industry: It’s globally connected, with incredible economic returns because of the global economic markets they’re serving. And a lot of the returns come in the form of stock markets and investments and ownership, and not so much in labor,” said Chris Benner, sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz and director of the Santa Cruz Institute for Social Transformation. “There’s not a whole lot of jobs created in the industry compared to the economic size of the industry.”

The influx of wealthy workers has also caused the price of necessities to spike. Today, housing costs in San Jose are so high that a family of four making nearly $100,000 is considered low-income, according to the 2019 State Income Limits, which helps determine affordable housing eligibility.

A measure of economic inequality called the GINI coefficient found that economic inequality increased two times faster in Silicon Valley than in the United States as a whole between 2010 and 2019.

And a 2018 University of California, Berkeley study found that while San Jose is one of the largest and most diverse cities in the region, its segregated neighborhoods don’t reflect that diversity. Asians and Latinos in particular are “incredibly segregated,” the report found.

City Councilman Raul Peralez, who is running for mayor, grew up in affordable housing in San Jose and watched the city transform around him. He said that because his parents were able to live in the city, instead of being pushed into the suburbs, he had access to a better education and opportunities he would not have had otherwise.

“The biggest challenge has been the growing divide … between the haves and have-nots, those who are wealthy in the tech industry, are able to buy homes in this area — and everybody else,” he said. “It’s continually stacking odds against those that are already challenged or struggling.”

Survival is particularly hard for those city residents without college degrees, who often work lower wage jobs. “At the VTA, for example, drivers can be stuck on-site for 12 hours — working two four-hour shifts, with a four-hour break in between,” said John Courtney, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union #265, which represents VTA employees.

Many cannot afford a home in the city, so they must commute hours to distant towns, or cram into an apartment with several other people. Sometimes, employees spend the night in their cars, showering at the worksite, or in campers at the VTA campus.

“It’s brutal. It really is,” Courtney said.

When the difficult work lifestyle is combined with the high cost of living, particularly housing prices, Benner said, the result is that “the American Dream has become an American nightmare for people unless you’re in the tech industry.”

Standing on their feet

The VTA is one workplace where many of the city’s ethnicities and nationalities converge.

“You walk through the VTA you hear Tagalog, Spanish, Punjabi, my Philly accent — all different kinds of languages,” Courtney said.

Many of the employees start as drivers and work their way up through maintenance or operations departments to become mechanics or dispatchers. Whole families work at the VTA, sometimes through generations of immigrants.

At home, tiki bars and beer caves shielded them from life’s troubles. They were killed at work.

Taptejdeep, who went by Taptej, first lived with his cousin Bagga when he arrived in the United States in 2004. Bagga helped him get his driver’s license and fill out paperwork for a green card. After a few months, Taptej started to work, first at an assembly line, then as a security guard and eventually at the VTA.

“Slowly, slowly, slowly, they stand on their feet,” Bagga said, of immigrants arriving in the United States.

The two grew up together in the same house in the fields of northern India and remained very close throughout their lives.

The funerals that followed the massacre were a wide array of San Jose cultures — reflections of the multiculturalism at the VTA. There were hymns in different languages, clothes from black to bright, and adornments spanning religions from all parts of the globe.

Mexican, Filipino, Indian and Middle Eastern VTA employees all attended services to mourn the loss of their colleagues. Bagga noticed their presence at his cousin’s funeral.

“All our communities, all management and employees from different temples, from the churches, from the Sikh temples — everyone came there,” he said.

Taptej was killed at 36 with dreams left unfulfilled. He had gotten his real estate license and was hoping to eventually work in that field full-time. He wanted to one day purchase land to grow vegetables, nuts and fruits, similar to the fields of India where he grew up.

When you move to America, “the main thing you’re looking for is a peaceful life, a big dream,” Bagga said. “If the area you are living [in] or country you are living [in] is not good, you’re not going to have a dream over there. You can only have a dream if you’re happy.”

And Taptej, he said, was one of the happiest people he knew.