But that isn’t keeping the president from appealing to win the support of some members of the community. Trump will probably remain largely unpopular with black Americans — the group that voted against him at higher rates than any other ethnic or racial group. But part of his reelection strategy appears to focus on — or at least give the appearance of — nipping away at how strongly other people of color back Democrats. Those familiar with Indian American political engagement, however, say Trump’s efforts are not likely to be deeply effective with the community.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D.-Calif.), a frequent Trump critic whose parents immigrated from India, said Sunday that if Trump thinks embracing India’s new prime minister is going to lead to significant changes in Indian Americans’ politics, he doesn’t understand the community well.
“It’s the Gandhian philosophy of pluralism, of respect for fellow human beings, of dialogue for peace that define the values of the Indian American community,” Khanna said Sunday on MSNBC. “The president is misinformed if he thinks showing up at this rally is going to help him with the Indian American vote.”
The Washington Post’s Philip Rucker reported that the president received a standing ovation when he denounced “radical Islamic terrorism.” This was not that surprising to some familiar with the political leanings of Indian Americans. The rally in support of Modi, a center-right populist figure, probably attracted Indian Americans who appreciate his — and even Trump’s — support for nationalism, conservatism and authoritative leadership style.
Modi has made global headlines for some of his actions toward Muslims, a religious group Trump famously sought to ban from immigrating to the United States. Human rights activists have protested recent decisions by Modi’s ruling party that could remove citizenship from more than 4 million Muslims and put some in detention camps. This past summer, Modi ended statehood for India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and arrested many of the region’s local leaders.
Trump received sustained applause when he vowed to stop illegal immigration. But assuming the president’s position on the issue is widely shared among Indian Americans would be misguided. The majority — 65 percent — of Indian Americans said they strongly agreed or somewhat agreed that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to have an opportunity to eventually become U.S. citizens, according to the 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey.
Large numbers of Indian Americans depend on the H-1B visa program, which allows 85,000 foreigners to come to the United States to work in “specialty occupations.” Indian natives accounted for 75 percent of approved H-1B applications in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at the University of California at Riverside, studies the political interests of Asian Americans and said the crowd’s response to Trump shouldn’t be misinterpreted.
“My interpretation is that he got a respectful, warm reception, but it wasn’t like people were wearing MAGA hats,” he told the Fix. “It wasn’t a pro-Trump rally atmosphere. This is a crowd that was probably more Republican and more conservative. Who knows how many are even U.S. citizens?”
Ramakrishnan points to Modi’s “good working relationship” with President Barack Obama when people suggest he and Trump have entered some type of political bromance.
“I say that because I think there’s a limit to the extent which Indian American voters are going to shift their opinions about Trump,” he said.
But Trump may be hoping he can connect with enough Indian Americans who embrace hard line immigration policies. Sangay Mishra, author of “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans,” said the president could be tapping into divisions among skilled immigrants and unskilled undocumented immigrants to improve his standing with the community.
“People who come on work visas — they do sometimes feel superior to those people who are trying to come through the Southern border,” Mishra told the Fix. “It’s possible that a segment of the population resonated with Trump’s message, and he might be able to shave off a little bit of the support that Democrats had in 2016. But I don’t see any major meltdown of Democratic support.”
Trump’s outreach to Indian Americans is probably similar to his outreach to other groups of color. It is meant to communicate to those white Trump supporters who are uncomfortable with the president’s rhetoric that he is trying to engage groups of color more than his words sometimes suggest. The efficacy of that approach remains to be seen.