Newark Avenue in Jersey City, New Jersey, has the look of an old American Main Street. Tightly packed buildings are in good repair. Storefront windows facing busy sidewalks are stocked with clothing and goods. Cars pull in and out of curbside parking spaces all day long; passersby recognize one another, stop, and chat on the street. It’s Rockwell-esque.
Like most of America’s vibrant downtown retail districts, this one is run and sustained almost entirely by immigrants. Newark Avenue is the hub of Jersey City’s Indian American community, one of a handful of such enclaves in the nearby suburbs of New York City. More than 300 businesses are members of the Newark Avenue Jersey City Chamber of Commerce, almost all of them owned and operated by Indian immigrants. Though many of them have established comfortable lives in America, New Jersey’s Indian immigrants have felt increasingly uneasy during the first two months of the Trump administration.
It was in Jersey City, Donald Trump likes to say, that he saw television footage of spectators cheering the collapse of the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001. There’s no evidence for that claim. It’s an example of how the surging demonization of immigrants, fueled by lies and misinformation, has moved beyond the president’s favorite stereotypes to serve a more general wave of xenophobia. Mistaken for Arab Muslims or Iranians, Indian Americans have been attacked by white supremacists in a series of hate crimes. One victim was Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the Garmin engineer murdered in Olathe, Kansas, by a man with a shotgun who yelled, “Get out of my country.” A week later, his widow Sunayana Dumala asked on Facebook: “The question that is in every immigrant’s mind: DO WE BELONG HERE?”
Middle Eastern and Latino immigrants aren’t the only ones who feel like targets of Trump’s ire. Many of the country’s 1.8 million African immigrants, for example, most of whom are black and about half of whom are Muslim, are also on edge about the president’s rhetoric and threats. Filipino Americans, which make up the country’s fourth-largest immigrant group, also have reason to worry: They count 310,000 undocumented in their ranks, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
For Indian Americans, America’s second-largest immigrant group, hate crimes are only one reason to feel vulnerable in the age of Trump. Some worry their success is resented; others with precarious legal status fear reprisals from immigration authorities. They offer a reminder of how many first-generation Americans—even those unaffected by the president’s foiled travel ban or his prospective southern wall—perceive a new current of hostility in Trump’s America.
“People are very upset, there’s fear in the Indian American community,” said Peter Kothari, the president of the Indo-American Cultural Society in Edison, New Jersey. “When history is written, I don’t know how people judge a president. But he should not have done the things he's done.”
Sometimes called the “model minority,” America’s 3.8 million Indian Americans stand out in nearly every category. Seven in 10 Indian Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree, about 20 percentage points higher than the rate for Korean, Chinese, and Japanese Americans. The median household income for Indian Americans was $101,591 in 2014, according to the American Community Survey, nearly double the national average.
That perception of Indian Americans as a model to be emulated enables the view that crimes against them are misdirected acts of Islamophobia—tragic accidents. But Indian Americans are less inclined to see those attacks as cases of mistaken identity, but rather as the product of the simmering racial resentment that has always been part of their life in America, but has more recently morphed into a frightening public force.
That’s in part thanks to the way the president talks about immigrants, they say. “If you’re openly talking about how you feel about immigrants it gives people the opportunity to go out there and speak their mind,” explains Ekta Sachdeva, a 28-year-old who was helping out at her mother’s clothing store while studying for her LSATs on the day I visited Newark Avenue. “ ‘If the president can talk about it, why can’t I?’ ” Sachdeva, who was raised in Jersey City, described how several of her friends had been accosted at a gas station by a man who told them they would be deported. “America’s full of immigrants and has always been,” she added in a soft Jersey accent. “We just don’t teach people what kind of immigrants we have. We just learn about American culture—that’s 200 years ago!”
Hate speech has spiked against the election. Violence and xenophobic political rhetoric against South Asians was up 34 percent in the year ending in November 2016, according to a report by South Asian Americans Leading Together, an advocacy organization. “There is no question the level of hostility is deepening and intensifying,” says SAALT Director Suman Raghunathan. She says the atmosphere is as bad as it was after 9/11, when dark-skinned immigrants were shot in a series of revenge attacks across the country. While most of the incidents collected by SAALT were explicitly Islamophobic, racism traffics in ignorance, as Amitava Kumar eloquently wrote in the New Yorker this month. The inability to distinguish stereotype from reality, and one group from another, is a feature of racial resentment.
Indian Americans still remember the slaying of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh in Mesa, Arizona, who was murdered on Sept. 15, 2001, as he placed flowers on a memorial outside his gas station. Days later, President George W. Bush, speaking at the Islamic Center of Washington, declared, “Islam is peace.” The next week, he met with Sikh leaders at the White House. There has been no such reassurance from Washington this time around despite a similar wave of attacks.
For Indian Americans, a reputation as prosperous by-the-book immigrants is now perceived as a vulnerability. While Trump has pegged immigrants as rapists and terrorists, his chief strategist Steve Bannon holds successful immigrants in similar contempt. In a November 2015 interview with Trump on his Breitbart radio show, Bannon seemed to defend restrictions on high-skilled immigrants on racial and cultural grounds. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think ... ” Bannon trailed off. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
Earlier this month, a viral video from Columbus, Ohio, evinced the sense of resentment. On the website SaveAmericanITJobs.org, an anti-immigration computer programmer from Virginia, Steve Pushor, gathered photos and videos of Indian Americans relaxing in a public park in Columbus, Ohio. “The number of people from foreign countries blows my mind out here,” Pushor narrates in a video of children riding bikes. “You see this whole area is all Indian, amazing. It’s an amazing number of jobs have been taken away from Americans. The Indian crowd has ravished the Midwest. It’s crazy.”
On the other end of the spectrum are Indian immigrants whose plight more closely resembles that of their Latino neighbors. There are 500,000 unauthorized Indian immigrants in the U.S., up from 130,000 in 2009, according to Pew. That makes Indians the fastest-growing undocumented group in the country and puts India fourth among nations with undocumented U.S. populations, behind only Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. In Richmond Hill, an Indian neighborhood in Queens, New York, the streets are newly quiet. Family members with identification do the grocery shopping.
In Jersey City, I spoke with Hilda, an undocumented woman who owns a beauty salon off Newark Avenue. (She asked that her last name not be used for fear of harassment or arrest.) Hilda has lived in Jersey City for 11 years and owned her salon for six. She sits at a small desk up front behind Indian and American flags. Her son, also undocumented, is a college student studying biochemistry. His friends are mostly white, but they happily come over to eat the Indian food Hilda prepares after work.
Crimes against Indians have made waves on social media, she said, and in conversation. Everyone knows about Srinivas Kuchibhotla. (The Indian press, which maintains a considerable influence on the diaspora, has covered such incidents extensively.) “There’s not a big white community in Jersey City, so we feel safe here,” she confessed. Still, at the mall, she wondered who might have a gun.
“We are really thankful for America,” she told me. “We have a better life, but we have no peace of mind now.” When her son has his degree, she said she may return to India. She sees no future for herself here now.
That’s a discussion many Indian Americans are having right now, suggested Sangay Mishra, the author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans. “People are really, really concerned. They’re concerned about their safety, they’re concerned about their kids, and they’re concerned about their place in American society,” he said. “They’ve always felt that they have been seen as different, treated differently, but at the same time felt there was space for becoming a part of American society. But at this moment people are asking the question: ‘Do we really belong here?’ ”
To be sure, there are Indian Americans who see no connection between hate speech, violent crime, and the president’s position on immigrants. Dave Pravesh is one of them. He’s the founder of that local chamber of commerce on Newark Avenue, and his shop sells jewelry and cologne. He voted for Trump, in part because of his frustrations with Obamacare.
Pravesh reminded me that Indian merchants in the United States are killed every year, to little attention from the U.S. media. Hate crime against Indians in Jersey City itself goes back to a white-power gang called the Dotbusters—so named for the bindi that Hindu women wear on their foreheads—that terrorized the area in the 1980s. He recalled the stares he got at an ice cream parlor in deep-blue Princeton, New Jersey, and recounted how a white insurance agent had expressed disbelief that his friend might be so successful as to own dozens of KFC franchises in New York. “It’s not at all influenced by Trump, not one bit,” he said.
On Newark Avenue, too, it’s not uncommon to see portraits and photographs of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister whose own controversial attitudes toward Indian Muslims have drawn international condemnation.* Some Indian Modi supporters, like American Trump supporters, see themselves as victims of Islamic violence.
But there are also about 180 million Indian Muslims who are represented in the immigrant population in the United States. Anwar Feroz Siddiqi is one of them. He’s the president of the New Jersey chapter of the Association of Indians in America and organizes a competition for high-schoolers that takes place each year on Gandhi’s birthday at Princeton University. Thousands of kids have participated.
His own family offers a classic case of assimilation: Both his kids married Christians. “When we get together for Thanksgiving we have a mini United Nations at home,” he joked. Still, he described a high level of anxiety among friends and members. “It’s very disheartening. There has got to be some kind of cooling down of the rhetoric.”
Indian Americans don’t have a big political presence. They vote Democratic, but they are more likely than other Asian immigrants to be foreign-born and less likely to be citizens. But they, like other left-wing Americans under Trump, are finding their footing. After Kuchibhotla’s death, there were vigils and marches across the country.
“We’re trying to wrestle with it, and trying to come up with a way to manage it,” Siddiqi said. He was impressed by the boldness of Shree Chauhan, an American of Indian descent who confronted Sean Spicer in a D.C. Apple store. “Such a great country that allows you to be here,” the press secretary responded.
“People like Chauhan make America great,” said Siddiqi.
*Correction, March 31, 2017: This article originally misspelled Narenda Modi’s first name. (Return.)