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Snapshot

The visa issue has taken all the attention away from the other executive orders, and confirmed for both Trump fans and Trump haters whatever they have believed about him.

As someone who predicted that Donald Trump would win the US Presidency, I have had to correct people about my preferences: it is not that I particularly liked or like Trump, but that I have a horror of Hillary Clinton, and would have supported anybody, literally anybody, with a chance to beat her. That ambivalence of mine has been tested after the first Trumpian week, and his actions therein.

On Republic Day, I was on a Malayalam TV channel to discuss this topic, and I was a little on the defensive because of what I had said a week prior on the same channel, on inauguration day: that Trump, as a New Yorker, was prone to exaggeration and that he would mellow out a little in office. Well, it turns out that was a little optimistic, but perhaps not as much as the Lefties now in apparent catatonic shock make it out to be.

Let us consider Trump’s first few Executive Orders. Let us also understand that these are like Ordinances in India, and that they are not absolute. They can be overturned on review by legislatures, and also can be stayed or struck down by the judiciary, so that they are primarily smoke signals about the president’s intentions.

Here are a number of Executive Orders signed by the POTUS, or about to be signed:

-A Mexican wall and detention for illegal immigrants

-An exit from the Trans-Pacific Partnership

-Controls on NGOs that fund abortions

-A go-ahead for the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) oil lines

-An indication that the US will cut payments to the United Nations

And the one that has got the most attention, denying visas to people from seven Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, and detaining them as well as citizens of those countries with green cards (permanent residents)

On the face of it, all this adds up to a ringing endorsement of the agenda that had brought him to power, all intended to “Make America Great Again”, reduce immigration, improve infrastructure creation, and to keep terrorists and other undesirables out.

Of course, the order on visas excited everybody across the political spectrum, and it led to a mad scramble at JFK and other international gateways, where arriving passengers were detained. There were volunteer lawyers drafting petitions on the floor of Terminal 4 to get detainees released; a federal judge in Boston (and later, another in Brooklyn) stayed the Executive Order for seven days.

There are enough facts and emotive arguments. As a former immigrant, I feel it personally: if it is Muslims today, it could well be Indians tomorrow. In particular, those with green cards (‘resident aliens’ in the bureaucratic lingo) have, in general, most rights of citizens except the right to vote. The fact that they too have been targeted is a little alarming.

This naturally reminds me of some of the more sinister acts of past American racism: for instance, the Komatagata Maru incident of 1914, when a ship-full of would-be immigrants from India were denied landing rights in both the US and Canada, and had to turn back to India, where imperial troops massacred many of them. (Just last year, the Canadian PM finally apologised for this act, but no American has.)

There was also the ship-full of Jewish refugees from Europe around 1935, which was similarly sent back, probably to certain death for many of the travellers.

Then there is the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892, and the Immigration Act of 1924, both of which imposed race and nationality-based exclusions. The latter, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, included the Asian Exclusion Act that banned outright all immigration of Asians and Arabs. It was repealed only in 1965, and that led to the boom in Asian, particularly Indian, migration to the US.

The Komagata Maru incident still rankles; so do the travails of Indians who were granted citizenship in the US because they were ‘Caucasians’, only to have it revoked when the law was amended to make citizenship available only to ‘white Caucasians’. The deal for Asians in general was: come, work, and die. They were not allowed to marry white women, buy land, or bring Asian wives. Some Indians married Chicana (Mexican) women, and there are still some Sikh-Catholic descendants in California’s Central Valley, successful farmers.

Therefore it is not unusual for the US to be racist. But for the many Indians who live there, this is cause for alarm, of course. However, the mitigating factor is that Indians and Chinese contribute heavily to the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), and also have founded some 35 per cent of all successful firms in Silicon Valley. It would be counterproductive for the US to push out some of their best brains, who will almost certainly be welcome back in their home countries or elsewhere.

In a potential further blow to Indians, the OPT (optional practical training) programme for STEM graduates, which allowed holders of advanced degrees for up to three years, and the employment authorisation for spouses of H1-B visa holders, may be restricted according to a leaked memo. That was the usual route for Indian engineers to get employment in the US, and may be curtailed.

But if you change perspectives for a moment and look at the embargo on Muslims, there are some intriguing facts. First, if it is meant to reduce terrorism, the epicentre of terrorism, namely Pakistan, is surprisingly excluded. Second, the seven countries named are the ones that have sent the maximum number of refugees to the US. Third, Trump has announced a preference for Christian refugees from those countries. Fourth, the ban falls also on the most severely affected population, the Yazidi, on the verge of extinction after ISIS atrocities – more victims than perpetrators.

On further investigation, it turns out that there is breaking news: a clarification was made by Reince Preibus, Trump’s chief of staff, that green-card holders will not be affected. But he repeated that those, including US citizens, who have travelled to any of those seven countries (to which I think Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar should be added, as much terrorism or funding emanates from them) would be scrutinised.

What is most interesting, however, is that the same set of Muslim countries appears in an Obama-era order from February 2016. People who had dual citizenship with one of those countries, or who had visited those countries in the past five years, would be denied visa-free entry, presumably on the assumption they could have been radicalised.

So all that Trump has done is to tighten Obama-era restrictions - the point that has escaped the Leftie observers. Obama issued the order in the wake of terror attacks in Europe, and what Trump has done is to announce a tightening of the rules. Apparently the blowback, especially about green-card holders, caused a re-evaluation of the Trump order. Besides, as sanctuary-city people have already demonstrated, there are ways to tie things up in court.

So was this visa issue an example of a power struggle between doctrinaire people like Steve Bannon, presidential adviser, and others? Or was it simply a cock-up, potentially instigated by bureaucrats? We don’t know for sure, but the visa issue has taken all the attention away from the other executive orders, and confirmed for both Trump fans and Trump haters whatever they have believed about him. Not exactly an auspicious start for the new POTUS.