Looks can be deceiving

  • Recent rise in anti-immigrant sentiments has made the Nepali community in the US fearful
Everyone needs to understand that recent immigrants from different countries around the world live and work in the United States legally, and an overwhelming majority are not extremists

Mar 24, 2017-Recent immigration debates in the United States have raised serious uncertainties and fears among immigrant communities. Immigrants could be hastily mischaracterised as being of a certain ethnicity and nationality solely based on their looks. We tread on dangerous ground when we try to categorise people by looks alone, because looks can be deceiving.

I have been misidentified a number of times as I travel around the world. When I was in Brazil, people came up to me and spoke to me in Portuguese. When I was in Mexico, locals took me to be Mexican. In my recent trip to Indonesia, a number of my Indonesian colleagues thought I was Indonesian. To round off these blunders, I was even misidentified as an Arab in the United Arab Emirates. 

Most astonishing to me was being misidentified in my own country. 

Two years ago, I was trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area when I encountered two boys. They asked for money blabbering “dollar dollar”, probably the only English word they knew. I ignored them and continued walking. I heard one of the boys ask the other in Nepali: “Is he a Nepali or a foreigner?” This was shocking to me. 

Ensuring legal safety

Several of my Nepali immigrant friends and families in the United States are professionals who migrated to the US legally, and obtained either green cards or naturalised citizenship in due time. Their children, born in America, possess “natural born citizenship”. Currently, Nepalis with illegal status are protected by “Temporary Protected Status or TPS” after the devastating earthquakes in 2015. The TPS, extended annually, is a form of humanitarian aid to Nepal by the people of the United States, formulated so that Nepalis in America could send direct remittance back home to their families recovering from the earthquakes.  

Now, even those Nepalis with proper documents and citizenship are worried about travelling abroad, and living and working in the US. They are now advised to carry their identity cards with them at all times. This is needed because one might encounter law enforcement officials at home, at work, during commutes or overseas travel. An understanding of one’s rights, if and when encountered by law enforcement officials, is also critically important. This situation is partly due to the confusion over the court’s rejection of President Trump’s executive immigration order that barred even the green card holders and those with dual nationality from seven Muslim countries to enter the US. The Nepali community is also subject to mistaken identity and sometimes taken as one of the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants mostly of Hispanic origin and “radical extremists” originating from the Middle East.

“If you have a green card or citizenship, you are safe legally” says Khagendra GC, a well-known attorney of Nepali origin from New York who was recently addressing the Research Triangle Park Nepali community of North Carolina. He was invited to address the Nepali community in the area to describe the potential impact of the executive order and other immigration laws. Many other Nepali communities across the country are seeking help from lawyers. It is reported that some of them have been in contact with the Embassy of Nepal in Washington DC. Thousands of families and friends in Nepal are worried about their loved ones living legally or illegally in the US.

Need for caution

With the planned introduction of new immigration executive orders by President Trump and immigration legislation in Congress, immigrant communities are fearful of possible hostile acts against them based on their looks.  Anti-immigrant sentiments might also be increasing, mostly in rural America. 

A Nepali immigrant can easily be misidentified as someone from other South Asian countries, Central America, South America or the Middle East, or as a native American. Sporadic cases of violence such as in the state of Kansas in February this year have increased the fear and the uncertainty.  A man fired in a Kansas bar, killing one Indian and wounding two others, thinking the two Indians were Iranians. Public support against these incidents has been overwhelming. For example, fund raising in GoFundMe.com for Kansas victims and families topped $1.25 million as of March 5, 2017. Emotional and financial support continues to pour in.

Everyone needs to understand that recent immigrants from different countries around the world live and work in the United States legally, and an overwhelming majority are not extremists. At the same time, the Nepali immigrant community needs to take caution in avoiding situations and circumstances that might be harmful to them. In a nutshell, identifying and characterising a person on the basis of skin colour and, presumably, the kind of perceived risk they might pose, can be deceiving.

Giri is an adjunct professor at Duke University, US

Published: 24-03-2017 08:57

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