- In a conversation with American Kahani, the Indian American lawmaker discusses his hate crimes act, immigration policies and the challenges in navigating a large and diverse South Asian American community in his district.
Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, representing Illinois’s 8th congressional district, has introduced the bipartisan Hate Crimes Commission Act. First introduced in 2017, the legislation is all the more relevant today, given the recent rise in anti-Asian crimes. And he is optimistic about its passing this time around. “There is a lot of momentum behind the bill which would set up a bi-partisan commission of officials who are not currently serving in office, to study over the course of one year the rise in hate crimes and suggest concrete ways to address it,” he told American Kahani. “More than 140 sponsors have signed on the legislation in the House including folks like [Rep.] Young Kim [R-Calif.] and [Rep.] Jeff Van Drew [R-N.J.], but we need a lot more.”
On April 22, the Senate passed a separate legislation aimed at combating a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans during the coronavirus pandemic in a 94-1 vote. The bill now goes to the House, where Democrats are expected to soon take up their version of the legislation.
Krishnamoorthi, who is serving his second term in the U.S. Congress, is also seeking an investigation of potential anti-Sikh motivations in the Indianapolis shooting at a FedEx facility, which left eight dead, including four members of the Sikh community. “I am very concerned that the shooter may have, in part, targeted these people because of who they were,” he said. “It’s not a stretch to say that in general there has been a large rise in hate-crimes toward non-White people and for these particular victims to have been targeted in part based on their being Sikh American would be consistent with the unfortunate pattern of a lot of shootings and violence over the course of the past year.”
Earlier this week, Krishnamoorthi entered a statement into the Congressional record to recognize April as ‘Sikh appreciation and awareness month’ in his home state. He said he wants to officially appreciate the contributions of the Sikh American community.
In a phone conversation with American Kahani, Krishnamoorthi discussed his hate crime bill, policies he’s working on and the challenges he’s been facing in navigating a large and diverse South Asian American community in his district, especially on matters relating to immigration and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following are edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: Tell us about the Hate Crimes Commission bill that you first introduced in 2017. It is more relevant today, given the recent rise in anti-Asian crimes, especially after the Atlanta and Indianapolis attacks.
We are all mourning the lives of the victims of the latest mass shooting, this time in Indianapolis. It hit particularly close to home because four of the eight were Sikh Americans. I am very concerned that the shooter may have, in part, targeted these people because of who they were. It’s not a stretch to say that in general there has been a large rise in hate crimes toward non-White people and for these particular victims to have been targeted in part based on their faith would be consistent with the unfortunate pattern of a lot of shootings and violence over the course of the past year.
Q: What kind of response are you getting from the Republicans for the bill?
It’s better than before, but it’s not good enough. There is a lot of momentum behind the bill, which would set up a bi-partisan commission of officials who are not currently serving in office, to basically study over the course of one year the rise in hate crimes and suggest concrete ways to address it. More than 140 sponsors have signed on the legislation in the House, including [Rep.] Young Kim (R-Calif.) and [Rep.] Jeff Van Drew [R-N.J.], but we need a lot more.
What I fear is happening within the Republican Party is basically accommodating a lot of sentiments, which to me amount to bigotry and prejudice or outright discrimination. Just this past Friday [April 16], Marjorie Taylor Green [Republican Congresswoman from Georgia], proposed creating a ‘America First’ caucus. In its manifesto they said they wanted to celebrate Anglo Saxon traditions. So I went on the MSNBC on Saturday [April 17], and called it the ‘Ku Klux Caucus,’ because it sounds a lot like a throwback to the KKK or other groups that seek to oppress minorities. And for these people who want to form the caucus, to come straight out of the Republican Party, means that they are accommodating hate within their ranks.
Q: What kind of future do you see for the legislation?
Multiple caucuses have made it a priority for them including the Congressional American Asian Pacific Caucus, the LGBTQ Equality Caucus, the Hispanic Caucus, and others. So I’m very excited about the prospects of this. I have some terrific original co-sponsors, so I’m going to keep pushing. Unfortunately, it didn’t go anywhere in the Trump years, but it has a brighter future in the Biden years.
Q: I’m sure you were disappointed, like the rest of the Indian American community, the way Neera Tanden’s nomination fell through. Do you think the Democratic Party failed her?
Well, I was disappointed that Joe Manchin [D-W.Va] did not support her. But the vast, vast majority of Democrats did, and I think there was a genuine effort by the Biden administration to get her confirmed.
However, Republicans in the Senate adopted a complete double standard with regard to her social media and tweets compared to what they said about Donald Trump. His tweets were a proper exercise of free speech but Tanden’s were somehow out of bounds?
If you look at her actual tweets, they really are tame, compared to what Trump said. So there is a double standard for women, for non-White people, for perhaps Democrats, that these Republican senators adopted. And I think that’s what resulted in the ultimate outcome for Tanden.
We all have to speak out about it, because if we don’t, I fear that they are going to think that it’s okay to employ these tactics in torpedoing future South Asian or any nominees.
Q: After Tanden’s nomination was withdrawn, there is no representation of the Indian Americans at the Cabinet level. Do you see the Biden administration making amends for it in the near future?
I am thrilled that Kamala Harris is vice president, and we claim her as our own. I am thrilled about South Asian Americans in senior posts, but I am disappointed that we don’t see a South Asian American within the Cabinet, even though there’s enormous talent in the public servant ranks.
I was very disappointed when Vivek Murthy became surgeon general; they did not upgrade his position to a Cabinet level. It only seemed appropriate to do so in a pandemic. We requested that to happen, and they refused. So I am hoping they will see the error of their ways.
The other thing that bothers me is that there’s no Asian American Cabinet secretary whatsoever. I believe that’s a big blindspot that needs to be addressed. I am concerned that even as we are dealing with hate crimes and the rise of bigotry and prejudice and discrimination toward South Asian Americans and Asian Americans, we ourselves have a little bit of a blindspot with regards to the need to have important positions occupied and priorities led by us. When you do that, you begin to change people’s stereotypes about us. That’s an ongoing concern that I am going to continue to work on.
Q: As co-chair of the crucial Immigration Task Force of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus what are some of the measures you can propose in immigration matters concerning the Indian American community?
I and Zoe Lofgren [D-Calif.] are the champions for the Fairness for High Skilled Immigrant Act which removes the per country cap for H-1B holders. Right now a new H-1B applicant for a green card faces a 70 year wait and that’s completely unacceptable. I am honored that the House passed our bill last Congress; we were not able to get through the Senate. So this time around I am really looking forward to getting it, not only through the House and the Senate, but signed into law.
And also for H-4 visa holders, the spouses of the H-1B visa holders, they need to be able to work and it doesn’t make any sense to sideline them. And these are some of the most talented people, and we should get them working, producing and paying taxes — do all the things necessary to propel the economy forward.
Another issue that’s rarely discussed is that almost a half a million South Asian immigrants are undocumented. We have to make sure that they, along with all other undocumented people, who have stayed through in this country, who have done right, and become a fabric of our society, have a pathway to citizenship. It doesn’t make any sense not to do this.
I am the original co-sponsor of the legislation that has been proposed by Linda Sanchez [D.Calif.] and Sen. Bob Melendez [D-N.J.], to put comprehensive immigration reform forward. I am also an original co-sponsor of the DREAM Act. There are South Asian Dreamers as well. We need to get them on a path to citizenship. I am going to continue on all these fronts as a co-chair of this task force and we need to get some victories on immigration.
Q: Indian Americans are getting more and more divided when it comes to issues related to India. What do you think are the reasons for that divide?
I am concerned about this, because South Asian Americans and Indian Americans share a very common culture, common cuisines, dress, even a common outlook on a lot of public policy issues such as having a robust and high quality public education system for our children, because that is the gateway to the American Dream for us, as immigrants.
About the differences — there are people within various groups who have had differences over the years. Certainly there are events in India that contribute to that.
However, I respectfully submit that one of the factors that I have noticed that has contributed increasingly to fanning the flames here, is the actions of local politicians. For example, in my own district, which has the largest South Asian communities of any Congressional district in the country, there’s a gentleman named Joe Walsh, who’s one of my predecessors. He decided that following 9/11, he was going to use Islamophobia as a tool for political advantage. And so he said ‘there are terrorists among us in my Congressional district,’ referring to Muslim Americans. This became a huge controversy. I jumped in immediately to condemn and to work on the side of those who are trying to deal with the fallout in a positive way from what he did. But then Donald Trump came around, and added fuel to the fire, and he put in the Muslim ban.
If we don’t put those differences aside, and come together, we are not going to be able to confront the hate. Hate toward non-White people is not a trivial issue. Despite disagreements about what’s going on elsewhere, but have to come to an agreement right now, right here. We have to lock arms together to fight the discrimination, bigotry and prejudice that’s on the rise in a startling manner toward us and our children and families here. And that’s something that I can’t overstate.
Q: What are some of the difficulties and challenges you have faced in navigating the Indian American community, given their diversity and conflicts.
It’s not easy (laughs). It’s not easy even within “a certain community,” even a regional and ethnic community because of issues of different language, caste, religion. Whenever I can, I try to highlight “our oldest common denominators,” the things that we share in common that we can’t afford not to cooperate on them. I pull together people on the issue of H-1B immigration, on COVID tests, vaccinations.
The number one constituent services request for me, right now, is COVID, everything related to it, including business loans, getting aid related to the Economic Relief Program, as well as immigration problems that have cropped up because of COVID and the slow down in processing as well as not even being able to get interviews or appointments in the subcontinent, to come here.
Now, do these people that call me for those constituent services have viewpoints on these other issues, whether it’s in India and elsewhere? Absolutely. But they have very tangible material problems in the here and now that I have to tackle, and fortunately, they come to me to seek aid on, which is my job, I don’t deny that, but my job in doing is that I’m hopefully also forming policies that help all of them and bring us together so that we can find a way out of this together.
Q: Lately, several human rights watchers, and to some extent even the State Department, have demoted India to an illiberal democracy. Are you concerned with the way democratic institutions and processes in India are being systematically undermined? How will they impact U.S.-India relations in the long run?
Yes, I am concerned. As a member of the House Intelligence Committee, I recently attended a Worldwide Threats hearing where people testified that we are seeing a chipping away of democratic institutions whether in the UK, Germany, France, Australia, and the United States. It’s here that I am very concerned because it came home to roost on January 6th. We had a group of insurrectionists, largely people who are anti-minority, inspired by Donald Trump, who pose perhaps the greatest electoral challenge we have seen in recent memory. And believe it or not, a bomb was placed 200 feet from my office window; I was evacuated twice that night, and following all that life has changed. January 6th has fundamentally reaffirmed my focus on shoring up democratic processes and institutions everywhere in the world, among all secular democracies.
When I saw the funeral the other day for the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, on Saturday [April 17], what I saw, more than anything else, was the monarchy, in some ways being celebrated. And what it really reminded me of was British subjugation, imperialism, especially in India. What we see in India is the constant echoes of the British pitting one group against another, one religion against another, one caste against another — that is how they ruled India and India is still dealing with that fundamental imperialist, colonialist approach.
Now is the time to decide that we are going to come together, we are going to put aside the score-settling which has gone on for too long over the centuries. We are going to conquer COVID, which is raging. We are going to jointly reach new economic heights. We are going to combat the Chinese Communist threat, which is ever-looming within the Indo-Pacific area. And at the end of the day, I have to say that the only people who are cheering are our adversaries. And while we may disagree with each other about various things, we disagree with our adversaries a lot more about the way of the world. And we got to come together to deal with them before we lose our identities.