President Donald Trump went out of his way to court Indian Americans this election year, flying halfway around the globe to headline a rally with more than 100,000 adoring fans.
But just four months after his trip to India, Trump this week blocked engineers, computer programmers and other high-skilled workers — overwhelmingly from India — from entering the United States.
Trump’s order — ostensibly to counter the soaring unemployment of American workers during the coronavirus pandemic — threatens to undermine the inroads his campaign hoped to make with Indian Americans, a fast-growing voting bloc that registers and votes at high rates.
“If this were the case … why in February during Covid times go to India?” wondered Aman Kapoor, president of Immigration Voice, a group that works with Indian foreign workers.
The incident is far from the only time the Trump campaign’s outreach and White House’s policies have clashed. Trump has advanced policies, gone off script in interviews or lashed out on Twitter in ways that contradict his own campaign’s attempts to slice into the Democrats’ advantages with African Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics.
Some Trump allies blame a lack of coordination between the White House and campaign. Others say Trump is simply responding to the unexpected shifts in the world after the pandemic seized the American economy. Still, there are those who say Trump’s policies have simply never been in line with the priorities of many communities of color — and that any attempt to bolster his standing with them was always a quixotic endeavor.
“The campaign may have strategies, but Trump doesn’t have much of a strategy ever except to cater to his base,” said Rob Stutzman, a Republican political strategist based in Sacramento, Calif. “And there’s no discipline to his strategy. I think he’s incapable of adhering to a strategy. That’s why he inflicts so much damage on himself.”
In 2016, Trump earned just 8 percent of the Black vote, 28 percent of the Latino vote and 27 percent of the Asian American vote. For 2020, his campaign launched coalitions to try to boost its standing with all three groups.
Yet each initiative has hit hurdles in the form of Trump’s own policies or rhetoric.
The Trump campaign’s efforts to woo Black voters — launched with great fanfare last fall — has run into the president’s recent emphasis on law and order following the eruption of massive Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism.
After initially nodding to people’s right to protest, the president has spent the weeks since demonizing the largely peaceful demonstrations. He has claimed without evidence that the protests are infiltrated with antifa and on Thursday accused a Black Lives Matter leader of “Treason, Sedition, Insurrection!” for saying the movement will push to “burn down the system and replace it” if political leaders don’t acquiesce to activists’ requests.
The campaign is also trying to win over more Hispanic voters with Spanish-language media interviews and ads targeting the voting bloc.
But this week, Trump talked about wanting to end a popular Obama-era program that protects Dreamers, immigrants who came to the country illegally as children. The move comes despite objections from some Republicans who see that their own party now broadly supports the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Trump has also resumed his focus on a contentious southern border wall, flying to Arizona this week to tour construction.
Similarly, the campaign has tried to make inroads in Florida’s key Venezuelan-American demographic through videos and op-eds promoting Trump’s tough stance against strongman Nicolás Maduro.
Yet Trump appears to be waffling in his support for ousting Maduro. In an interview with Axios, Trump second-guessed his own decision to recognize opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader and suggested he would meet with Maduro. The comment created a firestorm in the state, especially in South Florida, home to more than 400,000 Hispanics of Venezuelan origin. Trump quickly distanced himself from his own comments.
An outside Trump adviser acknowledged that some recent decisions may turn off some voters but said they should cast their ballot based on Trump’s entire record, not just select policies. Trump’s appeal to African Americans also includes his push for criminal justice reform and to secure funding for historically black colleges and universities.
But a Republican who speaks to Trump said the president is right to push more conservative policies that could lead his base to turn out in November because he was never going to garner significant support from Asian Americans, Hispanics and Black people. “It’s a pipe dream,” the person said. “The way to win is turnout.”
The campaign didn’t respond to questions about the disconnect between policy and politics but defended Trump’s proclamation freezing green cards and guest worker visas through the end of the year.
“President Trump is taking necessary action to protect America and American jobs,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine said. “After the coronavirus artificially interrupted the hottest economy on record, Americans are looking to get back to work. Protecting American jobs for American citizens is key to President Trump’s America First agenda.”
Yet it is that decision that is now threatening the campaign’s outreach to the Indian American community.
The Trump campaign had hoped to win over more Indian American voters in 2020, touting Trump’s economic agenda, especially the 2017 tax cuts, as well as the president’s outreach to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But after the pandemic hit, the U.S. experienced its highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression. In response, Trump has pursued a series of measures to restrict foreign workers from entering the country.
This week, the president signed an expanded proclamation barring most immigrants from coming into the country, even though business leaders say foreign workers are critical to companies that might be unable to find enough unemployed Americans willing to take certain jobs.
The order applies to high-skilled workers (H-1B visas) and some of their spouses (H-4 visas), as well as non-agricultural workers (H-2B visas), executives (L visas) and those on work- and study-based exchange visitor programs (J visas).
“Obviously they tried to court Indian Americans to this president for the upcoming election, but you see the thing is we have always known where Trump stood as far as this issue was concerned,” said Kapoor, president of the group that works with Indian foreign workers.
The directive came together — like so many others before it in the Trump White House — after competing factions sparred until the final moments.
Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, and Mark Meadows, Trump’s new chief of staff, both opposed such a sweeping proclamation, according to four people familiar with the discussions. They were joined by Chris Liddell, a New Zealand-born businessman who serves as deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. Trump, however, was looking for something simple but bold that would appease irate immigration hardliners before the election, they said.
“We want to give jobs to Americans right now,” Trump told reporters this week. “Right now, we want jobs going to Americans.”
Trump was facing pressure from hardliners after including business-friendly carve outs in an initial order signed in April barring most people from receiving permanent residency visas. Kushner was behind the original exceptions of guest workers, from landscapers to hotel workers, according to two people.
Expanding those restrictions will significantly impact people in India seeking U.S. visas.
Nearly 72 percent of the 388,403 high-skilled visas approved in 2019, including renewals, were for Indian citizens, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. And Indian nationals accounted for nearly 93 percent of all new work permits issued to their spouses since 2015 when they became eligible for the visas, according to USCIS.
India also will be the most affected country for executive visas. Almost 1 in 4 of the 77,000 visas issued in 2019 were to Indians, according to the State Department.
“Without a doubt, Indian nationals are likely to be the most impacted group when it comes to H-1B,” said Daniel Costa, director of immigration and law policy research at the Economic Policy Institute.
There was one silver lining for Indian nationals with the latest ban. More than half of high-skilled worker visas were issued to those who already were in the U.S., which likely will mitigate the impact of the ban.
The Indian government issued a statement Thursday about the importance of visas to the “U.S.-India partnership,” saying they are crucial in the technology, innovation and Covid-19- related industries.
“High-skilled Indian professionals bring important skill sets, bridge technological gaps and impart a competitive edge to the U.S. economy,” the statement reads. “The U.S. has always welcomed talent and we hope our professionals will be welcomed in the U.S.A in the future.”
Al Mason, co-chairman of the Trump Victory Indian American Finance Committee, said the ban will not hamper support Indian Americans have for Trump. “Indian Americans feel respected and acknowledged for the first time by a U.S. president,” he said.
Republicans have been trying for years — with limited success — to make inroads with Indian Americans, many who have families who came to the United States legally to study or work.
In 2016, more than 80 percent of Indian Americans voted for Trump’s 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, according to polling by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
That year, about 1.2 million Indian Americans were registered to vote, according to Asian American and Pacific Islanders Data. That number is expected to rise to 1.4 million in 2020.
In addition to the recent visa restrictions, Trump had already angered some in the Indian American community by kicking the country out of a trade preference program for developing countries. He also raised eyebrows with an offer to intervene in the long-standing land dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region.
Yet Trump has also aligned himself closely with Modi, the popular Indian leader.
Trump appeared at “Howdy Modi,” a Houston rally with Modi last year that was hailed as the largest event in the U.S. for a leader of a foreign nation. And Trump chose to travel to India for a “Namaste Trump” rally with 110,000 enthusiastic Indians at the world’s largest cricket stadium. His campaign even launched a digital ad campaign tailored for Indian American voters focused on the economy, education policy and the relationship between Trump and Modi, who both rode to office on a wave of populist rhetoric.
Still, Trump’s job approval among Indian Americans was only 28 percent in 2018, according to the Asian American Voter Survey, a poll of registered Asian American voters. About 66 percent of respondents disapproved of how the president was handling his job.
Mason predicted — based on information collected through a network of Indian American friends, business owners, community leaders and others in battleground states — that more than 65 percent of Indian Americans in 2020 battleground states who previously voted for Democrats will support Trump.
“Just as the Trump base will never desert Trump, the Indian Americans want to cement the goodwill between India and the U.S. by voting for President Trump in very large numbers,” he said.