Inside a two-storey building that houses Nepali attorneys and astrologers in the heavily South Asian neighborhood in Jackson Heights, Queens, a poster reads, “Neighbors! Do not fear Mr Trump. He is only after criminals! Do not listen to the local politicians. They will only get you arrested, or you will wind up in the hospital. Give Mr. TRUMP a chance.” Signed “unnamed Jackson Heights Republican.” The message resonates with Kamal Khadka, 36, who has been working as a server at a Nepalese restaurant in Jackson Heights for three years.
“I agree with Trump when he says people will be strong only when the country is strong,” Kamal said. He used to be a government employee in Nepal before leaving for the US in search of better opportunities. “Things for us aren’t as scary here as they make it sound after Trump’s victory,” he said.
But for most of the Nepalis in the US, the Trump administration induces a never-ending anxiety that began the night he was elected.
Sunita Shrestha [name changed] vividly remembers how she felt both fear and disappointment on US election night. “It was as if my skin had gotten darker and I was less “American” overnight—as if being those things were wrong,” says Shrestha, who works in a university in Nashville.
Trump’s shocking victory has emboldened those hostile to minorities. For Shrestha, who has been living in the US for seven years, the greatest shock post election was the Muslim ban. “I started feeling increasingly anxious in public, especially at airports,” she says, “Trump’s speeches would be coincidentally aired live there, and there would be an air of awkwardness, shame, and indifference all around,” she says.
And the anxiety isn’t unfounded. According to Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), the number of reported incidents for hate violence including harassment and physical assault has spiked since 2015. SPLC’s annual census of hate groups further goes on to state “The number of hate groups in the United States rose for a second year in a row in 2016 as the radical right was energized by the candidacy of Donald Trump.”
Trump’s victory last November was a defining moment for 30-year-old Roshan Ghimire as well. As a Nepali living in the US, he never felt treated differently because of his color or identity in the past decade. He has lived and moved around the US as a photographer and social media consultant. “Trump has been spewing hate towards certain communities. It was and still is hurtful to see the rise of ultra-nationalism and hatred towards immigrants and minorities, and the glorification of “whiteness”,” says Roshan. The nervousness felt by the diaspora has also found its way back home. Roshan says his family has shown greater concern for his safety in the US after Trump’s victory last year. “I get a lot of ‘I hope Trump hasn’t made life hard for you’ comments from my family in Nepal,” he said.
Donald Trump, who launched his campaign on anti-immigration sentiments, has put those promises to action after taking office. While most of his vitriolic attacks have focused on Muslims and Latinos, Nepalis in the US have also started feeling the heat of the new administration’s stringent immigration stance. Just last week, the president stated he wanted to end the diversity visa lottery program. In 2016, the most successful applicants were from Nepal with 3,247 visas. There is also a concern in the Nepali community about whether or not the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) issued to Nepalis after the 2015 earthquake will be extended beyond June next year.
Over the last decade, the number of Nepalis in the US has increased steadily especially with the significant flow of Nepali students. According to the International Education Exchange’s (IIE) Open Doors report, Nepal has consistently ranked among the top 20 countries as a place of origin for international students to the US. Although the 2010 US census puts the number of Nepalis at around 55,000, unofficial estimates show the figure to be as high as 300,000. As a result of the anti-immigrant rhetoric and programs, even those living legally in the US cannot escape immigration policies and fear has crept into their daily conversations after Trump’s election.
“I do find myself becoming increasingly more anxious about airports and international travel,” said Aarushi Bhandari. She has lived in the US for eight years and is currently a PhD student at Stony Brook University in New York. “Those fears were already there, but now they seem so much more pressing and real,” she added. Nepalis like Aarushi who have lived in the US for long enough say they’ve always felt the prejudice was there and have faced some form of discrimination because of their “otherness” in the past. But white nationalists are less inhibited now, having a president whose policies reflect their values.
“The hate and prejudice has become more overt in the last few years,” said Nabin Raj Joshi. He came to the US in 2012 and works as a researcher at The Institute for Vision Research in New York. “Of late, when people ask me where I am from, I suddenly feel uncomfortable, even if it is at a bar in Manhattan,” he said, sipping Corona at a pub in Queens, New York. Since he is on a student visa, he isn’t as worried as many of his friends and family who are at the mercy of the TPS extension, especially in states like Arizona and Texas that have more stringent immigration laws than New York. “Thousands of Nepalis who have given their addresses to become documented in the system will have to go into hiding if and when the TPS is canceled,” he said.