When the ‘Right Kind of Immigrant’ is Too Right, It All Goes Wrong

Representation is supposed to be a good thing, right? So why does it so often feel like minority politicians are doing more harm than good? 

Indians in the United States and the United Kingdom comprise around 20% of all Indian diasporans, making them one of the most populous diaspora groups in either country. As the world becomes more progressive and minority representation in politics increases, there has been a significant uptick in prominent Indian-American policymakers. But as a fellow Indian diasporan from both the U.S. and the U.K., I am frustrated by their right-wing tendencies and anti-immigration hypocrisies that populate my newsfeed time and time again. 

Take Nikki Haley: former South Carolina governor and an Indian-American immigrant success story. Her Sikh parents immigrated to South Carolina from India years ago to pursue higher education in the United States, starting a successful clothing boutique. Haley, raised a Sikh, converted to Christianity after marrying her veteran husband, and is now the mother of two children. Her life is, quite literally, the American dream. Her multifaceted identity, ‘girlboss’ politics, and conservative policy viewpoints make her the ideal immigrant-turned-politician of the Republican Party’s dreams. 

As someone who grew up seeing the positive shift from Apu from “The Simpsons” to Devi from “Never Have I Ever,” witnessing people like Haley flaunt her daughter-of-immigrants identity to garner popularity while simultaneously condemning what she calls ‘identity politics’ feels like ten steps backward from the progress South Asians have made in Western society.

Haley, throughout her political career, has emphasized her status as the first minority and female governor of South Carolina, making headlines and advancing her political career. As a proud Republican, she upholds typical conservative views of pro-lifeism, “American strength,” and anything else you might find in an average Fox News article. 

But beyond her unoriginal political stances, what she is most notable for is her sheer sense of hypocrisy (which, for the Republican party, is somewhat unoriginal, too). Haley recently rose to prominence in U.S. politics with the announcement of her 2024 presidential campaign. Despite her repeated emphasis on her minority identity, calling that ‘identity politics’ is a step too far, at least for her. In her presidential campaign video, she highlights that she is the “proud daughter of Indian immigrants,” while then going on to dismiss “identity politics,” despite the fact that she uses her own identity to get votes. It doesn’t matter that she repeatedly shared stories of her father, who wears a turban, racially profiled; according to Haley, “America is not a racist country.” 

As Aimee Allison, the founder of a Democrat-aligned minority-empowerment campaign, so aptly put it, “You cannot have it both ways.” 

What Haley demonstrates is the phenomenon of ‘shutting the door behind you.’ 

In diaspora contexts, this refers to how many immigrants take on anti-immigration and other conservative political views after immigrating to their host country. This may stem from the common encouragement to leave behind their ‘old’ way of life and fully assimilate into their ‘new’ culture. 

I was born in the United Kingdom, raised in Hong Kong and I now attend university in the United States; so, like many other Indians outside India, my relationship with my cultural identity is multifaceted. This also means I pay extra attention to the presence of diversity in global politics, which makes seeing a global trend of ‘shutting the door behind you’ confusing and frustrating. 

Beyond that, it is angering that politicians selectively flaunt their Indian-American and Indian-British identities to appeal to the masses and get votes, yet embody right-wing ideals that are not actually representative of the communities they claim to speak for. 

According to a study by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, most Indian-Americans tend to be more Democratic than Republican. Not only do they ideologically place themselves more left, they even consider the Republican Party to be “unwelcoming.” This is the reality of Indian-Americans that Haley so often gets wrong. Most Indian-Americans don’t stand for her values. 

This troubling phenomenon is prevalent in minority and diaspora politicians globally, beyond just Haley in the United States. Suella Braverman, a member of the Indian diaspora and the United Kingdom’s current Home Secretary, is the perfect example of this. 

Braverman embodies a similar sense of hypocrisy. In her speeches, Braverman often talks about her parents’ journey as Indian Kenyans to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Her parents “loved Britain from afar, as children of the Commonwealth,” (the same Commonwealth, mind you, that put 1.5 million Kenyans in detention centers during that same time period for opposing colonial rule.) 

But what led them to success? Well, they embraced a new British identity, speaking English and ultimately doing what every ‘good’ immigrant should do: assimilate. 

Now, in 2023, Braverman has pushed for inhumane policies that would most likely bar her parents from entering the United Kingdom had they immigrated today. 

On March 7, she introduced one of the most draconian asylum bills the United Kingdom has ever seen. Following the polarizing Rwanda asylum bill of last year, this even more controversial bill will essentially block most routes to legal and safe migration to the United Kingdom. As per this new policy, the U.K. government will be allowed to detain adults who arrive in the country on small boats for up to a month without any avenue of judicial review or bail. They will be unable to apply for asylum or petition for their detention, and will not even be allowed to use modern slavery laws. In theory, they will either be sent back to their countries or to a third, ‘safe country’ such as Rwanda, which are the only places where they will be allowed to apply for asylum. 

However, these appeals will amount to nothing considering that under this bill, migrants who arrive on small boats will subsequently be banned for life from entering the United Kingdom. This draconian, inhumane bill is already a breach of international refugee law, according to the United Nations. 

Beyond this, the language Braverman uses in discussing her signature new policy reflects a harmful ‘us vs. them’ mindset that right-wing South Asian politicians so often embody. 

“Let’s be clear, they are coming here,” said Braverman when discussing her bill in Parliament. 

“They will not stop coming here until the world knows that if you enter Britain illegally, you will be detained and swiftly removed.” As the daughter of immigrants to the United Kingdom, does she not realize that at a certain point, her parents were the ‘them’? 

Why do we see such high levels of hypocrisy in Indian diaspora politicians? 

Maybe this derives from the strangeness of assimilation. What even is assimilation? The idea that immigrants need to be seamlessly integrated into the life of the country they move to is antiquated — shouldn’t we be past that by now? With first, second and even third-generation immigrants, the idea of being ‘American enough’ or ‘British enough’ is so common it’s almost become a trope. 

I can’t say I haven’t fallen victim to this. As someone who has grown up in international and multicultural environments outside of India, self-questioning has been a mainstay my whole life. It’s the first line in the third-culture-kid, diaspora playbook. Having this muddy perception of your idea of ‘home’ and personal cultural identity can go multiple ways. Either you hyper-assimilate, you fully embrace your ethnic identity, or you find a peaceful place somewhere in the middle. 

What Haley and Braverman are pushing forth with their politics, and what they both embody, is the ‘right kind of immigrant.’ This is someone that works hard and champions the local, homogenous nature of the country they live in, even if that means stripping away their own culture. 

Now, I’m not one to judge Haley’s or Braverman’s ultra-personal, multifaceted relationships with identity and culture. But when they are in decisive positions of power, and selectively leverage their ‘original’ Indian identities to get votes while pushing forward policies that disadvantage the very people they claim to represent, it’s a cultural cop-out. 

In both of their cases, the right-wing end of the political spectrum is often equated with patriotism and being truly ‘of’ that country. In the United States, it’s Republicanism, and in the United Kingdom, it’s Toryism. As part of these conservative parties’ ideals, the right-wing is often the one that takes such hardline stances against immigrants and refugees. How ironic that the daughters of those very immigrants are now the ones touting the same xenophobic rhetoric. 

Maybe it’s a form of political Stockholm syndrome, or some form of reversed, convoluted, “don’t feed the hand that bites you” situation; but either way, it reeks of an identity crisis. 

If Haley and Braverman claim to truly represent the minority Indian communities they are a part of, then they should embody the values that those communities champion. Indian culture is considered collectivist, or promoting the wellness of the society and whole group over that of the sole individual. Where are those values in Haley and Braverman’s foreign policy? 

Identity is, by nature, intertwined with politics. After all, it is the business of understanding people’s needs, just in a more serious capacity. I have grown up excited to see my identity represented in politics more and more, especially as a young person eager to break into the global political scene. 

While it’s great to see many more politicians that look like me, it frustrates me that they seem to reject the values of the very communities they openly boast about being part of. They praise the melting-pot-ness of our countries until it is time to actually gather the ingredients. If this is the representation we’re getting, then maybe I don’t want it.