Indian-Americans are the most prominent ethnic minority in President Donald Trump’s largely white, male administration.
With Nikki Haley as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Ajit Pai as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and Seema Verma nominated to lead the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Indian-Americans have key roles in shaping administration policy, from international relations to internet access to health care.
Another Indian-American, Harmeet Dhillon, a San Francisco trial lawyer who’s a member of the Republican National Committee, is a top candidate to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
The Trump appointments coincide with a surge in the election of Indian-Americans to Congress, though all are Democrats. Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal last year became the first Indian-American woman elected to the House of Representatives, and California Sen. Kamala Harris became the first woman of Indian descent elected to the Senate.
California voters sent Sacramento’s Rep. Ami Bera back for another term and elected Rep. Ro Khanna in the San Francisco Bay Area. Illinois Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi was elected to represent Chicago’s western suburbs.
Indian-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Democrat Hillary Clinton last November, but their high levels of English proficiency and business acumen make them attractive to conservatives, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside, who studies Asian-American political trends.
Haley was twice elected South Carolina’s Republican governor. Pai, a Kansas native, served as Verizon’s general counsel. Verma was a hospital executive in Indianapolis.
“Indian-Americans have done well in the Republican Party and conservative circles,” Ramakrishnan said.
Indian-Americans voted 87 percent for Clinton and 9 percent for Trump, with the remaining voters choosing other candidates. In 2012, the first year Asian-American Decisions polled Indian-Americans, 83 percent voted for President Barack Obama, while 10 percent voted for Republican Mitt Romney.
EunSook Lee, director of the Asian American Pacific Islander Engagement Fund, a nonprofit organization that promotes the participation of Asian-Americans in the public sphere, attributed Trump’s low numbers to his campaign rhetoric on immigration.
“I think it certainly has to do with the type of messages and proposals that candidate Trump proposed, from the Muslim ban to the (Mexican border) wall,” she said. “Even if Indian-Americans are not necessarily Muslims or undocumented, they are aware of the implications of his rhetoric and posturing on their own population.”
Trump’s immigration policies include a temporary ban on refugees from several Muslim-majority countries and increased deportations of immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally.
Recent bias-motivated attacks, including the shooting death of Garmin employee Srinivas Kuchibhotla at a Kansas tavern, may leave Indian-Americans wondering what Trump will do to protect minority communities from violence.
At least so far, though, Indian-Americans are the diversity of Trump’s administration.
With the exception of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is Chinese-American, and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who’s African-American, Trump’s Cabinet picks have all been white men. Labor Secretary nominee Alexander Acosta, if confirmed, would be the first Latino member of Trump’s Cabinet.
“What does racial diversity in the Trump administration look like?” Ramakrishnan said. “It’s Indian faces.”
Haley, Verma and Pai have shared parts of their personal and family stories as the children of Indian immigrants.
In her Senate confirmation hearing in January, Haley called her upbringing “an American story.”
“Growing up in a small rural community in the South, our family was different,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “We were not white enough to be white. We were not black enough to be black. My father wore a turban. My mother wore a sari. Our new neighbors didn’t quite know what to make of us, so we did face challenges, but those challenges paled next to the abundance of opportunities in front of us.”
The Senate confirmed her by 96-4.
Verma, who designed Indiana’s Medicaid program when Vice President Mike Pence was governor, will get her Senate confirmation vote Monday. She also helped Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin craft changes to the state’s Medicaid program, which was expanded under the Affordable Care Act.
At her Senate confirmation hearing in February, Verma introduced her parents, husband and children.
“My father left his entire family to immigrate to the United States during the 1960s to pursue four degrees while he worked to earn money to pay for school, as well as to provide for his family,” she told the Senate Finance Committee.
Pai, who grew up in Parsons, Kansas, was elevated to chairman of the FCC by Trump in January. He’ll need to be reconfirmed by the Senate later this year.
Upon his promotion to chairman, Pai paid tribute to his parents, who came to the U.S. from India 45 years ago, “with literally no assets other than $10, a transistor radio and a desire to achieve the American dream.”
“I hope my tenure as chairman will show me to be worthy of the sacrifices they’ve made for me and the lessons they’ve taught me,” Pai said. “And I’m ever grateful that this wonderful country has given me and my family the opportunity to dream big.”