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When a gunman shot two technology workers from Hyderabad, India in a Kansas City bar on February 22, the story quickly topped the headlines in India—especially once it emerged that the shooter singled the two men out to harass them over their immigration status.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed, while his friend, Alok Reddy Madasani, survived.
By the weekend, Indian papers were tracking the story closely. “US Navy Veteran Who Shot Hyderabad Techie Yelled ‘Get Out of My Country,’ led the Times of India front page on February 25 in Hyderabad, where I happened to be visiting. The shooter now faces first-degree murder charges as well as an FBI probe to determine if he should be charged with a hate crime. The attack turned a new page in the annals of violence, and has already colored how Hyderabad residents now see the pathway to America. As Mr. Kuchibhotla’s grieving widow asked in her Facebook appeal: "Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?"
Has any cold-blooded murderer ever before scoped out targets by asking about their visa status? In Kansas City, Adam Purinton did just that, asking Kuchibhotla and Madasani what type of visa they held before later yelling at them to “get out of my country.” The two were both legally employed in the United States, had studied in American universities, and should have been seen as law-abiding, productive contributors to the American economy and American life.
Who knows what precisely ran through gunman Purinton’s mind that night. But his anti-immigrant hate tapped the starkly changed tone in the United States. One month into the Trump administration, American debate surrounding some of the nation’s most complicated immigration issues has taken a harsh turn.
Legitimate concerns about how best to prevent terrorism and protect the homeland have devolved into a “Muslim ban.” Longstanding deliberations over an appropriate and humane approach to undocumented immigrants have given way to raids targeting a brain tumor patient in the hospital and a church shelter. Rumors about upcoming curbs to the high-skilled worker visa program known as H-1Bs have raised alarm in India, since seventy percent of the program’s visa petitions go to Indian citizens. Each of these matters involves difficult public policy considerations that require careful nuance, not blunt actions, in order to uphold American interests effectively.
These larger debates about how the United States should best regulate who enters the nation’s shores are losing needed complexity, and the moral compass of compassion appears completely gone. If America only recently stood as Reagan’s shining city on a hill, a welcoming beacon of political freedom and economic opportunity, Trump’s America functions on a mix of fear and resentment. This face of American politics is unfolding in the glare of the world’s attention, and in a few short weeks has put a new cruel America on display. George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism seems like a lifetime ago.
The senseless H-1B murder in Kansas City has already affected how the United States is seen abroad. In India, a country where the American technology sector is widely admired, and where the United States has historically enjoyed high approval ratings, a new caution has begun to circulate. The Hindustan Times reported that “dos and don’ts” for life in America are making the rounds on social media—including a warning not to speak in Indian languages in public as “it might land you in deep trouble.” The father of injured Alok Madasani has appealed “to all the parents in India not to send their children to the United States.” Kuchibhotla’s mother told the Hindustan Times that she “would not allow” her younger son to return to the United States.
The changed perception of the United States is even more significant coming from residents of Hyderabad. The city has long sent many of its youth to the United States for higher education as well as employment, disproportionately so compared with other parts of India. In a speech delivered in Hyderabad in July 2016, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Michele Bond stated that the fifth-highest number of student visas for the United States worldwide were issued in Hyderabad. Within India, it topped the list.
The city on its own accounted for around fifteen percent of the H-1B visas issued in India last fiscal year, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Hyderabadis are so focused on going abroad that their city even has a temple devoted to Balaji, the Hindu god of visas.
But the Kansas City shooting has ruptured the Hyderabadi American dream. During Mr. Kuchibhotla’s funeral in Hyderabad, some attendees showed up with signs saying "#Down With Trump" and "#Down With Racism." It’s a far cry from the eagerness only recently felt for the United States. In fact, as I flew from Hyderabad to Delhi on my way home the same night Indian papers were filled with details of the Kansas City attack, a young man seated in my row heard that I was from the United States. He turned to me and asked, “Is it true what they are saying about America now with Trump?”
I wished I could say that it weren’t.
A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.