Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness: lessons to add to US naturalization test

As we look forward to yet another year, I was musing on the year gone by. During the past year, I had the privilege of “using” my acquired passport to make a business trip across the pond to Switzerland, sans a visa: a big deal for those born with third world passports but something westerners take for granted as a birth right.

A friend, the other day asked if I felt any different about living in America as a naturalized citizen this year, and I began reflecting on what really makes Americans Tick.
The naturalization test focuses on several aspects of civics and American history that most kids here would have learnt by rote in middle school. To prepare for the “test,” USCIS provides a handy “guide” with about 100 questions and suggested answers. The modern American society, however, is much more complex and dynamic than any test can prepare one for. The concept of Life, Liberty and Pursuit of Happiness that America’s founding fathers envisioned is being redefined, perhaps by every generation.
My two cents, shaped in part by the topics American mainstream media seems to focus on over and over
Middle class America
Americans like to believe they are a classless society, but like most other societies, there is a marked distinction between the rich and poor with a middle class sandwiched in between. If Americans believe their cities, unlike those in “third world” countries, aren’t bustling beggars in street corners, ask them about panhandlers with street signs. That’s one extreme end of the society; bottom of pyramid if you will. The other extreme is the mulit-million dollar mansions that dot Anytown USA.

The point at which the middle class begins at the bottom and ends towards upper class is a topic politicians love to bring up during elections (of course without providing answers)

Fascination with Economy: whatever the term means!

The term economy is used very loosely by media pundits, analysts and others fascinated by a number of “economic measures.” There is almost a constant focus on stock market, monthly labor market report, ISM manufacturing index, housing market, crude oil price  etc etc. ADP payroll report, and the monthly “Fed” FOMC meeting where they supposedly discuss heavy sounding fiscal topics like GDP, inflation, deflation, interest rates, Quantitative easing

There is enough in the news and media to entertain us but very little to help make educated decisions: if you listen to the “economic analysis” in the media, it is never the right time to invest in stocks, buy a house, Switch jobs, or have babies and start a family. But Americans do all this, all the time.
Politics: A nation deeply polarized by two parties (nothing new in any democracy!)

One is either a Republican or Democrat, with extremists and centrists on both sides sandwiching the Centrists. Generally speaking,
  • Democrats have socialistic or leftist leanings and believe that the role of government includes social and “welfare” net – social security, medicare, medicade, and now “obamacare”. They generally oppose unregulated business and finance, and favors progressive income taxes.
  • Republicans (a.ka GoP), on the other hand are rightist leaning, more socially conservative and economically libertarian and believe in minimalist government and governance. In a sense, the GoP believes capitalism is the panacea for all social problems.
Although Democrats are Left leaning, Americans can’t openly profess to being far left since any alignment to Communism or socialism is a big no no.  Interesting titbit: US naturalizationapplication still asks

“9. Have you ever been a member of or in any way associated (either directly or indirectly) with:
a.    The Communist Party?”
Even though both parties disagree on most aspects of governance, one thing that both Republicans and Democrats DO agree on is the larger role of America in global politics, including the military machine, which beats me: how can “big” government military be a sacred cow if Republicans dislike the idea of big government?  Is it because big military equals big spending equals big military contracts equals capitalism?  Of course, most Americans are unsure how we will pay for all this!
Gay marriage and right

Growing up in India in the eighties and early nineties, the term Gay wasn’t associated with sexuality, but rather used as a benign verb (as in “happy and gay”). Of course, Americans like most westerners continue to be deeply divided over their collective views on Gay, gay marriage and the role of LGBT community in the society.
This is a hot button topic if there was any. Just recently A&E media did a complete flip-flop after the Duck Commander Phil Robertson the hugely popular TV series “Duck Dynasty” made remarks on homosexuals

The catholic belt in America is certainly unwilling to come out in the open (pardon the pun) in support of Gays. And as of end of 2013, most states in the US still don’t recognize the union of two people who are not Man and Woman. This said, influential opinion makers in America – politicians, media and sports superstars and to a lesser extent corporate honchos – continue to “come out” and it is perhaps a matter of time before social opinion changes. And as if charity doesn’t just begin at home, Americans want to export their values on gay rights before they firm up at home: media loves highlighting suppression of gay rights in rest of the world – Russia, or Middle East and India (with the recent Supreme Court verdict)
Make no mistake; Gay rights are not just about freedom of sexuality. The real fight is for fiscal benefits and tax rights: are gay spouses entitled to the same benefits as that of heterosexual couple? Of course, there are several other angles here including Immigration rights: are gay spouses/ partners entitled to a visa to visit/immigrate?

Immigration reform

Immigration policy gets muddled when mixed with highly charged opinions on racial and economic protectionism. America that was much more whiter – Caucasian – even a generation ago, is finding itself browning and yellowing thanks to the legal and illegal migration of people of Hispanic and Asian origin. John or Jane Doe Americans, who take immense pride in their Italian, Irish or African heritage from several generations ago, are coming to terms with neighbors’ fresh of their boat, clinging to their Indian, Mexican and Chinese heritage and values. Not an easy situation to be in.
As of 2013, Even a “black” president in his second term, born to a black immigrant and Caucasian American native who takes prides in his himself on his  an international perspective has found it hard to change the perspectives (ref my review of Obama's Biography: Dreamsfrom My Father)

Bottomline: Most first-generation immigrants, self-included, have their favorite stories on immigration snafus or dealing with checkpoint Charlie at the border or embassy. The laws continue to be highly nebulous, and enforcement of policies more so. The only beneficiaries: immigration attorneys
This surely is not the last word on these hot-button topics shaping and influencing our views on life, liberty in our pursuit of happiness in 2014.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

My two cents: Indian-American Diplomatic Row

To followers of news on India and American- Indians, the recent “diplomatic row” over the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, Indian diplomat from the consulate in New York is intriguing to say the least.

Most of us civilians hardly understand the role diplomats play in managing foreign relations other than the terms and titbits media occasionally throws at us during incidents like these. Perhaps the closest we come to personal interactions with diplomats is while applying for visas to travel overseas or in case of those acquiring foreign passports while relinquishing one’s citizenship or acquiring national id’s while overseas. And even those dealings are extremely cursory, hardly going beyond the few minutes it takes for the “diplomat” to scrutinize one’s paperwork if done in person. Terms like “diplomatic immunity,” “diplomatic bag,” “persona non grata,” “diplomatic passport,” “expelled diplomat” are buzzwords one reads about in spy thrillers, movies or occasionally during “diplomatic row”
Which is to say those in Foreign Service are generally unsung heroes toiling away with little fame or recognition, except during times of crisis, notoriety (current example) or when they achieve some laudable: remember Vikas Swarup, author of the bestseller and Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire 

Before we look at what’s the big deal about Devyani Khobragade being arrested and “strip searched” like a “common criminal,” a few recent incidents involving American government officials and diplomats abroad
  • Missing Former Jewish FBI Agent Spied on Iran for CIA: After months and years of claiming "Former FBI agent Robert Levinson was not a U.S. government employee when he went missing in Iran during a trip in 2007,"  (link) The Associated Press stated in an investigative report that “Robert Levinson, a former Jewish FBI agent, was working directly for the CIA on a mission in Iran when he was last seen in 2007” (link)
  • An American contractor working for CIA in Pakistan claims “diplomatic immunity” after he shot dead two Pakistanis in a street in LahoreInterestingly, the contractor, Raymond Davis, was set free and came home to the US after US government paid in the region of $700,000 (£436,000) as "blood money" to each of three families whose relatives were killed.
Which brings us back to the Devyani Khobragade. The case supposedly centers around underpaying her Domestic Help. According to media reports “The diplomat had allegedly submitted false documents to obtain a work visa for an Indian babysitter and housekeeper in her Manhattan home, the Associated Press reported. Court papers said Ms. Khobragade, 39, claimed in visa documents that she paid the worker $4,500 a month when the worker actually received less than $600 a month. The Indian diplomat, who pleaded not guilty in court the same day, was later freed on a $250,000 bond.”

Wonder if the actions of Manhattan US attorney Preet Bharara – who, by the way just happens to be Indian American -  is an overzealous US official out to extract “blood money” (Political mileage) from Indian government or just someone out to ensure the rights of all foreign born housekeepers and maids are upheld?! Much as the socialist in me would like to root for uplifting the underprivileged diplomatic maids, I would hate for Mr. Bharara to claim any more political mileage from an international diplomatic row.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Musing on Passports, citizenship and Immigration and Book Reviews

An interesting article in Weekend WSJ made me reflect on Citizenship as a “flag of convenience.”  The front page article is titled “A Venture Capitalist Invests in His OlympicDream: Paul Bragiel Pauses Career to Ski For Colombia in 2014 Games” It features Paul Bragiel, an American citizen and entrepreneur who decides to pursue a dream: making it into the Olympics! For that to happen, the self-described "chunky, out-of-shape computer nerd" not only has to find a sport that he can learn to compete in but also find a nation that will host him. The article describes Bragiel’s quest: “A U.S. citizen, he found a way to become Colombian as well, although he doesn't speak Spanish.”

Paul Bragiel's story is a mirror to the aspiration of millions of Desis (South Asians), Chinese and others who try to pursue their dream: migrating to America and other western nations and eventually finding a footing by acquiring citizenship in their host nations. Citizenship, immigration and migration is also a topic Indian Americans, self-included, find fascinating.

A couple of recent books that I read capture a slice of the immigrant stories, albeit from different angles.
  • One is The Billionaire's Apprentice,  a best seller by Anita Raghavan that received a lot of coverage from mainstream media. The book is primarily a chronicle of the rise and fall of three protagonists – Sri Lankan born billionaire, Raj Rajratnam, Indian born former head of McKenzie Rajat Gupta and former McKenzie partner Anil Kumar. The author attempts to build the initial narrative in the book by highlighting how South Asian immigrants to the US are a “twice blessed generation,” who benefited from educational system in post independent India and also the relaxed immigration rules in America.  (link to my review on Amazon)
  • Another is “The Caretaker” a debut novel by A .X. Ahmad in which he throws in a lot of masala: story spanning continents, transnational characters, power and intrigue and a bit of melodrama. The author also weaves in bit of geo politics – a US senator trying to get brownie points by getting involved in Indo-Pak conflict and hostage negotiation in North Korea - and quirks in US immigration. A different slice of immigrant life and aspiration. (link to my review on Amazon)
It is interesting that while millions aspire to be economic migrants, a few prevelidged to be born with western passports also aspire to swim against the tide, acquire passports of developing nations to pursue their “dreams.”  Border controls, immigration and visas are modern constructs that human aspirations transcend. Passports, in that sense are just tools of convenience

Other links
Business Book review WSJ
Inside Men: NYT Book review