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Inspired by a Hate Crime, This Kansas Congressman Wants to Make Life Easier for Immigrants in the US

When Kansas resident Adam Purinton shouted, “Get out of my country,” at Srinivas Kuchibhotla and his friend Alok Madasani at a bar in the small town there, no one thought that this display of discrimination would result in a death.

The bar, Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe, Kansas, had become a regular hangout for Kuchibhotla and Madasani and neither of them gave into the animosity when Puriton began chanting racial slurs.

“We didn’t react,” Madasani, who, along with Kuchibhotla, was born in India and in the US on a work visa, told The New York Times. “People do stupid things all the time.”

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Purinton was subsequently asked to leave the bar for his slurs, but returned shortly after. His  rage had not subsided, authorities told the Times, and he soon opened fire at the men, killing Kuchibhotla. He has since pleaded guilty to accounts of first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder for the two men that were injured. On Wednesday, April 11th, Purinton was also charged with a federal hate crime and a possible death sentence ensues. On May 4, Purinton’s sentencing will take place, though the district attorney’s office has already made a public statement that Purinton will face the maximum sentence on each count.   

The tragic episode has shaken immigrant communities throughout the US, and Kuchibhotla’s memory has become a rallying cry for US citizens who oppose bigotry and want the country to be a welcoming place.

When Kuchibhotla and his wife, Sunayana Dumala, moved to the US they were greeted with kindness by their neighbors — with random acts ranging from friends inviting them to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families to leaving home-brewed beer on their porch as a welcome to the neighborhood gift. The hope is to keep that spirit of kindness alive and show that America remains a place where everyone is welcome.

In particular, Congressman Kevin Yoder (R-KS) has worked to challenge the racist narrative pushed by Purinton and others. He’s stood with the victim’s family, embraced the broader Indian immigrant community, and even pushed forth legislation that would support people like Kuchibhotla.

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“Following the hate crime murder in my district of an Indian engineer, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, I felt that I wanted to send a message to Indian immigrants in America that they are welcome and help make a better country,” Yoder told Global Citizen when asked about why he was sponsoring the H.R. 392 bill, The Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act.

Throughout the US, there has been a rise in hate crimes with 867 incidents in the 10 days following the 2016 election, according to a report from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). These numbers translate to a hate crime every 17 seconds, with the largest majority of the crimes targeting immigrants. Specifically, since the election, there has been a 20% increase of hate crimes against South Asians and Middle Easterners in the US. The problem is attributed to a rise in xenophobia in addition to a rise of white supremacist groups.

Congressman Yoder further challenged this phenomenon when he brought Kuchibhotla’s now-widow, Dumala, to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address this February, in an effort to show solidarity and support for the Indian immigrant community.  

The United States has been a melting pot for years, and the response to Kuchibhotla’s death reinforced the wave of support to maintain this. Over 25 countries sent Dumala donations and kind messages and support within Kansas City itself was immense.

One person who exemplified that support is Ian Grillot, a former Marine and a bystander of the crime who had come to the bar to watch a basketball game. When Purinton fired at Kuchibhotla and Madasani, Grillott tried to chase him down. Grillot was shot in the chest and hand, narrowly avoiding death. His efforts not only put his life on the line, but also showed what it means to be a global citizen.

When called a “hero,” Grillot responded: “It's not about where he was from or his ethnicity. We're all humans, so I just did what was right to do.”

Grillot was not the only Kansan who showed his support. To show their appreciation for Kuchibhotla, Kuchibhotla’s employer Garmin proudly displays a painting of him at their company headquarters. Kuchibhotla was an aviation systems engineer and a program manager on the Aviation Systems Engineering team. He was able to work in the US on a temporary work H-1B visa, and the painting is proof his death did not go unnoticed.

“I don’t think the crimes reflect American values or are a reflection of the American people. We are a diverse country that is strengthened by our diverse people,” Yoder commented.

After Kuchibhotla’s death, his wife was concerned about her ability to stay in the US. She had not only lost her husband, but also lost her temporary visa to stay in the country. She had entered the country as a dependent of her husband’s H1-B visa, and following his death she could have lost her visa status.

Currently, the H1-B visas that are given out each year are capped at 65,000 visas per year with 50% of those visas going to skilled Indian immigrants. However, immigrants on H1-B visas then face a 25-92 year wait before they can become permanent residents because of green card backlogs. Also, there are per-country limits put in place that make it nearly impossible for H1B visa holders to stay in the US long-term. Even more concerning, the administration has discussed plans to reduce green cards available, which would make the backlog even more severe.

Congressman Yoder took on board Dumala’s concern of feeling discriminated against by the US immigration system by co-sponsoring H.R. 392. This legislation has two main goals: (1) eliminate the per-country caps put in place for employment-based immigrants, and (2) increase the limitation on family-based immigrants from 7% to 15% to increase the the total number family-sponsored visas allowed.

“I believe that the Indian green card backlog is unjust and unfair. A simple fix could change hundreds of thousands of lives,” Yoder explained.

H.R. 392 has since received bipartisan support, with both Democrats and Republicans aiming to remove the per-country percentage caps for employment-based immigrants, which particularly affect Indian immigrants.

While H.R. 392 has received bipartisan support with over 300 cosponsors and been referred to as “one of the most popular bills in Congress,” it is now linked with the issues like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) and border security negotiations, leading to a deadlock.

“In the meantime, people from larger countries disproportionately suffer from the current legislation in place,” Yoder said.  

While individuals from some countries can receive visas in a period of six months, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services receives close to 1,000,000 green card applications from highly skilled H-1B holders from India. This makes their wait time exceptionally long. Even worse, their children, a different genre of Dreamers referred to as the H4 Dreamers may never have a chance to remain in the US because once they turn 21, they cannot stay in the country as dependents and must return to India.

“We want to make sure that they stay,” said Yoder. “Many of these temporary visa holders eventually go home because they can’t ever get a green card, which sends a signal about the process being unjust and unfair,” he explained.

Through this new legislation, the hope is that there is less discrimination embedded in the system.  

Dumala, for one, has been grateful and has channeled her loss into activism and action, too. Since her husband’s death, Dumala has made several efforts to keep her husband’s legacy alive. Her efforts include Forever Welcome, a social media initiative that was created with the desire to spread unity, love and acceptance, as well as a peace walk that took place in March to raise awareness of different cultures among children.

While the tragedy that struck her could have led to a distaste for this country, in fact it has done the opposite. She has become an advocate for equality, starting a platform answering the question “Do we belong?” referring to immigrants. As global citizens know, a conversation is the start of change.

Congressman Yoder agrees and told Global Citizen of Dumala:

“She has been a real hero and a role model in the way that she has handled a heartbreaking tragedy and continues to persevere. She preaches kindness and forgiveness in the face of hatred and evil. She wants to become an American citizen someday because she believes in the ideals of America in spite of the fact that she saw the evil side and the worst of our community. She believes in America and wants to fight for it. It is inspirational to me that she is not even an American citizen but still wants to uphold our values.”

Words of inspiration and solidarity from one Global Citizen to another.  

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