An immigrant's American dreams and nightmares | News | Palo Alto Online |


An immigrant's American dreams and nightmares

Memoir puts spotlight on journalist's own struggles

National Public Radio tech correspondent Aarti Namdev Shahani regularly covers Silicon Valley's thorniest news topics and its most influential and intimidating personalities. With her new memoir, "Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares," however, Shahani focuses her journalistic gaze upon her own family, Indian immigrants who came to America with expectations of prosperity and discovered how easy it is to run disastrously afoul of the authorities.

Shahani, who now resides in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood, will talk about her new book at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, at Books Inc. in Mountain View.

Reached by phone, she said it was partly the 2016 election that made her want to tackle a writing project she had been avoiding – a non-fiction account of her immediate family's decades-long struggle with immigration authorities.

"I kind of lifted my head up from my (tech) beat and saw we have a president who is trying to tell a version of my family's story that is simply not true," Shahani said. "It's ugly. It's hateful, and it's a lie. I wanted to tell our story, and the time was now."

She said, "My father was one of those people uprooted by colonialism and searching for home his entire life. That was his fate."

Of Indian heritage, Shahani's father Namdev and his family were displaced following the British Partition in 1947. Working as a film distributor, he eventually made it to Casablanca in Morocco, where he married Shahani's mother and had three children. The family moved to Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York, in 1981.

Shahani asked, "Why would two people living in relative economic stability decide to leave a stable life in one country and take three little kids across the Atlantic Ocean and choose to live undocumented in another country? It seemed like an incredibly risky thing to do."

Namdev Shahani expected that his facility with languages and mathematics would guarantee him a job as soon as he arrived in America. For a long while, he was unable to secure any employment beyond manual labor. Just as he was about to give up, he and a brother opened a successful electronics store.

As a cultural melting pot, the Flushing neighborhood suited the Shahanis. "I grew up in a working-class United Nations," Shahani said. "Every continent was represented in my building. What is really eye-opening about where I grew up is that you see America's capacity for diversity in everyday life."

The good times were short-lived. When Shahani was in high school, her father and uncle were arrested, accused of selling merchandise on behalf of the Cali Colombian drug cartel.

Having accepted a plea bargain based on a lawyer's advice, Namdev Shahani ended up spending eight months at Rikers Island for a crime that Aarti Shahani would later learn probably should not have been prosecuted. Worse, the family learned that Namdev, a green card holder but not a U.S. citizen, could be deported back to India after taking a plea deal.

And 9/11 happened. Suddenly brown-skinned men, even if they were Hindu or Sikh, were under suspicion of being terrorists.

"It took quite a while in my early 20s to realize what a political game-changer 9/11 was," Shahani said. "In my head I kept thinking, 'Well, obviously my family and others have absolutely nothing to do with this. Of course we're going to be able to reform the laws. Of course things will tend toward justice.'"

But that wasn't what happened. Shahani said, "It was a real lesson for me, because I was mourning my city. But in news headlines, my communities and I were suddenly the enemies."

Especially appalling to Shahani were the rules for immediate deportation.

"To have a deportation system that is automatic – meaning a judge literally is not allowed to consider the impact to American children, spouses and family – that's wrong."

Shahani was ultimately able to stop Namdev's deportation. Shahani became a U.S. citizen in the gap year she took between her junior and senior years at the University of Chicago. She also established Families for Freedom, which works on behalf of immigrants threatened with deportation. Her activism has been honored by the Union Square Awards and Legal Aid Society.

Eventually Shahani took a break from activism and enrolled in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Master's in Public Policy program. An NPR Kroc Fellowship encouraged her to try her hand at journalism, which led to an internship with KQED and then to her position with NPR.

Asked how she handles interviewing tech business elite, Shahani said, "I think the thing to do is try not be pre-occupied with sounding smart. I remember when I first moved to Silicon Valley – you meet some of the most brilliant people on earth here. There's a high concentration of smart. One reaction that I had at first was massive insecurity. 'Oh my God, how do I wrap my head around these complicated things people were doing?"

In terms of tech's view of immigration, Shahani said she thinks Silicon Valley is "misguided" in its emphasis on "merit."

"America is about giving families the chance to leap from where they started to where they can go. It's not just a place where people who come from very privileged backgrounds can amass wealth."

Shohani explained, "Immigrants are not the enemy. Immigrants are distinctly American. This country does not survive without the constant infusion of other cultures and other people."

She also said, "The way tech companies are re-organizing the labor market to distance workers from each other has weakened the power of labor, and I find that very troubling."

Namdev Shahani won his deportation case, but his health deteriorated soon after his release from prison. He died in 2015.

Asked about her feelings about her own citizenship, Shahani said, "Americans really believe in justice, that justice should exist and it's something that we strive for. Many parts of the world are OK with gross inequality, with different forms of tribalism."

She concluded, "Thankfully, I've grown up in a culture that seeks constant growth in striving toward a fair society. Whether we have it not, the fact that we hunger for it is distinctly American."

Books Inc. is located at 317 Castro St. For more information, go to

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Like this comment
Posted by cheapguy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Any other followup or later events you have ?

Look forward to attending to any event in Bay area in future.

3 people like this
Posted by Independent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 17, 2019 at 11:54 pm

Interesting that her father went to Riker's prison (the one that Jeffrey Epstein went to) which is torturous for its inhumane conditions.

I don't think she should blame Trump. Obama and other presidents separated families, deported many, and carried out policies that Trump is being criticized for. The media is liberally biased and is waiting like a sniper to fire on anything. Why didn't Clinton, Bush, or Obama change the immigration policies? Why aren't Congress trying to change immigration policies now? Congress has done nothing for three years!

In addition, the author thinks that all immigrants deserve a chance? Look at what happened to Germany. Overrun by immigrants who are now unemployed criminals wrecking havoc. Certain countries have cultures with poor work ethic, some, such as hers, have good work ethic. The Asian countries seem to have immigrants who succeed. All immigrants aren't the same.

But the real shame are the entitled white, U.S.A. born homeless drug-addicts who expect government to bail them out and care for them.

Like this comment
Posted by Independents
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 18, 2019 at 9:45 am

Fellow Independent:

> Congress has done nothing for three years!

Not quite. The GOP controlled congress did nothing over two years (except a tax cut for billionaires and corporations.)

The current congress has offered many solutions to Trump, including billions for his silly border wall, but Trump snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and sat on his thumb (and the rest of his short fingers.)

Trump is the problem.

- "In January 2018, Mr. Trump met with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) for 90 minutes, with then-chief of staff John Kelly the only White House aide present. Mr. Schumer offered the president $25 billion over an unspecified period to be used for a border wall, paired with a path to citizenship for the young immigrants."

- "In February 2018, a bipartisan group of senators hashed out a compromise proposal that would have provided $25 billion for border security over 10 years, starting with a $2.5 billion installment last year.

It would also have enabled about 1.8 million young immigrants to become citizens over a 10-to-12-year timeline, but it sought to bar them from sponsoring their parents from citizenship. Lawmakers believed it could have passed the GOP-held Senate had Mr. Trump endorsed it, but he opposed it, saying it didn’t do enough to curb legal immigration."

- "Shortly before Christmas, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) brought a bill to the Senate floor that would have extended the government’s current funding through Feb. 8. Mr. McConnell said at the time that he was closely communicating with the White House and lawmakers expected Mr. Trump to sign it.

But after it passed the Senate, Mr. Trump appeared to change his mind and, encouraged by House Republicans, said the next day that he would veto it because it didn’t meet his demand for border-wall funding. The Senate bill would have extended current funding for the Homeland Security Department, including money for fencing, bollard barriers, levees and technology—but not a concrete barrier. Democrats say a sweeping spending bill that passed earlier last year included $1.3 billion for border security, while Republicans, counting slightly differently, say it included $1.57 billion."

Web Link

Both chambers also passed the “Bipartisan Humanitarian Aid Bill for the Southern Border” in June.

Trump won't accept most bipartisan solutions because he needs to amp up the fringe base at his ego-soothing rallies (Mexico will pay for the wall that stops rapists and murderers!)

Like this comment
Posted by Resident 1-Adobe Meadows
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 19, 2019 at 2:40 pm

Resident 1-Adobe Meadows is a registered user.

We keep reading about talented immigrants who come and are successful. Then write a book to tell everyone about their travels. It is like they are now capitalizing on their immigration status. I keep wondering why they did not apply the same talent to helping their native country to emerge into the 20th century. We are now trying to make each country whole and working for their residents. Each country needs to elect a president who is something other than a chair warmer who goes to NATO and UN Meetings to participate with other chair warmers. That is the difference between nationalism and globalism. At some point each individual country needs to step up to the plate and provide the required basic human requirements. And that is what talented people should be doing - working those issues within their countries.

Like this comment
Posted by Independents
a resident of Green Acres
on Oct 19, 2019 at 4:39 pm

> We are now trying to make each country whole and working for their residents

Huh? China? Cuba? India? The Philippines? Vietnam?

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