Satya Nadella shreds India’s citizenship act with a single comment

India should desire immigrants.
India should desire immigrants.
Image: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
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Satya Nadella, the India-born CEO of Microsoft and one of the highest profile Indians in the world, doesn’t support the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed by Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government.

The CAA is a controversial piece of legislation that fast-tracks the citizenship applications of undocumented immigrants from neighboring countries—provided they are not Muslims. It took effect on Jan. 10 and is part of a larger government campaign to marginalize the more than 200 million Muslims living in the Hindu-majority country.

At a Microsoft event in Manhattan today, Nadella answered a question about it:

“I would love to see a Bangladeshi immigrant who comes to India and creates the next unicorn in India or becomes the next CEO of Infosys,” Nadella said, according to BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief Ben Smith:

Nadella’s response is shrewd in two ways. On the one hand, he does not get into the debate of whether the CAA is a means to reduce India’s Muslim population as part of the nationalist government’s Hindu-first platform. But in referring to a Bangladeshi immigrant, he effectively suggests the scenario in which a Muslim (over 90% of Bangladesh’s population is Muslim) isn’t allowed to migrate to India and support the country’s economy.

The CEO’s articulation of why the CAA is bad is all the more powerful as it comes from someone who, like the hypothetical Bangladeshi immigrant, did become the head of a tech giant in his country of adoption (Nadella is now an American citizen).

But what Nadella says also calls into question one of the pillars of anti-immigration narratives: The idea that migrants, particularly if coming from poorer countries, would be a burden to the society that welcomes them. This kind of xenophobic rhetoric has been adopted, in some form, even by those in favor of welcoming foreigners. The message feeds the idea that helping refugees and immigrants is primarily a charitable act.

Nadella’s words shift the emphasis, and notes how the law isn’t just “sad,” it’s “bad” too. His comments aren’t about the personal tragedy of the Bangladeshi immigrant, it’s about the potential for India to miss out on an opportunity for a new talent, who could open up a successful businesses and contribute to the economy. A successful country, his scenario shows, attracts immigrants who in turn makes it successful.

Research has shown time and again that immigration is a generator of growth and a boon to the economy: highly skilled immigrants contribute to innovation, while ones with lower levels of education can fill employment gaps in the working class. The historically liberal immigration policies of the United States have proven that.

Data shows that immigrants also tend to be more prone to entrepreneurship. In Germany, for instance, immigrants who make up just 15% of the population started 44% of all new businesses in 2016. In Italy, immigrant-led businesses have grown even as local entrepreneurship is stagnant. And in the United States, immigrants are almost twice as likely as people born in the country to start a new business, and they make up nearly 30% of all new business owners—even though they represent just 15% of the population.