Indian relatives of Olathe shooting victims: Don’t send your children to America

Srinivas Kuchibhotla (left), was killed Wednesday night and his friend, Alok Madasani, was injured at Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe. Both were from India.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla (left), was killed Wednesday night and his friend, Alok Madasani, was injured at Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe. Both were from India.

The shooting of two engineers from India, possibly targeted for looking “Middle Eastern,” drew worldwide attention Friday and fanned growing concerns that America is not safe for immigrants.

In the incident Wednesday night at Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe, witnesses said a man told the two engineers to “get out of my country” before shooting one dead and wounding the other. A third man who tried to intervene was also shot.

News of of the shooting traveled quickly overseas.

The father of Alok Madasani, the Indian victim who survived, said anti-immigrant rhetoric encouraged by President Donald Trump created a dangerous environment for immigrants.

“The situation seems to be pretty bad after Trump took over...,” Madasani Jaganmohan Reddy told the Hindustan Times in India. “I appeal to all the parents in India not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances.”

Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a 32-year-old Garmin employee, was killed in the incident. Madasani, 32, who also worked for Garmin, and Ian Grillot, 24, who tried to stop the shooter, were injured.

The suspected shooter, Adam W. Purinton, 51, of Olathe, was caught early Thursday at an Applebee’s in Clinton, Mo. Before he was arrested, he reportedly told a bartender he had shot two Middle Easterners, The Star learned.

Purinton has been charged with first-degree murder and two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

Reddy told the Indian newspaper that Purinton had picked an argument with the two engineers about why they were “staying in the U.S. illegally.” The men, he said, told Purinton they had valid work permits.

Venumadhav Gajula, Kuchibhotla’s brother-in-law, echoed concerns of changing sentiments toward foreigners after Trump’s election.

“It is very scary and people are panicking,” Gajula told the Los Angeles Times. “My advice would be to think twice about going to the U.S.”

As news of the shooting traveled, it also added to concern, particularly in the tech sector, about the ability to draw top foreign talent to American companies.

The FBI is investigating the shootings as a possible hate crime, which could underscore a view from the abroad that even isolated racism in the U.S. can make the country dangerous to foreigners.

Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said in an online post that representatives from the Washington embassy rushed to Kansas to offer support to the families of the victims.

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi strongly condemned the shooting.

“The United States is a nation of immigrants and welcomes people from across the world to visit, work, study, and live,” said U.S. Charge d’Affaires MaryKay Carlson. “U.S. authorities will investigate thoroughly and prosecute the case, though we recognize that justice is small consolation to families in grief.”

The Hindu American Foundation called Kuchibhotla’s death “the first reported bias-motivated fatality in the United States after the bitter presidential election.”

“We call upon the U.S. Department of Justice and local law enforcement to investigate this murder as what it is, a hate crime,” Jay Kansara, the foundation’s director of government relations, said in a statement. “Anything less will be an injustice to the victims and their families.”

While investigators have not confirmed that the shooting was racially motivated, the involvement of the FBI indicates that the agency is looking to build a case for a hate crime.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Friday “it’s too early to jump to a conclusion” about whether the shootings were a hate crime. He said such assumptions have proved wrong in some past high-profile cases.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there is no reliable data on hate crimes and bias incidents. Since Trump’s election, the civil rights nonprofit has joined the ProPublica investigative journalism organization to track such incidents through a project called Documenting Hate.

In India, the shooting commanded the news cycle, said journalist Rezaul Hasan Laskar, of the Hindustan Times. Kuchibhotla’s father was so “stunned,” he could not speak to media, Laskar said.

The public has been “spooked” by the incident, he said, and many there feel that the incident was sparked by the victims’ “brown skin” and “Islamaphobia.” Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric throughout his campaign, as well as his recent executive order banning travel from seven mainly Muslim countries, has heightened fears about working in the United States.

“There has been a lot of concern ever since the travel ban has been in effect,” Laskar said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect people so much with vacation and tourism … it’s more people who are going to go to study or for jobs.”

On Friday, Sravan Nalla, reporting from Olathe for TV9 in India, said Indians in the U.S. fear being mistaken as Middle Eastern.

“We don’t know how to solve it,” he said. “You can’t go to everybody and say I’m not a Middle Easterner, I’m an Indian. People are a little scared, feeling fear, about what to do with this. Let’s be alert and let’s not get into arguments.”

Kuchbhotla studied and worked in the United States through the H1-B visa program for immigrants with special skills before landing in Johnson County. Madasani also was in the U.S. on an H1-B visa. Many Indian nationals have moved to this area in previous years to work for Sprint, and more recently Garmin and other tech companies in the area, and have put in deep roots in the community.

Despite having more tech talent than other similarly sized metropolitan areas, the Kansas City area has roughly 3,000 unfilled jobs for computer science and software engineers and still struggles to bring in highly trained people in related fields, said Ryan Weber, the president of the KC Tech Council. The biggest barrier, Weber said, issue is overcoming immigration rules that restrict the number of immigrant workers allowed in the country.

Some worry that Trump, elected after campaigning for tighter immigration rules, will further restrict the entry of foreign workers.

Tech companies — including giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft — insist the H1-B program is vital. At the same time, it’s drawn fire from groups who argue it hands over jobs to immigrants in ways that put American programmers and engineers at a disadvantage.

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Locally, friends and family of Kuchibhotla and Madasani, as well as others in the Indian community, said they were shocked and overwhelmed.

“We are struggling to come to terms with something like this happening in Kansas,” Jagdeesh Subramanian of the Indian Association of Kansas City said in an email.

On Friday, Anirban Dasgupta, an Indian man who works for an IT company in Overland Park, wrote an editorial for the Hindustan Times.

“Most of us living here will like to believe that the shooting is an isolated incident,” Dasgupta wrote, adding that the Olathe community is known for being multicultural. “Such an incident will only add to our anxiety. I just hope it’s one of those stray incidents that will not get repeated.”

At the home of the Chakraborty family in Overland Park, the shootings triggered worried phone calls and texts from relatives in India that underscored an new sense of uneasiness.

“I’ve been in this city for a long time. I never felt like this could happen,” said Tapash Chakraborty. He’s lived in Kansas for two decades, is a U.S. citizen and has an engineering service in Kansas City. “What’s probably is going to change, say if you go to a restaurant or a bar, you’re going to be a little more guarded in a conversation, or in talking to a stranger. I feel like I need to be watching around. … That’s a creepy feeling.”

His 15-year-old daughter, Jinia, said she’d heard stories of racism before, but not much experienced them. “And then this happened so close to home. … Our loyalty is to America. We pay taxes. We have the same ideals. My parents, they want me and my sister to be safe.”

Franco Ordonez of McClatchy contributed to this report.

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Scott Canon: 816-234-4754, @ScottCanon