Vivek Ramaswamy came to South Shore to talk migrants. South Shore mostly stayed away.

I guess for Ramaswamy, the Republican presidential candidate supposedly bent on “out-Trumping” Donald Trump, watching a clip of Chicagoans shouting “We don’t want them here” and “Close the border” was incentive to rush back to the city, like his immigrant mother and father did years ago when they ran out of daal.

SHARE Vivek Ramaswamy came to South Shore to talk migrants. South Shore mostly stayed away.
Vivek Ramaswamy, a Republican running for president, and Devin Jones (in gray sweater), the 18th Ward Republican committeeman and chair of South Side Republicans, enter a town hall meeting with South Shore residents about migrants on May 19.

Vivek Ramaswamy, Republican running for president, and Devin Jones (in gray sweater), the 18th Ward Republican committeeman, enter a town hall meeting with South Shore residents about migrants on Friday, May 19.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Vivek Ramaswamy and his family would trek to Chicago at least two times a year when he was a boy, to stock up on ingredients for Indian food that weren’t available in the Cincinnati suburb where they lived.

When he wasn’t helping with grocery shopping on Devon Avenue, or “Devin” as he pronounced it, Ramaswamy came into the city and surrounding suburbs to visit relatives and compete in tennis tournaments. None of these trips, he told me, included a stop on the South Side, except the time he was in Hyde Park to check out the University of Chicago campus.

On Friday, 37-year-old Ramaswamy returned to the South Side for the second time in his life to do what he “thinks is right” by showing up and listening to the “understandable frustration” of some South Shore residents who recently took legal action to keep the city from temporarily housing mostly Latin American migrants at a shuttered high school.

One would think the grievances of an African American community that feels as if its needs have been pushed aside at the expense of the migrants wouldn’t be of urgent concern to a Republican presidential candidate who is against affirmative action and the Black Lives Matter movement.

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But I guess for Ramaswamy, who has been described as a right-winger bent on “out-Trumping” Donald Trump, watching a clip of Chicagoans shouting “We don’t want them here” and “Close the border” was incentive enough for him to rush back to the city, like his immigrant mother and father did years ago when they ran out of daal.

(That’s not a knock on Ramaswamy’s parents, by the way. I am just all too familiar with the panic surrounding a dwindling supply of Indian perishables.)

Ramaswamy, who said he is tired of elected leaders “conflating border security” with legal immigration, said he understands the desperation of the thousands of migrants who’ve been sent here by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Still, the biotech entrepreneur who is reportedly worth $630 million thinks they should be “humanely and respectfully” transported back to the countries they came from.

Trotting out his mantra on the “rule of law” before a small crowd at Studio 2226 Friday, Ramaswamy repeatedly cited a $7,000-a-month, per-person estimate it costs for migrant care.

“Baby formula and sneakers are being provided to people whose literal first act in this country was to break the law with no questions asked. Something’s not right here,” the “unapologetically America first” Ramaswamy said, flanked on stage by a pastor of Mexican descent and a Black former convict.

Most of the 40 or so people who came to see Ramaswamy — many clearly not from South Shore — didn’t need convincing.

Even the stylist who cleaned up Ramaswamy’s hair at a nearby barbershop following the town hall style discussion told me he voted for Trump in 2020. He turned out to be the husband of one of the event’s speakers.

Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy gets his hair cleaned up by barber Ronald Fields Friday, May 19, 2023, at the 3rd Phase Barbershop.

Republican presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy gets his hair cleaned up by barber Ronald Fields Friday, May 19, 2023, at the 3rd Phase Barbershop.

Rummana Hussain/Sun-Times

While there was an absence of the MAGA-like ire that dominated a South Shore community meeting from a few weeks back, tensions rose at the two-hour talk when Ramaswamy was pressed about his objections to reparations and affirmative action. It was also pointed out that many South Shore residents passed on rubbing elbows with Ramaswamy. One woman even mentioned his recent on-air spat with now-fired CNN host Don Lemon over Black history.

I was hoping someone would ask Ramaswamy if he firmly believes our laws are flawless and should never be broken, why did he just donate $10,000 to the legal fund of the white former Marine accused of choking a Black homeless man to death on a New York subway? Didn’t happen.

As Kathy Barnette — a former Pennsylvania GOP Senate candidate known for her Islamophobic and homophobic tweets — passed around the microphone to audience members, Ramaswamy assured the group he had their backs.

“I do think anti-Black racism is on the rise in America ... I don’t want to throw kerosene on it,” he said.

During colonial rule in India, the British relied on the “Divide And Rule” strategy to maintain power and control by playing on Indians’ religious and ethnic differences.

When I asked Ramaswamy if he thought it was harmful, as the son of Indian immigrants, to employ the same tactics to provoke existing divisions between other communities of color on behalf of a political party that is mostly white, he stood his ground.

“My goal is not to create division,” he said. “My goal is to create unity.”

Khari Walton, who was working security for Friday’s event, wasn’t so sure.

“The flames have already been fanned,” Walton, 52, said after watching Ramaswamy speak to reporters outside the vacant South Shore High School city officials had hoped to use to shelter migrants.

“He’s definitely prodding, though. He’s pushing another charcoal in the fire.”

Rummana Hussain is a columnist and member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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