Asian Indian immigrants

The Asian Indian diaspora followed three waves of immigration to the United States: The first wave occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century, the second during the 1970’s, and the third during the early twenty-first century, when the highest level of immigration from India occurred. Accounting for more than 2.5 million people in 2007, Asian Indians constituted the third-largest Asian immigrant population in the United States.

Although most immigration from India to the United States occurred during the early twenty-first century, the earliest signs of international migration from India occurred after 1830, when Indian merchants, sailors, and indentured workers traveled on East India Company ships to North America. The 1900 U.S. Census reported that 2,545 “Hindus” whose birthplace was listed as India had settled in the United States.Asian Indian immigrantsAsian Indian immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Asian Indian immigrants[00390][cat]SOUTH AND SOUTHWEST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Asian Indian immigrants[00390]

First Wave of Immigration, 1900’s to 1920’s

Between 1907 and 1917, thousands of Sikh immigrantsSikh landowners and peasants left the Punjab in northern India to search the western shores of North America for employment and higher wages. First immigrating to Vancouver, Canada, Punjabi Sikhs settled in Oregon, Washington, and Northern California;Asian Indian immigrantsCalifornia to work on the Western Pacific Railroad. Legally prohibited from bringing their wives and families, some young, male Sikhs married Mexican women, creating a “Mexican Hindu” culture. The small Sikh immigrant community remained faithful to its religious and cultural practices, establishing temple settlements for other Asian Indian travelers.

Leaving employment on the railroad and in the lumber mills, by 1910 Asian Indians began contracting for Agriculture;and Asian Indian immigrants[Asian Indian immigrants]agricultural jobs in California, where there was a dire need for farmworkers. Comfortable and experienced working in the fields, Asian Indians moved from working as Day laborers;Indian immigrantsday laborers to tenant farmers. Transacting bank loans, Indians purchased acreage. By 1914, as prosperous landowners, the Asian Indian immigrants started moving inland to central California;Asian Indian immigrantsCalifornia to establish independent ethnic agrarian communities. Hard-working and English-speaking, the Asian Indians posed little threat to the socioeconomic fiber of the region. However, by the 1920’s the hostilities toward the growing number of “Asiatics” escalated as the competition between Asian immigrants and white workers increased.

Anti-Asian Legislation

As early as 1905, an association known as theAsiatic Exclusion LeagueAsiatic Exclusion League (AEL) organized to oppose Asian immigration. It launched an anti-Asian crusade toward not only the Chinese and Japanese immigrant populations but also the three thousand new Asian Indian immigrants who had arrived in California;Asian Indian immigrantsCalifornia at the end of the decade. After years of fighting for congressional legislation to limit immigration, the exclusionists were successful in adopting a series of laws that led to turning away hundreds of Asian immigrants. The Immigration Act of 1917 (also known as the Asiatic Barred ZoneAsiatic Barred Zone Act) restricted immigration from Asia. Soon afterward, the Supreme Court ruled in [c]United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind[c]Bhagat Singh Thind, United States v.United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) that Indians were not included under the “statutory category as white persons”; consequently, Indians were denied the right to naturalization, and previously naturalized
Indians were stripped of U.S. citizenship.

Sikh immigrants to California posing for a group portrait in 1910.

(California State Library)

Seven years later, the Immigration Act of 1924;and Asian Indian immigrants[Asian Indian immigrants]Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of new immigrants to 2 percent of the number of people from their country who were already living in the United States. Over the next twenty years, the number of Indians in the United States dwindled to fewer than 2,500. In 1946, the [a]Luce-Celler Bill of 1946[Luce Celler Bill of 1946]Luce-Celler Bill reinstated naturalization to Asian Indians and allowed an immigration quota for Indians and Filipinos; 6,000 Indians entered the United States between 1947 and 1965.

Second Wave of Immigration, 1965-1990

The tides turned under President Johnson, Lyndon B.Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed into law the [a]Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965;abolition of quotasImmigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act), lifting the national-origin quotas system and issuing visas on the basis of preferred skills or family reunification. The initial post-1965 immigrants were professionals and their families; after the mid-1970’s, the Asian Indian immigrants moved into small business ownerships and self-employment ventures in restaurants, travel agencies, and Motel industrymotels. Almost 40 percent of all Asian Indians who entered the United States after 1965 arrived on Visas;studentstudent or exchange visitor visas. By 1990, the Indian population had increased to 786,694.

With the passage of the Immigration Act of 1990, preference was given to immigrants with high technology-based skills, advanced degrees, and exceptional professional talents. Contributing to the “Brain drain”[Brain drain];and India[India]“brain drain” in India, colleges throughout the United States hosted a significant number of Indian students, making India one of the top five sending countries. By 2000, Asian Indians constituted the fourth-largest immigrant community in the United States.

Beyond 2000

The Asian Indian immigrant population increased by 38 percent between 2000 and 2005, becoming the third-largest immigrant population in the United States. Asian Indians have attained the highest level of education and the highest median income among all national origin groups in the United States. More than 40 percent areMedical professionals;Asian Indiansmedical professionals,Scientists;Asian Indian immigrantsscientists, or engineers concentrated in metropolitan areas across the United States.

Entering the United States English-knowing, highly educated, socially and professionally connected, and geographically mobile has made Asian Indian assimilation fairly smooth. Asian Indian immigrants tend to identify themselves not with the Indian national origin group but with their particular regional, linguistic, religious, or professional subgroups. After arrival, Bengalis, Punjabis, Marathis, and Tamils tend to maintain their languages, religious practices, foods, and dress.Asian Indian immigrants

Further Reading

  • Bacon, Jean Leslie. Life Lines: Community, Family, and Assimilation Among Asian Indian Immigrants. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Examination of the Asian Indian experiences in Chicago.
  • Jensen, Joan M. Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988. Cultural history of the immigration patterns of Asian Indians to the United States.
  • Joshi, Khyati Y. New Roots in America’s Sacred Ground: Religion, Race, and Ethnicity in Indian America. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006. Analysis of second-generation Indian Americans and their identities.
  • Leonard, Karen Isaksen. The South Asian Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Examination of the social, political, and cultural history of South Asian immigrant communities.
  • Sheth, Manju. “Asian Indian Americans.” In Asian Americans: Contemporary Trends and Issues, edited by Pyong Gap Min. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 2006. Sociohistorical look at the diverse Asian Indian communities that developed across the United States.

Asian immigrants

Asiatic Barred Zone

Asiatic Exclusion League

Association of Indians in America

Bellingham incident

“Brain drain”

Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Lahiri, Jhumpa

Motel industry

Mukherjee, Bharati

Pakistani immigrants

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind