The rise of nationalism in the West and the heart-rending images of refugees from the Middle East has brought back immigration as a topic of conversation across the world. Nationalism seems to trump humanitarian considerations in policies towards immigration, particularly towards refugees, whether it is the Rohingy as in Myanmar or the Syrian refugees. This is particularly true of the US, a nation of immigrants, under President Donald Trump.
Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh draw a compelling narrative about the Indian immigrant experience in the United States in their book. The authors suggest that Indian immigration to the US has been mutually beneficial. Often described as a ‘model minority’, Indians constitute one percent of the US population and this is projected to hit 2 per cent by 2030. In 2014, India was the largest source of immigrants to the US, leaving China and Mexico behind (p. x).
The Other One Percent sketches out the history of Indian immigration starting from the first Indian sailors and soldiers who reached the US in the 19th century. The authors also mention Anandibai
Joshi and Pandita Ramabai who travelled to the US for higher education in the late 19th century as also Swami Vivekananda’s speech at the Parliament of World Religions.
The early immigrants were mainly farmers from Punjab and students. During the early years of the 20th century, even though the number of Indian Americans was small, there was a backlash from Americans who deemed them to be the ‘most undesirable of all Asiatics’, primarily because of fears that they were willing to work for less money. We see the same tendencies gaining strength in Trump’s US today, only this time, they are mostly directed towards Mexicans. In any case, these sentiments led to the Immigration Act of 1917 being passed over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto. The law restricted immigration from the ‘Asiatic barred Zone’, which included India. The Immigration Act of 1924 made things worse, effectively ending Indian immigration. The authors also bring out the little known fact that Indians were classified as ‘whites’ by courts in 1910, 1913, 1919 and 1920 but were classified as ‘nonwhites’ in 1909 and 1917, reflecting the debate within the Census Bureau (p. 13). It was only after the Immigration and Naturalisation Act of 1965 that immigration started increasing. Moreover, the transfer of political and economic power to hitherto oppressed sections in India in this period encouraged the erstwhile social and political elites to seek green pastures elsewhere (p. 25) and the US was a natural choice.
Post 1965, the authors classify immigrants into three categories (p. 29): The early Movers (1965–1979), the Families (1980–1994) and the IT generation (1995 till date). The Early Movers and Families were mostly speakers of Punjabi, Guajarati, Urdu and Malayalam while the IT generation mostly speak Hindi, Telegu, Tamil, Marathi, Kannada and Bengali (p. 118). Also, the IT generation or ‘Settlers 2.0’, as the authors characterize them, are more educated than the first group and have much higher incomes. The Early Movers and Families were dispersed in the workforce, working in education, entertainment and small businesses while Settlers 2.0 are mostly concentrated in professional services, particularly computer services
(p. 93). The authors find that the high tech work that most Indians are engaged in today limits their spatial choices, creating the unique geography of the ethno-techno-burbs of Indians, unlike ethnic enclaves like ‘little Chinatowns’ and ‘Little Havanas’
Indian Americans’ occupations and linguistic identities also seem to be linked. While Punjabis work more in retail trade and transportation, Gujaratis prefer the hotel or restaurant business and retail trade, more Malayalis work in the nursing sector and the IT sector has a high concentration of Tamils and Telegus. Doctors, however, seem to be evenly divided among different linguistic communities. There are differences in the occupations of first and second generation Indian Americans. While most of the first generation work in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics), the second generation prefers the healthcare industry (p. 170).
Indians, the authors argue, have been ‘selected for success’ (p. 27). They have succeeded not because they have drive and work hard, but because of a combination of selection processes. In India, the system created a pool of people (predominantly urban, upper caste) to receive higher education. The examination system then selected from among them another pool of people to get technical education. The third selection process was made by US immigration rules which favoured individuals with specific skills, like Information Technology (IT). Moreover, they enjoyed three distinct advantages over other immigrants (pp. 132–133). For one, since they had higher human capital because of their higher incomes, they faced less ‘overt racism’ in housing. Second, thanks to the legacy of British colonialism, they had better English language skills. Third, since most of them were from the upper castes, they had a strong reservoir of cultural capital, allowing them to ascend the ladder of American society. Moreover, India’s social heterogeneity probably make Indian immigrants more adaptable (p. 282).
The question of discrimination and how it has affected assimilation is also addressed in the book. The authors further take up a study of Indian entrepreneurship in the US and find that the entrepreneurial experience is widely varied. They also examine how Indian Americans have affected India through their remittances, investments and cross border philanthropy. The authors venture into the role of Indian Americans in politics and their lobbying for India during the Kargil war and negotiations over the Indo US nuclear deal. Indian Americans participate actively in American politics and make financial contributions proportionate to their share of the population (p. 279). The success of Indian Americans has given them access as interlocutors in both countries and helped facilitate stronger India-US ties. Given their high incomes and social conservativeness, Indians should logically lean towards Republicans, but over 65% lean towards Democrats. This, the authors suggest, is because of the Democratic Party’s more broad-minded attitude towards racial minorities, the anti-immigrant policies of the Republicans and finally, the unease in the community about the growing influence of the evangelical Christians in the Republican Party (p. 158).
Another interesting fact brought out in the book is that US immigration policy, which does not allow spouses of H1-B visa to work in the US, reinforces patriarchy since the spouses become dependent on their husbands (p. 162). The good news is that the preference for sons in India is not replicated among Indian Americans (p. 164). Indian Americans also have high rates of marriage, low rates of divorce and high rates of endogamy.
The authors argue that the way through which an immigrant enters the US is linked to economic success and upward mobility as those coming on work visas or as students have a much better chance of accessing the labour market than those who arrive as refugees or as asylum seekers. But this unfortunately only ends up amplifying the privileges of the already privileged.
The authors conclude with some interesting projections. They suggest that if current trends continue, Hindi will become the leading language among Indian Americans and that more immigrants will arrive from socially marginalized groups.
The book is perhaps the most comprehensive, data-driven study about the life and work of the Indian American community even though it leaves out the discourses centred about race and cultural expressions of being Indian in America (p. xi). It gives deep and fascinating insights into every aspect of the Indian immigrant experience, from their history to their linguistic differences to their occupations to their geographical diversity and their community organizations. The liberal use of graphs and figures certainly adds to the appeal of the book, making it easy for readers to connect the arguments in the book.
The Other One Percent will be handy for policy makers engaged with immigration policy, Diaspora, entrepreneurs, academia, lobbyists and for those engaged in studies of the India-US relationship. President Trump’s recent executive order banning Syrian
refugees, suspending refugees from other countries for 120 days and banning
immigrants from some Muslim countries makes this book an important read and a timely addition to the literature on immigration.
Uma Purushothaman PhD is Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations, Central University of Kerala, Kerala.