The Indian Diaspora in United State of America:
A Historical Perspective

Dr. Ruchi Verma
Research Fellow

Over 30 million people of Indian birth or descent are part of the Indian diaspora spread around the globe. Not only are these migrants doing well, they are inclined to stay connected with their homeland through family ties, investments, and philanthropy. The Indian diaspora has established a series of groups for Indian immigrants. These organizations address a broad range of issues and take on many different forms, including philanthropic projects, advocacy organizations, business and professional networks, media outlets, and societies for the promotion of Indian culture.
Indians are amongst the most successful and educated ethnic groups in one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world. Many of them are employed in high-status, high-skill professions. They furnish over 10% of the work force in computer-related and many other technical fields (Chakravorty S, Kapur D, Singh N., 2016: x). These successes have also led them to the boardrooms and executive offices of some of the most iconic US corporations including Microsoft, Google, Adobe, PepsiCo, MasterCard, and Citibank.
Migration flow
The earliest recorded Indian emigrant to the United States was from Madras, who traveled to Massachusetts in 1790 (Rangaswamy P., 2000:3). A number of Indians were brought to the United States by seafaring Captains who worked for the East India Company, to serve in their households.
By 1910, the number of Indian immigrants slowly rose to 3000, having settled on the Pacific Coast as agricultural workers. Many were Sikhs from Punjab seeking better fortunes in the West. Additional immigrants came and work on the Western Pacific railroad and took employment in the lumber mills of Washington State (Rangaswamy P., 2000:3).
Former soldiers who had served in the British colonial army in East Asia also came to North America in 20th century. Many more Indian laborers came as “sojourners” rather than as settlers. Though their initial intension was to save and return to India, given the difficult economic situation back home, they finally decided to stay back in the USA.
Within a few years, Indian immigrants established the first Indian community in the United States while working on the Western Pacific Railroad, in lumber and construction, or as agricultural labourers. The owners of these industries valued the migrant Indian labourers because they worked long hours for lower wages (about half) than their European immigrant counterparts and showed deep appreciation for the opportunity to work and pursue the American dream. Some Indian migrants settled on the West Coast in various jobs, some on the East Coast. Many of them stayed on the East Coast, while some of them moved inland to cities in the Midwest and in the South.
Challenges faced by Indian immigrants
The success of Indian immigrants also attracted local backlash in some areas. Some Americans started targeting the Indians. Though, fewer than 5000 of them lived in the United States in 1920. This was largely the by-product of them being seen as competitive labour, willing to do local jobs for less pay, and partly because of rampant racism and anti-Asian sentiment. Organizations such as the Asiatic Exclusion League and the American Federation of Labor stepped up their attacks in the media and lobbied for laws excluding them from housing, education, and labour (Williams, 2019:3). Sadly, many Indians were accosted with racial verbal taunts (Maira Sunaina., 2002:5).
Considered the “new menace” by legislators, they were the target of the immigration restriction law of 1917 which led to an “Asiatic barred zone” and mass deportations (Williams, 2019:4). Congress then went one step further by passing the Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted race-based quotas for immigrants and entirely banned the immigration of Indians as well. In the face of this discrimination and limited opportunities in the United States, many Indians returned to India (Arora, Namit, 2017: 3). After two decades, the Indian population in the United States had reached an all-time low after steady growth prior to 1924 (Rangaswamy, 2000: 3).
Post 1965 immigration
The biggest boom to increasing Indian migration to the United States was the passage of the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which scrapped the old immigration system completely. This law replaced the old quota system based on racial and national traits favoring the Europeans over others, with a system that gave preference to immigrants with specific, in-demand skills in the United States, as well as those who already had family members in the country.
The US Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 opened up the possibility for larger-scale immigration from Asia. This important legislation laid down the legal foundation for future immigration to the United States. The act was significant in two important ways: it abolished discrimination based on race and nation of origin for the purposes of admission and created three major categories-family reunification, professional skills, and refugee status (Mishra Sangay, 2016: 26). These reforms remain the primary basis for immigration policy the next 25 years.
The change to the old immigration system was largely attributed to two forces going in the United States in the early 1960s. The first was a shift driven by progressive ideas about racial equality advanced by the US civil rights movement, which helped remove the bias in early immigration policies that favored European immigrants. The second was largely attributed to the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union (Williams, 2019:5). The United States, to accelerate its national economic growth, required highly skilled workers particularly in technical fields. This in turn led to a boom for Indian immigrants who possessed many of the skills needed to fuel this growth. Great emphasis was placed in allowing immigrants who had something special to offer in way of technical skills and services that could directly benefit the American economy and help the government wage the Cold War. Post-1965 Indian immigration was largely dominated by high educated and skilled professionals.
The exact magnitude of the Indian migration to the US became clear for the first time because of the 1980 US census, which counted Asian as a separate group for the very first time (Khandelwal Madhulika, 2002:3). In the new categorization, Indians achieved a record growth rate of 125% between 1980 and 1990, representing one of the fastest growing immigrant groups under the Asian American umbrella. The population totaled over 815,447 in 1990 (Rangaswamy P, 2000:1). About one-third were located in the northeast, and the remaining two-thirds were situated in the South, West, and Midwest (Rangaswamy P, 2000).
Indians who immigrated to America came from every state in India, each with own distinct language and cultural heritage. They also belong to many religious faiths including Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Jainism, Christianity etc. Not always hailing directly from India, many also arrived from England, Canada, South Africa, Tanzania, Fiji, Guyana, and The Caribbean (Rangaswamy P., 2000:3). The metropolitan areas with the most Indian immigrants were the greater New York, Chicago, San Jose, and San Francisco Areas. These four metro areas were home to one-third of Indians in the United States (Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova, 2017:2).
Unlike their pre-1965 immigrant Indian predecessors who were largely agricultural and unskilled laborers, post-1965 Indian immigrants mostly enjoys a common bond related to their backgrounds in education and social-economic classes. Coming from mercantile and educated classes, the new Indian immigrants seems as a homogenous educated group at workplace, though socially they continued to maintain their linguistic and regional heterogeneity. This has in turn allowed many Indian immigrants and their descendants to transmit Indian culture within their primary groups such as family, groups of close friends, and voluntary organizations.
Another way that Indian immigrants to America have maintained their cultural identity is by preserving ties to their extended families in India. This is accomplished through financial contributions and almost yearly visits. This effort serves as a duality of sorts, maintaining ties to their homeland, while also embracing America as their new homeland. The financial contributions that are made by these immigrants while although considered meager by some, make a great difference in the economic status and well-being of their families back home in India. India has been the largest recipient of remittances since 2008. In 2019, Indians living abroad sent more than $83.1 billion in remittances to India via formal channels, according to World Bank estimates.
Another important facet of keeping ties to their homeland is networking. Indians, even though scattered all over the United States and quite heterogeneous in their background, keep close contact with relatives and friends by oral and written discourse by sharing common interests. This effort is promoted by access to news outlets as well as modern technology. There are several Indian newspapers, monthly magazines with political, cultural, and business features namely Desh Videsh, India Abroad, News India Time, City Masala etc. In addition, local cable outlets carry cable programming from news outlets having access to home channels. Indian immigrants also have access to Bollywood movies and other cultural programs.
The Indian diaspora that traveled to the United States represents a sensational story in the long line of successful immigration. What makes this effort unique is not why they came, but how they came as highly educated, technically skilled, and adapted with a will to succeed.
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Chakravorty S, Kapur D, Singh N (2016), The Other One Percent: Indians in America, Cambridge: Oxford University Press.
Das, Sudipta (2002), Loss or Gain? A Saga of Asian Indian Immigration and Experiences in America’s Multi Ethnic Mosaic, Volume 9, Number 2, Available from: stable.41675023 [Accessed: July 18, 2021]
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Khandelwal Madhulika S (2002), Becoming American, Being Indian: An Immigrant Community, New York City, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Maira Sunaina (2002), Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Mishra Sangay K. (2016), Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans, Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.
Rangaswamy P. (2000), Namaste America: Indian Immigrants in an American Metropolis, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Williams, John P. (2019), Journey to America: South Asian Diaspora Migration to the United States (1965–2015), in Liat Klain-Gabbay (ed.), Indigenous, Aboriginal, Fugitive and Ethnic Groups around the Globe, Intech Open publisher. Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova (2017), Migration Policy Institute, Spotlight: Indian Immigration in the United States, Available from: https:// visa-and-immigration/why-the indian-diaspora-in-the-us-matters/ articleshow/64157538.cms [Accessed: July 20, 2021]