We wrote this book on the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most significant laws enacted in postwar America. The US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the national-origins quota system established in the 1920s and replaced it with a preference system based on skills and family relationships. The quota system had excluded people from the Global South and favoured Europeans. Now, for the first time since WWI, the doors of the United States were partially opened to people of colour; but unlike the earlier big immigrant waves, this official opening was less to the “huddled masses” and more the skilled immigrants and those fortunate to already have family members to vouch for them.

Unofficially, of course, the huddled masses came anyway. The impact of this new skill bias of America’s immigration policy was profoundly manifest in one immigrant group: Indians. The next half-century – especially its final two decades – saw the most selective immigration (of skilled and educated workers) into the United States from any one country. Half a millennium after Christopher Columbus thought he had discovered India and encountered “Indians,” the Indian-American population was 50 percent larger than the native American (Indian) population, and earned, on average, three times as much.

People of Indian origin – whether they are born in India, the United States, or somewhere else – make up about 1 percent of the American population. Despite its small size, this community has been called (along with several other Asian-American communities) a “model minority” that has been unusually successful in pursuing the American Dream through careers in high-skill occupations and entrepreneurship. How did a population from one of the poorest countries halfway around the world, with distinctive linguistic and religious characteristics and low levels of human capital, emerge as arguably the richest and most economically successful group in one of the richest and unarguably the most powerful country in the world – and that, too, in little more than a single generation?

The community has not attracted much attention in the burgeoning literature on immigration. When Maritsa Poros (herself the daughter of Greek immigrants) decided to study Indian immigrants, she “was told by a prominent migration researcher and sociologist…that “Indians are not a problem”…in that as a group they were not poor, segregated, unemployed, exploited, illegal, criminal, or even culturally different enough to be perceived as one of the more “problematic” immigrant groups in American society. Their presence in the United States neither appealed to any need for social justice nor seemed to spark much anti-immigrant sentiment. So why study a nonproblem?

If for no other reason, Indians in America deserve scholarly attention for demographic reasons. In 2014, India was the largest source of new immigrants to the United States and the second largest source of total immigrants. Providing over 147,000 new immigrants in a single year, India was a bigger source than China (about 132,000) and Mexico (about 130,000). These latest additions raised the total India-born population to 2.2 million, making it the second largest foreign-born group in the United States (after Mexicans). The scale and speed of this inflow becomes even clearer when we note that in 1990, people born in India were not even in the top-ten of foreign-born populations in America. Something large was afoot and it was necessary to understand what it was.

This book is a serious attempt at creating that knowledge. It aims to provide a reasonably comprehensive account of this community, the life and work of its members, its increasing visibility and its not insignificant “invisible” component, and, importantly, what explains its specific characteristics.

(From left) Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh
(From left) Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, Nirvikar Singh

Unlike much writing on Indian Americans in the humanities traditions, we do not focus on the discourse centered on race and identity, nor on questions of how Indians do (or do not) fit into American racial categories and the politics of racialisation. Race is an important category, and we give it significant attention, but it is not the only or necessarily most important dimension of identity for everyone. Diversity among Indian Americans is a leitmotif for us.

Rather than see “Indian” as a homogeneous category to be somehow placed in the American racial system and its dynamics and differences, our approach includes a disaggregation of the category “Indian” into its linguistic and class components, to discuss their dynamics and differences. We show, at many points in the book, that these categories from “home” are more meaningful in terms of outcomes in the host. We submit that this approach reverses the analytical orientation – we look at Indians in America from an Indian perspective rather than an American one…

Selection and assimilation

A comprehensive account of any immigrant group must begin by investigating who immigrates. Immigrants are rarely representative of the sending country’s population. And, while many may desire to enter another country, only a few are allowed. Immigrants have specific characteristics that both allow them to leave their country of origin and be suitable for admission to the receiving country. These characteristics can be both observable (such as age, gender, education, religion, language) and unobservable (such as ambition, grit, luck). In short, immigrants are always selected: for leaving the country of origin and for being allowed to enter the destination country.

In large part, the story of Indians in America is one of selection. While this is true for all immigrants, those from India stand out in the degree of selection on human capital relative to both the destination country and the country of origin. In the first, pre-1965 phase of immigration, when few Indians came to the United States (for a number of reasons, including nativist and racist policies and barriers), they were largely labourers in the early part of the twentieth century, though a handful of students and more educated people did trickle in. Those who managed to enter post-WWII were well educated but few in number. In the post-1965 period, when US policy favored both family unification and higher skills, the India-born population immigrated in three waves.

The Early Movers (from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s) were highly educated (45 percent had or later acquired professional degrees, especially in medicine; or graduate degrees, especially in what has come to be called the STEM fields). There was greater variance in the human capital of The Families cohort (from the beginning of the 1980s to the mid-1990s), in which family unification became the dominant mode of entry. The most recent period, from 1995 to 2014-15 (when this book was written), saw the arrival of what we call The IT Generation, a group selected specifically for its specialized skills in the information technology sector or other science and technology (STEM) fields. They also arrived in much larger numbers – at five times the rate of the Early Movers and twice the rate of The Families initially, three times that rate when this book was being written.

Critically, what did not happen is also important. Distance kept Indians with low human capital from entering the United States illegally in very large numbers (in contrast to illegal immigrants from more proximate locations like Mexico and Central America). Also, India’s democracy meant that the vast majority of those who left India did so voluntarily, unlike many immigrants from other developing countries who came as refugees or asylum seekers to escape political chaos or persecution. And since they were not escaping, Indians tended to be more connected to “home.”

These characteristics, in combination with the very high volume of skilled-worker immigration after 1995, made Indian immigrants “outliers” in the degree to which higher education, especially in technical fields, and the US labour market played larger roles relative to other selection mechanisms of US immigration policy.

Indians in America did not resemble any other population anywhere: not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation. They were triply selected: in India, first through a social hierarchy that generally restricted access to higher education to groups with high socioeconomic status, then through an examination and education-financing system that further limited the number of individuals who received the inputs that made it possible to become eligible for immigration to the United States, and finally in the United States, selected though an immigration system that was geared to admit students and workers who matched the country’s high-end labour market needs.

A major focus of this book is on demonstrating and understanding the multiple selections that shaped the Indian-American population. These selections applied not only to education (that, in terms of attaining college degrees, made the India-born population three times more educated than that in the host country and nine times more educated than the home country’s population) but also to class and caste (favoring, by large margins, the “upper” and dominant classes and castes of India), profession (engineering, IT, and health care), and both the region of origin (Gujarati and Punjabi were overrepresented in the first two phases, and Telugu and Tamil in the third phase) and region of settlement (in specific metropolitan clusters in and around New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Houston and Dallas)…

If the subject of selection covers the question of who immigrates, the subject of assimilation covers what happens after immigration. We are cognisant that, like selection, assimilation has multiple meanings whose salience varies across generations and issues (economic, social, or political). First-generation, or India-born, immigrants faced assimilation issues that were distinct from those faced by their children, the second generation, or America-born; and both in turn have differed from those faced by the so-called 1.5 generation – those who moved to the United States as children. History matters, as does geography. Early immigrant cohorts and those that moved to smaller towns faced very different contexts of reception from those who came later or settled in large cities. And while economic assimilation has proceeded rapidly, social assimilation has lagged.

Assimilation is a wide umbrella that covers a swathe of social and cultural issues, from marriage, gender, and child-bearing norms, to political participation, faith, and language preferences. The intergenerational differences on some of these dimensions can be stark and often the basis for anxiety and intergenerational conflict. For the first generation in particular, assimilation had significant economic and spatial dimensions, from occupational to settlement choice (or, absence of choice); and these choices (or compulsions) had consequences. Like selection, the theme of assimilation runs through the book, but is especially important in the second half.

Excerpted with permission from The Other One Percent: Indians in America, Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, and Nirvikar Singh, Oxford University Press.