'Indian diaspora among most Democrat-leaning of immigrant groups'

(Pictured from left) Nirvikar Singh, professor of economics, University of California, Santa Cruz; Devesh Kapur, director, Centre for Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania; and Sanjoy Chakravorty, professor of geography and urban studies at Temple University, the authors of The Other One Percent: Indians in America, tell Aditi Phadnis the story of the growth and evolution of the Indian diaspora in the United States.

 

The year 1965 and the mid-1990s seem to be the two surge periods for migration by Indians to the US. What do they tell us about the kind of Indian that went to the US in these two waves? And later?

 

The year 1965 was the beginning. That is when the immigration law was changed in the US and the new law, the Hart-Celler Act, removed the earlier national origins quota system to allow in people with skills and to enable family reunification. There weren’t many Indian families in the US then; our best estimate

is that there were under 15,000 India-born people in America. To put that in context, in 2014, almost 150,000 new India-born people entered the US — 10 times higher in a single year. So family reunification was not much of an option and the Indians who came then were skilled — mostly engineers and doctors. Many of them were Gujaratis. Almost half of them already possessed or later acquired postgraduate degrees.

 

There was a middle period — from the late 1970s to the early 1990s — when there were enough Indians in the US that family reunification not only became possible, but also widely prevalent. The surge that began around 1995 changed that dramatically. It was initially related to the Y2K problem but soonincluded a wide range of information technology workers. The vast majority of them were engineers. The number of students also surged. We estimate that over half of these newer tech and student immigrants from India eventually got a postgraduate degree. Telugu and Tamil speakers were heavily over-represented in this surge; many new Hindi speakers also came in.  It should be noted that after the Great Recession, a super-surge appears to have begun around 2010. As we say in the book: a trickle turned into a torrent that became a flood.

 

To understand the nature of the diaspora that Indians represent in the US, you point out that a selection system operated both in India and the US. Tell us how this shaped the American of Indian origin.

 

We call it a Triple Selection process. The initial two selections happened in India. First, through a social hierarchy that generally restricted access to higher education to groups with high socio-economic status — the “high” and “dominant” castes. Second, through an examination system that further limited the number of individuals, who received the educational inputs that made them eligible to be considered for immigration. The exam system used to be fiercely competitive in the pre-liberalisation days, and has lessened in recent years, but remains strongly selective.

 

The third selection was through the US immigration system that was geared to admit students and workers that matched its high-end labour market needs — principally in what are called the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The result is a unique population. It certainly does not resemble the population at home. The college graduates in this population are 10 times higher in percentage terms than in India and their social identities (by caste and language) don’t come close to representing the distribution at home. We call this a population of outliers.

 

What does assimilation of these Indians tell us about those who went to the US, took part in politics and engaged with society to influence it?

 

Assimilation ranges from naturalisation to civic and political participation. Until the 1990s Indians used to naturalise at rates similar to the average for all immigrants. But this is no longer the case since the queue to move from an H1-B visa to a permanent resident is the longest for Indians. Civic participation or associational life for Indian-Americans varies from membership and participation in functional, non-ethnic organisations to pan-Asian ones with a shared regional identity, while others join organisations that reflect India’s ethnic and religious diversity. Similarly, their purposes vary as well — from those seeking to preserve and celebrate cultural traditions, to those with social and economic networking goals, to others whose activities are transnational, linking to the country of origin.

 

Contrary to what one reads in lazy opinion pieces, Indian Americans are among the most Democrat-leaning of any large immigrant group. Only half the Indian-American population is naturalised and of these two-thirds vote, in line with lower Asian-American voter participation. Along with their limited numbers, the community has been demographically concentrated in states that are strongly Democrat-leaning, and hence their voting influence is limited. Other sources of political participation are more important. These include political funding (especially for the first generation), staffing of the Executive Branch and Congressional and State offices (for the second generation) and more recently, running for office. The differences in behaviour are more inter-generational rather than who came from India per se.

 

You have also done extensive research on entrepreneurs of Indian origin in America. What do your findings tell us?

 

For long, the image of Indian-American success was found in the professions — successful engineers and doctors, who epitomised the suburban good life, though some of these professionals were also small business owners, running their own practices, individually or in partnerships.

 

A second pillar of the community — the entrepreneurs — were concentrated in ethnic businesses such as Indian grocery stores and restaurants. The educated middle class was risk-averse and held on to a traditional class aversion towards entrepreneurship. This began to change in the 1980s and 1990s with the emergence of the Silicon Valley innovators and/or entrepreneurs, who created successful software or hardware companies. While US tech companies are now disproportionately likely to have Indian-American founders, the leading industry sectors for Indian-American entrepreneurship remain traditional areas like restaurants, grocery and convenience stores and hotels.

 

But there is emerging diversification of Indian-American entrepreneurship — from traditional ethnic enterprise niches into new industry sectors, and from community strongholds into uncharted terrain. There is also upgrading, for example, from running inexpensive motels to owning franchises for major hotel chains. Our results from analysing both Census data and survey data on Indian-American business owners suggest that there is no obvious “secret sauce” to their entrepreneurial success. Education and familiarity with English are important determinants of success. High levels of education persist for the second generation, even though there is a broadening of choices of field in education, and sector or industry in the subsequent careers. Ethnic networks have  helped Indian-American entrepreneurs succeed, but so have new types of professional networks, The Indus Entrepreneurs being a prime example.

 

Strong family structures have also played a role, as they have for the economic success of Indian-Americans overall. An important message of our work is the diversity of backgrounds and experiences of Indian-American entrepreneurs. Dimensions of this diversity include the period when they arrived in the US, their education, family and socio-economic backgrounds, religion, gender and age. At the same time, we find that for Indian-American entrepreneurs, many of the attitudes and values that led to their choices and their success are not culture-specific, but, as for entrepreneurs more generally, reflect varied formative life experiences, global exposure, and openness to novelty and taking chances.

 

How have Indian Americans affected their country of origin?

 

In multiple ways, and for good and bad. There are now about 95,000 people with PhDs, who were born in India and live in the US. India produces about 20,000 PhDs a year of which — and this is a pure guesstimate — about a tenth are of the quality in the US. Which means that India has, in some loose sense, given the US half a century of stock based on its current output of high-level human capital. This has had pernicious effects on Indian higher education. On the other hand, the US-based Indian diaspora has been a substantial source of financial flows — from remittances to foreign direct investments and portfolio flows (often through Mauritius) — and importantly, of ideas, some better than others.

 

But with India’s growing economy and greater external exposure of its population, the latter has been less important at the national level. However, it seems to be growing at the regional (state) level as the social base of Indians coming to the US widens. The community has also played an important role inbuilding stronger relations between the two countries, exemplified by their rallying in support of the India-US nuclear deal. There is also growing philanthropy, especially for causes like primary education and skill training.


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