Asian Indian immigrants

Significance: 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 fromIndia occurred. Accounting for more than 2.5 million people in 2007, Asian Indians constituted the thirdlargest Asian immigrant population in the United States.

Asian Indian immigrants

Sikh immigrants to California posing for a group portrait in 1910. (California State Library)

Although most immigration from India to the United States occurred during the early twentyfirst 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.

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

Between 1907 and 1917, thousands of Sikh 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 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.

Immigration from India, 1900-2008

Asian Indian immigrants

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008. Figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status. Immigration records for 1820-1899 show a total of only 687 immigrants.

Leaving employment on the railroad and in the lumber mills, by 1910 Asian Indians began contracting for 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 to tenant farmers.Transacting bank loans, Indians purchased acreage. By 1914, as prosperous landowners, the Asian Indian immigrants started moving inland to central California to establish independent ethnic agrarian communities. Hard-working and Englishspeaking, 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 the Asiatic 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 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 Zone Act) restricted immigration from Asia. Soon afterward, the Supreme Court ruled in 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.

Seven years later, the 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 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 Lyndon B. Johnson when he signed into law the Immigration 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 selfemployment ventures in restaurants, travel agencies, and motels. Almost 40 percent of all Asian Indians who entered the United States after 1965 arrived on student 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” 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.

Profile of Asian Indian immigrants

Country of origin India
Primary languages English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil, and others
Primary regions of U.S. settlement California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, Illinois
Earliest significant arrivals Early twentieth century
Peak immigration period Early twenty-first century
Twenty-first century legal residents* 535,988 (66,998 per year)

*Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.

Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

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 are medical professionals, scientists, 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.

Tamara M. Valentine

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.

See also: 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.

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