Indonesian immigrants

Indonesian immigrants: Barack Obama and Indonesia

Significance: Although the Southeast Asian nation of Indonesia has one of the largest populations in the world, it has sent comparatively few immigrants to the United States. However, the numbers of Indonesian immigrants began increasing rapidly during the 1980’s, and their heavy concentration in Southern California gave them considerable visibility.

Indonesia is made up of a large number of populated islands located south of Southeast Asia’s Malay Peninsula. It has the largest population of any nation in Southeast Asia and is home to a diverse variety of ethnic and linguistic groups. The most numerous of these groups are the Javanese, who constitute about 45 percent of Indonesia’s total population. Partly because it was a Dutch colony until 1949, Indonesia has had fewer political, economic, and cultural ties to the United States than many other Asian nations.

Some of the earliest American immigrants of Indonesian origin were people of mixed European and Indonesian ancestry. These mixed-background migrants left Indonesia during the late 1940’s during the nation’s struggle for independence. Many of them went first to the Netherlands before moving to the United States. During the mid-1950’s, U.S. government scholarships enabled some Indonesian students to study in the United States. During the 1960’s, political and economic turmoil in Indonesia prompted some emigration to the United States by Indonesians, especially ethnic Chinese from the archipelago.

By 1980, an estimated 26,700 Indonesian-born immigrants lived in the United States. About onefourth of them had arrived in the United States before 1960 and close to one-third had arrived between 1960 and 1964. During the 1980’s, immigration from Asia increased greatly. By 1990, the total number of foreign-born people from Indonesia in the United States doubled, reaching more than 53,600. This figure increased to close to 77,000 in 2000 and reached an estimated 86,000 by 2007.

Profile of Indonesian immigrants

Country of origin Indonesia
Primary language Indonesian
Primary regions of U.S. settlement Southern California
Earliest significant arrivals Early 1950’s
Peak immigration period 1980’s
Twenty-first century legal residents* 25,281 (3,160 per year)

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

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

Despite this rapid growth, Indonesian migration still remained much lower than immigration from many other parts of Asia. Even in the heavy migration years from 1999 to 2008, a time during which migrants from Asia made up about one-quarter of all new legal immigrants to the United States, only about 3,000 immigrants per year came from Indonesia. This figure was dwarfed by the averages of more than 60,000 Chinese and 54,000 Filipinos arriving every year.

In 2007, California was home to about 40,000 people who had been born in Indonesia. This figure accounts for nearly one-half of all Indonesians in the United States. The single-largest concentration of these immigrants was in the Los Angeles/ Long Beach metropolitan area, where about 17,500 Indonesians lived. Another 6,000 had settled in the Riverside-San Bernardino area. Other Indonesians were scattered around the country, with the greatest numbers found in Washington, D.C. (about 5,000 Indonesians in 2007), the New York-New Jersey area (about 4,300), and Southern California’s Orange County metropolitan area (about 3,600).

Restaurants have been an important source of employment for Indonesians, about 12 percent of whom were employed in commercial eating and drinking places during 2007, according to U.S. Census data. Indeed, roughly one of every eight Indonesian Americans worked as a cook, waiter, or waitress. The Los Angeles area, in particular, has had a significant number of restaurants owned by Indonesian immigrants and specializing in Indonesian food. Indonesian Americans employed outside the restaurant industry are most heavily represented in professional and technical occupations.

Carl L. Bankston III

Further Reading

  • Takaki, Ronald. Strangers from a Different Shore. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1998. 
  • Taylor, Jean Gilman. Indonesia: Peoples and Histories. NewHaven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. 
  • Vickers, Adrian. A History of Modern Indonesia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 

See also: Asian immigrants; California; Filipino immigrants; Los Angeles; Malaysian immigrants; Muslim immigrants; Thai immigrants; Vietnamese immigrants.

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