Indian-Americans: A community built on grit, hard work, and being on the right side of law
The community has come a long way. In the process it has shown that it could flex its political and financial muscle in tight Congressional races and make a difference nationally
There is nothing like a free lunch, and Indians in the United States know this all too well. The second largest immigrant group in the US after Mexicans, Indian Americans are by far among the most respected in the country and for good reasons: a sound educational background, a decent job, a well-knit family and, by and large, minding their own business in the neighbourhoods.
Of course, there is an occasional crook or a scamster but hardly does the community get pinned by way of a generalisation. Sundar Pichai of Google, Satya Nadella of Microsoft and scores of other Indian Americans who have made it to the top may not be household names. But the fact that they stand out with outstanding achievements have certainly not gone unnoticed in the US and India.
By the same token, the community was jolted when prominent financial whiz Rajat Gupta was indicted and convicted of insider trading, the irony of sorts being that Gupta’s case was pursued by another Indian American who was New York’s Southern District Attorney, Preet Bharara.
All this is not to imply that Indian Americans have not been the subject of racist slurs, at times even at the hands of well-known politicians, knowingly or otherwise. The Dotbusters gang terrorised New Jersey between the 1970s and 1990s, targeting men and women who wore tilak or bindi. Some Indian Americans became a target after the terror attacks of 9/11. Even now occasional incidents of hate crimes against places of worship haunt the community. But rednecks and bigots are exceptions in any society.
Republican Congressman Mike McCormick recently remarked: “Although they (Indian Americans) make up about 1 per cent of American society, they pay about 6 per cent of the taxes. They’re among the top producers, and they do not cause problems. They follow the laws.”
A survey by the Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development said the average income of Indian American families is $120,000 compared to the overall American average of $88,000. And Indian Americans’ earnings vastly surpass other minority groups.
Statistics are not precise on the actual number of Indian Americans in the US. It is generally estimated at 4.5-4.8 million, or some 1.4 per cent of the total population. Of this, one would have to factor in citizenship by birth, naturalisation, green card holders, those on high skilled and ordinary visas, and of course the undocumented, put at around 600,000. The last category would be overstayers and those who have gone “underground” with an expired visa, showing little intention of leaving the country. The estimate is that by 2030, Indian Americans would be around 2 per cent of the US population.
Starting with a meagre range in the neighbourhood of 5,000 in the 1900s and at a time when there was even a conscious attempt to keep people away from the subcontinent, Indian immigration picked up steam in the mid-1960s on the educational front. The 1990s showed the way for high skilled visas, the H1Bs. Predominantly, students thronged institutions of higher learning.
The sheen may have worn off in recent years as a result of competition from Canada, the UK, Australia and Singapore but American diplomatic posts in India continue to issue some 100,000 student visas annually; one estimate is that Indian students in the US contribute some $8 billion to the American economy annually.
The Indian American community outshines other ethnic groups as close to 40 per cent have a master’s degree; the corresponding figure for all Americans is around 14 per cent. Data shows that 72 per cent of Indian Americans have a bachelor’s degree; only about 38 per cent of Americans are college graduates.
Skills and H1B visa
High skilled visas have always attracted Indian talent; and many have used this process to secure the green card, which has been a pathway to American citizenship. In 2020 and 2021, more than 70 per cent of all H1B visas were taken up by Indians followed by Chinese at a distant 12 per cent. Globalisation and revolutions in IT also meant that Indian investment in American markets have slowly picked up, estimated at close to $13 billion in 2020 and supporting some 70,000 American jobs.
US President Joe Biden was not entirely misplaced when he remarked: “Indian Americans are taking over the country.” Aside from being the most successful migrant group, Indian Americans have come to be known in almost every sector, be it in education, technology, entrepreneurship, politics and positions of governance.
Biden should know — Vice President Kamala Harris is a heartbeat away from the presidency and more than 125 members of the Indian community are in various senior administration positions including at the White House, National Security Council, Technology, Health, Transportation and NASA.
Without doubt, an area where Indian Americans have done well is politics and in bringing about presence in the US Congress. After Congressman Dalip Singh Saund who represented the 29th District of California between 1957 and 1963, the 118th Congress has five Indian Americans belonging to what has come to be known as the “Samosa Caucus”, representing community interests and also that of India but not always uncritically.
Looking beyond Kamala Harris, who is generally seen as African American with an Indian heritage, the Indian American community has done well with both Democrats and Republicans. The deep pockets of some community leaders is an added attraction to both parties.
At one time, the Indian American community was seen as an exclusive preserve of the Democratic Party; not any longer. The Grand Old Party has started chipping away at some of the support base. Political observers also point to a slow but steady rise of Independents and issue-based voters who cannot be taken for granted by either major party.
Not long ago, Indian Americans Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley were touted as potential presidential material in the Republican party before Kamala Harris rose to prominence amongst Democrats, first in California and later nationally. Jindal and Haley went on to become Governors of Louisiana and South Carolina, respectively. Halley is still seen as a potential for 2024 even as some see Harris in the fray should Biden decide not to run for re-election.
The Indian American community has come a long way. In the process it has shown that it could flex its political and financial muscle in tight Congressional races and make a difference nationally. The days of looking at stereotypes are over.
(The writer was a senior journalist in Washington DC covering North America and the United Nations)