In the fresh wave of immigration debates about Indians taking over American jobs, there is an insinuation that Indians are all recent immigrants. Yet, historians and social scientists have long pointed out that Indians are not new immigrants to the United States, and were engaged in working- class jobs. Rethinking our understanding of the history of Asian Indian immigration will perhaps show us how these immigrants have contributed to the constitution of the United States as a nation. They are American.
By Ramya Swayamprakash
In January 2017, Donald Trump signed a controversial executive order banning nationals from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. In its aftermath, as demonstrations took place across the U.S. (and the world), the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 made a comeback in everyday vocabularies. Historians and journalists alike began talking about the long history of immigration quotas in the United States. In February 2017, a couple of Indian origin engineers were shot at in a bar near Kansas, Missouri. The death of one of the engineers (Srinivas Kuchibhotla) brought up anxieties about Indians taking over American jobs as well as the tangled web of immigration policies that make the presence of immigrants in the United States contingent on visa categories.
In the last year or so, despite the short 24-hour news cycle, immigration and immigration reform have consistently occupied the center-stage. In a recent report the CityLab cited a study that found immigrants and overall population diversity were major factors in the long-term prosperity of the United States. At the Republican Party’s internal debates in 2016, before a presidential candidate was chosen, Donald Trump called for an end to the H1B visa program. The H1B visa program is a non-immigrant visa category allows skilled foreign workers to migrate to the United States and is regulated through quotas. Instituted in 1990, the visa category is limited to 65,000 applicants (with an additional 20,000 applications permitted for foreign nationals holding a master’s degree or higher from U.S. universities). Tech companies have used long this visa category to employ skilled workers, especially Indians. Given the recent nature of the visa category, it is easy to think of Indian immigration as being a ‘recent’ phenomenon.
Rethinking the recent
Until 1965, when President Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act (or the Hart-Celler Act), Indian immigrants gaining legal permanent resident status numbered less than 3,500 a year. Thanks to the bill, the quota system in American immigration policy changed from one based on national origins to one based on immigrants’ skills and family relationships whilst still maintaining per-country limits. The bill also corrected immigration policy orientation from having a pro-European bias to a more level playing field. After the passage of the act, between 1960-69, over 18,000 Indians migrated to the United States and between 1970-79, over 148,018 Indians made the move. Since the 1970s, as the table below shows, there has been an increase in the number of Indians migrating to the United States. Since the implementation of the H1B visa program in 1990, the total number of Indians being granted legal permanent status has nearly doubled.
Table 1: Indians obtaining lawful permanent resident status from 1820-2015. Data from table 2 from the Department of Homeland Security, 2015 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. pp 5-10.
The marked increase in the number of Indians migrating to the United States due to the H1B visa program as well as the lifting of national origin-based quotas has no doubt made Indian immigrants seem like a recent phenomenon. Yet, as the table above shows, Indians have been migrating to the United States since 1820. According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) which reports the number of and national origin of immigrants, nine recorded immigrants between 1820-9 were the first Indians to the move to the United States. In fact, two classic texts, Joan Jensen’s Passage from India (1988) and Karen Leonard’s Making Ethnic Choices (1992) have traced early immigrants from the subcontinent, especially in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In her book, Jensen remarks a visitor from Madras to Massachusetts may have been the first Indian to do so when they came in 1790. In the nineteenth century, as Salem (MA) grew, it was not uncommon to see Indian sailors on the streets of Crowinshield and/or Derby, so much so that Indians were even known to have marched in Fourth of July parades there. Some of these sailors even married African American women and stayed in communities of color. Indians were recorded joining the California gold rush in the 1830s. When Rudyard Kipling visited the United States, he met with Parsee merchants in Philadelphia in 1889. Based on archival sources, Jensen claims that by the turn of the 19th century, there were approximately 500 Indian traders in the United States, in New York, Missouri and in some southern states. Recently, writers such as Vivek Bald in Bengali Harlem have underscored the need to investigate communities of color when thinking about Indian migrants. In Bengali Harlem, Bald suggests that migrants from India were mostly working-class and continued to migrate even in the face of inhibiting immigration policies such as the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.
Scholars of Indian immigration broadly agree that Indian immigrants came to the United States in waves. The first wave consisted primarily of farm, railroad, and lumber mill workers in California and the Pacific Northwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second wave began in the 1960s when Indians began to choose to move to the United States, as skilled workers. The second wave of immigrants has often been understood as part of the ideal immigrant trope – attempting to be white, without being threatening as a social class. Bald very persuasively shows that the first wave of immigrants did not conform to this trope. The memories of the first wave according to Bald, did not survive in the space of ‘whiteness’ but instead resided within African American and Puerto Rican families.
First wave immigration: survival, anti-colonialism, and rights to citizenship
In the early twentieth century, the West Coasts of both the United States and Canada were attractive places for Indian migrants for two reasons: first, as subjects of the British Empire, they could ostensibly migrate to Canada. Once migrants had crossed over to Canada where logging jobs were especially plentiful, moving to the U.S. was a short trip down the coast with the lack of exclusionary laws barring Indians making the US an attractive place to migrate to. Second, conditions of financial insecurity back in India made emigration a lucrative option even if it meant facing hardships in the short and long run.
A sizable population of the first wave of immigrants came from the Indian province of Punjab. Seen both as strong fighters and farmers by the British, in colonial India, Punjab’s population consisted of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. An important motivating factor for Punjabi emigration were the restrictive land-holding patterns in Punjab which were codified and maintained by the British government in India. The British government crushed brewing discontent in Punjab, thereby creating further economic grievances and exacerbating the desire to emigrate to Canada and/or the United States in search of more opportunities. Unlike in India where personal economic growth was hindered by social determinants such as caste and reemphasized by British economic and land policies, growing economies like Canada and the United States needed able-bodied workers. Punjabi Sikhs constituted a majority of Punjabis migrating as they were most affected by restrictive British land-holding and social practices. Jensen remarks that the Punjabi Sikhs were part of larger diaspora producing processes that came with the development of British colonialism in India. Furthermore, these migrants formed a part of a larger migration pattern across the globe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that attracted migrant labor to meet the economic and labor demands of industrializing countries.
White man’s problem… Indian anticolonials?
The first wave of Indian migration was tied to the anticolonial movement in India. This had important consequences in the formulation and enforcement of immigration policies in the United States, and also in Canada. The immigration policies of the early twentieth century, especially the 1924 immigration policy, drew from the American and Canadian response to the anticolonial movement in India. Although a straight line cannot be drawn from the anticolonial movement in India to modern day immigration policies in the U.S. and Canada, there exists a connection even if it is not immediately manifest. Migration quotas that were a part of the 1924 immigration policy were partly an attempt to isolate undesirables and keep their numbers down. The anxiety about the national origin of undesirable immigrants, especially from India, was in part due to the anticolonial movement.
Due to the length of the U.S.-Canada border (at nearly 9000 kilometers) and the lack of border enforcement, migrants from India could cross into the United States from Canada quite easily, both legally and illegally. Indian immigrants who crossed the northern border into the United States were under surveillance by U.S. border officials because the latter were concerned that Indians’ unhindered mobility would reinforce the anticolonial movement in India. One of the reasons the anticolonial movement was important to American border officials was because it questioned white supremacy and demanded independence from colonial rule in India. Even as radicals came to see the United States as a haven, there was a parallel movement to restrict radicalism in the country. Political radicals, especially those from India who were anti-colonial were increasingly under surveillance. Anti-colonial movements were also caught within larger global forces. For instance, the British thought that there was a worldwide ‘Hindu’ conspiracy, aided by Germans to overthrow the British from India. Before and during the World War I, there was some grain of truth in this fear since the Germans were, in fact, paying Indian radicals in the United States to lead a mass revolution in India. None of these plans worked out. After the war, symptomatic of the growing antiradical imagination, these Indians were put on trial in the United States. During these trials, it became clear that the United States would treat the issue of Indian independence along the same lines as Great Britain, making the United States lesser of a political refuge than it had been.
The lack of American support for the anticolonial movement in India as well as the discrimination that Indians faced created an inclusive Indian identity in the United States. In India, British oppression was a primary catalyst in gluing together disparate people into a cohesive anticolonial movement. In North America, discrimination forced Indians to build bonds across caste and religious lines and nationalism came to be seen as “a powerful antidote to the feeling of helplessness.”
The second reason the anticolonial movement was important to Americans and Canadians was its transnational nature. This brought to the surface white settler colonists’ anxiety about white jobs being taken away. As much as discrimination played a seminal part in uniting Indians across caste and religious lines, the presence of Indians united white workers on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border. White workers from both the United States and Canada were unified in their calls for Asian exclusion across the United States and Canada. They made their voices heard through rallies, fueling riots that ran through Bellingham and Vancouver over three days in 1907. Seema Sohi in her article remarks that the political border between the United States and Canada became an ‘imaginary’ line to White workers and labor leaders as they demanded Asian exclusion from their respective governments. Furthermore, Sohi remarks that for border officials in the United States and Canada, the border became a “state apparatus of political repression that was strictly monitored and enforced against Indian bodies.” The border came to be policed as a bulwark against Asian migration and demarcated by shared ideas of white supremacy and solidarity as well as anti-radicalism.
Discrimination against Indians thus further racialized them and created a solidarity, perhaps even an ethnic identity amongst them. In parallel, discrimination against Indians became the rallying call in an effort towards a more systematic legislative avenue to address the “‘Hindu menace’ — a distinctly antiradical racial formation that linked ‘aliens’ and ‘radicals’ and, in the eyes of the U.S. officials, necessitated Indian exclusion and deportation.”
Keeping ‘them’ at bay: Komagata Maru
The treatment of the Komagata Maru and its passengers (most of whom were Punjabis) was emblematic of just how deep and intense these feelings of exclusion were. In its attempts to challenge the ability of Indians to land in Canada, the Canadian government passed the “continuous journey” provision, making it illegal for immigrants to arrive on boats that did not transport them directly from their land of birth to Canada. At a time when there were no direct steam ship lines sailing from India to Canada, the law indirectly ensured that Indians could not land in Canada, legally. Indians did try and get around this in 1914 when the Komagata Maru sailed into the Vancouver harbor but was denied entry for two months before being turned back to India. The treatment of the Komagata Maru was a blatant display of a U.S.- Canadian solidarity against allowing Indian migration.
The passage of the continuous journey provision in Canada raised the issue of the lack of an effective law barring “Hindus” from entering the United States. Drawing inspiration from the restrictive policies of Canada, Natal, Australia and New Zealand but unable to exercise a law of their own, American immigration officials began to use a clause in extant immigration law to prevent the entry of Indians. The clause dealt with the possibility that an immigrant might ‘likely to become a public charge’ and hence would be deemed inadmissible. In her book on immigration, historian Mae Ngai remarks that this policy of restriction “not only marked a new regime” in United States immigration policy but was “deeply implicated in the development of twentieth-century American ideas and practices about citizenship, race, and the nation state.”
Indians began to make links between being colonized in India and being racially discriminated against in the United States through the combination of the borderland riots in Bellingham and Vancouver, the ‘public charge’ clause, as well as the “continuous journey” provision. Sohi explains that the same transnational circuits of circulation that were used to make a case for exclusion by North American officials also fueled Indian leaders’ ideas about the global nature of the racial discrimination and violence Indians faced in the North American Pacific Coast. The only panacea in the eyes of Indians would be the establishment of self-government in India which further made them undesirable immigrants in the eyes of American and Canadian officials.
Keeping the undesirables out was one part of the immigration policy puzzle. The other part, was a more fundamental and persistent question: Who is the right kind of immigrant? Immigration historians have been grappling with this question for a while. On a fundamental level, this inability to fully articulate the ‘right’ kind of immigrant, indicates a deeper discord in what it means to be American. Is the right kind of American only, as recent ‘alt-right’ ideologues have elucidated one who defends ‘western culture’ (read western European culture)? The experiences of Eastern European immigrants in the first half of the twentieth century was also one of being ‘undesirables.’ Srinivas Kuchibhotla may not have known this history, but on that February night, he was one of those ‘undesirables’ who, according to his shooter, should not have been allowed to come to America to make a life for himself, even if doing that was the most American thing to do.
First wave, working-class farmers, and Punjabi-Mexican families
Despite their status as undesirables, Indians did make the move to America, even as they struggled to survive. Karen Leonard shows in Making Ethnic Choices, that Indian immigrants became farmers, and some were even successful. In her book, Leonard counted around 250 couples in the Sacramento Valley and 50 in the Central Valley respectively. Leonard recounts that despite feeling unwelcome, Punjabi immigrants to the western United States were contesting their place at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Punjabis worked quickly to lease and own land. In fact, by 1919, over one-third of all the land in California was leased and owned by Punjabis. Securing credit from their local banks as well as individuals, Punjabi farmers were amongst the first to grow “risky but profitable crops” such as cotton. However, after World War I cotton bankruptcies hit these farmers hard. These bankruptcies coincided with the passage of the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind Supreme Court decision in 1923 that restricted South Asians from naturalization. The Thing case ruptured aspirations of assimilation and naturalization among Indians. Furthermore, it was used to restrict Punjabis from owning land. Forced to find a means to bypass the land law, or stand to lose their land, some well-educated Punjabis attempted to change professions while others took to violence.
A way around the law was to have relatives hold the land on a man’s behalf. Enter Punjabi Mexican families. Unable to bring wives and families from India, these Punjabi men began to interact with local women and marry to make use of this loophole. While it was taboo for Punjabi men to associate with white women, there was little pushback from whites against Punjabi men in relationships with ‘Mexican girls.’ If anything, Leonard remarks that whites saw these Punjabi-Mexican relationships favorably. Despite initial controversies “Punjabi-Hispanic” marriages became a pattern. The cotton crop brought a lot of these couples together. For many families displaced by the Mexican Revolution, the cotton fields from Southern California to Texas offered work opportunities. For the Punjabi men, cotton was a familiar crop which was picked by women back in India. Thus, for the Punjabi men, having their Mexican wives pick cotton was not out of the ordinary.
Over time, these marriages connected both the men and women to various circuits of familial and social bonds whilst setting up some conflicts. For instance, for men coming from India where caste and religious lines were impermeable, the possibility of marrying outside their caste and/or religion led to existential questions that did not always go away. These Punjabi-Mexican families were also in a sense insulated from history: on the one hand, some of these men were already married (and/or a family) but did not always disclose this to their Mexican spouses, and sometimes spouses did not want to know either; on the other hand, the Indian relatives of these farmers, given the prohibitive immigration law and physical distance, had little inkling of these families. As they survived, these families began charting their own ways, building a community that socialized amongst itself. These families were mostly bilingual with the onus of learning Spanish being on the Punjabi men. As the second generation grew older, issues of ethnic identity became important. Leonard comments that for these second-generation Punjabi-Mexicans, their ‘Hindu’ heritage was problematic. Like most second-generation immigrants, they began to critically examine their families and felt that their Punjabi fathers were ‘outsiders. This sense of their fathers being outsides only reemphasized an extant ambivalence about their own ‘Hindu’ identity. While second-generation sons could use their double ethnicity and kinship ties to move out of agricultural labor and explore other opportunities, such opportunities were not always open for second-generation Punjabi Mexican women.
The Punjabi-Mexicans today are mostly lost to history. Their stories, in some part, have been kept by the South Asian American Digital Archive. Yet, their presence points to the struggles for survival, in the face changing immigration laws and the persistence of racial immigration policies. More importantly, it points to the existence of a working-class, interracial rural community that survived despite harsh immigration policies.
Inter-generational and inter-wave conflict
The maturing second-generation of Punjabi-Mexicans were also faced with the second wave of Indian immigrants after 1965. After the abolition of quotas based on ‘national origin,’ Indians began to migrate to the United States as skilled workers. For second-generation Punjabi Mexicans, this second wave of migrants was particularly unsettling. The second wavers questioned the ‘Hindu’ credentials of the second-generation Punjabi-Mexicans. For the Punjabi-Mexicans, this led to a further reassessment of their own ethnic choices. While the choice to cling to a ‘Hindu’ identity had been made before the 1950s, the increasing questioning by second wavers about their ‘Hindu’ identity led most second-generation Punjabi-Mexicans to feel more ambivalent about their Hinduness, even as they emphasized their Americanness more. They embraced their being American a lot more. The second wave of ‘pure-bred’ Indians was suspicious of these ‘half-breeds.’ In addition, the sudden ability to now marry other Indians, and even bring their spouses over to the U.S. instead of having to marry Mexican women, changed the internal dynamics of the community.
On a more structural level, different motivations undergirded these two waves. The first wave of immigrants drew upon economic and social repressions as catalysts for emigrating; they were doubly oppressed when they landed in America due to discriminatory immigration laws and therefore had to carve a niche for themselves in the most restricted of circumstances. In a sense, their attempts at assimilation were attempts at survival. The second wave of immigrants, on the other hand, were more educated and had made a choice to move to America. They entered the economy at a level often much higher than that of the second and third generation Punjabi-Mexicans. Their assimilation was often characterized by a perpetuation of caste and religious differences despite an espousal of cosmopolitanism. The second wave brought an idea of India that stressed “its diversity and complexity, its urban, cosmopolitan culture.” Srinivas Kuchibhotla, and millions of others like him, represented this wave. Unlike the Punjabis of the first wave, Kuchibhotla was from another part of India, reinforcing the diversity in and of Indian immigrants. It is a wave that I too perhaps am a part of.
The first wave of immigrants shared a ‘political memory’ of not just an undivided India but was further joined together by common experiences of racial and social oppression as they faced in rural areas in the U.S. even as they populated them. The second generation lived in cities and were less isolated from the ‘American’ experience. For the second wave of immigrants, assimilation was more than survival, it was an active process of becoming American, as uneven and disorienting as it may have been. For IT engineers like Srinivas Kuchibhotla, assimilation did not always involve having to give up their own Indianness, especially when it came to food habits and social circles. Unlike the Punjabi-Mexicans, second wave Indians did not always have to choose between their Indianness and their American selves.
The differences between the two waves and the two generations then raise thorny questions about assimilation and/or Americanization: the difference between being and becoming. Do either feel ‘truly’ American? Is assimilation possible when structural forces do not allow a viable community-at-large, as in the case of the Punjabi-Mexicans?
When the trigger was pulled on Srinivas Kuchibhotla in that Kansas bar in 2017, it was a continuation of a misunderstanding of history. South Asian Indians have visited and/or lived in the United States, since the founding of the republic. They may have come in waves, and occupied different parts of the social and economic hierarchy, but historically, they have met the demand for working-class migrants as much as that for skilled workers. As successful farmers and industrial workers, they have formed the backbone of the American working class. Restrictive immigration laws made it impossible for them to leave and/or live. But survive they did, building communities, sometimes with other Others. They brought to light the working of ethnic pluralism in America, at a time when racial segregation was in one of its most severe periods. When allowed to, they challenged racial immigration laws and asked to be equal citizens as in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind. They sometimes thought of ingenious ways to side step the and use the loopholes in immigration law as in the case of the Komagata Maru. When laws changed and allowed for skilled workers, they came in larger numbers, making America home again. They entered with different aspirations from the first wave. Even as H1B visa holders, much like the first wave of immigrants, they were not always welcomed. Often cast as outsiders they have continued to power the American economy, along with other insiders and outsiders of American society.
But they are not outsiders. They are America.
About the Author:
Ramya is a doctoral student in the history department at MSU where she explores the impact border imposition, control and infrastructure on the urban form and environment of Detroit and Windsor. She has an interdisciplinary background in Journalism, Political Science, STS, and Urban Design. In an another life, she researched hydrocracies in post-colonial India. Her hobbies rescinded with the start of her doctoral program
 Bromwich, “Killing in Kansas Bar Put Victim’s Widow at Risk of Deportation.”
 Burch, “Facing a Void Left by Hate.”
 According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), since 2007, 2,183,112 Indians have applied for H1B visas. With only a brief down cycle in 2008, the number of Indian applicants only increased from 166,575 in 2007 to 247,927 in 2017. Indeed, the top five companies that petition for the 85,000 H1B visas available, are predominantly Indian: Cognizant, Infosys, Tata Consultancy Services, Accenture, and Wipro. In 2016, these five companies accounted for 59,184 of the approved applications. Data from H1B Trends: 2007 to 2017 from USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data. Available at: https://www.uscis.gov/tools/reports-studies/immigration-forms-data (last accessed October 25, 2017) as well as the “Approved H1B Petitions by Employer, FY2016,” from the USCIS Immigration and Citizenship Data. Available at: https://www.uscis.gov/tools/reports-studies/immigration-forms-data (last accessed October 25, 2017).
 Parsees or Parsis are a religious minority in India. Followers of Zoroastrianism, Parsees fled to the west coast of India around the eight century (or even later according to some sources) to escape Muslim persecution. According to the Census of India, in 2001, Parsees constituted 0.006% of India’s population.
 Joan M. Jensen, Passage from India: Asian India Immigrants in North America, 12–15.
 Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
 Joan M. Jensen, Passage from India: Asian India Immigrants in North America, 16.
 Scholars of Indian immigration have examined legal cases where Indians claimed citizenship based on their ‘whiteness’ i.e. their Caucasian ancestry. While the results of this tactic were uneven at best, ‘whiteness’ as an ascribed quality has long been analyzed by immigration historians.
 Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
 In undivided India, Punjabi was a state that straddled modern day India and Pakistan.
 Joan M. Jensen, 172.
 Sohi, “Race, Surveillance, and Indian Anticolonialism in the Transnational Western U.S.-Canadian Borderlands.”
 Sohi, 422.
 Joan Jensen describes the Komagata Maru incident in detail, chronicling the plight of the passengers on board. Jensen argues that the Komagata Maru brought to the head the tensions over Indian immigrants, in both the U.S. and Canada. See Joan M. Jensen, Passage from India: Asian India Immigrants in North America, 121–138.
 Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America, 3.
 Leonard, 43.
 Bhagat Singh Thind appealed the revocation of his citizenship and lost the case. In the ruling, the judge “held that while Indians were Caucasian, they were not ‘white persons’ in the popular meaning of the term, and therefore they, like the Japanese and other Asians, were ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship.’” Leonard, 55.
 Leonard discusses the case of Pakher Singh who was convicted for second-degree murder for confronting two Anglo about a crop dispute and killed them. See Leonard, 56.
 Leonard, 63.
 In an oral history interview with a second-generation Amelia Singh Netervala recalls that her father, a Punjabi farmer was hesitant about talking about his past in India. See Netervala, Amelia Singh Netervala Oral History Interviews.
 For a detailed discussion see Part I in Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans.
Berger Joseph, “Family Ties and the Entanglements of Caste.”
 Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices: California’s Punjabi Mexican Americans, 187.