The Trump administration’s noises about tightening the H1B visa programme have rattled the IT industry — both in the United States and India. Given the direction in which the administration is pushing wider immigration policy, there is every reason to expect it to press ahead on the H1B front as well. Much of the ongoing debate has been framed in terms of whether and to what extent IT firms will be hurt by the proposals that are doing in the rounds in Washington. But it is equally important to see these in the longer historical context of Indian immigration to the US.
In their recent, timely book, The Other One Percent, Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur and Nirvikar Singh offer a remarkable analysis of why Indians turned out to be the most successful immigrant group in contemporary American history. Their account is particularly valuable because they emphasise what an extraordinary departure this was from the fate of the Indians who moved to the US in the early twentieth century — a history that still awaits its chronicler.
In the year 1900, a mere 2,031 Indians had legal permanent resident status in the US. Over the following the decade, the Indian population in America rose to 4,664. This was largely the fallout of tightening immigration policies of Canada from 1908. Denied entry into Canada, many Indians turned south to the US and began working in the lumber industry of Washington state. Then they branched out to other parts of the West Coast, especially California, working predominantly in agriculture and construction.
Soon, the Indians faced the wrath of white American workers who feared the competition of Asian labourers allegedly willing to work on the cheap. In September 1907, hundreds of white workers descended on the living quarters of the “Hindus” — as all Indians were labelled — in Bellingham and forced some 700 hundred of them to flee across the border. Later that year nearly 500 workers in Everett turfed the “Hindus” out of the city.
When an Indian attempted to buy property in Port Angeles in 1913, the real estate agents published a formal agreement not sell to “Hindoos or Negroes” as they were “generally considered as undesirable”. Such incidents stemmed from a combustible cocktail of economic and racial anxieties. But they also fed on the prevalent, unsympathetic cultural images of India purveyed by seafarers, missionaries and travellers over the past century.
The xenophobic antipathy towards Indians was part of a larger nativist backlash against Asian immigrants, especially from China and Japan. Leading this campaign was the Asiatic Exclusion League of San Francisco. The league’s first reports on the “Hindoo question” portrayed the Indian as dirty and untrustworthy, insolent and lustful. In another report of 1910, the league vented its spleen: “We the people of the United States are asked to receive these members of a degraded race on terms of equality … what would be the condition in California if this horde of fanatics should be received in our midst.”
The government began to take note. In February 1914, the US Congress House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization held “Hindu Immigration Hearings”. In his testimony, the commissioner general of immigration insisted the “Hindu” immigration was “a menace to the country, and particularly to California”. Representative Denver Church of Fresno, California claimed, “those of us who come into contact with the Hindus, and I think it is universal, regard them as a menace.”
A US Supreme Court ruling in 1923 further squeezed the Indians in America. The court ruled in United States v Bhagat Singh Thind that immigrants from India settled in the US were not eligible for naturalisation as US citizens. The court ruled on the grounds that an Indian could not count as a “free white person”. The immigration act of 1924 banned the admission of all groups that could not legally be naturalised in the US. The door was firmly shut in the face of immigrants from India.
Faced with implacable racism and diminishing opportunities, many Indians chose to return home. The plight of the Indian in the US was dramatised in 1929, when Rabindranath Tagore abruptly pulled out of a lecture tour in America owing to discourteous treatment by immigration officials — behaviour that he felt reflected the anti-Indian bias of the act of 1924. By 1940, there were only over 2,000 Indians immigrant left.
The striking success of Indians who immigrated in recent decades is also testimony to the extraordinary changes in America since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Without the delegitimisation of the older, brisk racism and overt xenophobia Indians could not have scaled such heights in the US.
As much as the technicalities of the immigration regime, we should worry about the subtle re-emergence of such attitudes in the policy discourse of the Trump administration. When a white supremacist like Steven Bannon publicly grumbles about South Asians heading Silicon Valley corporations, the echoes of Church are unmistakable.