The first Indian to set foot on the New Country did so nearly a century and a half after Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America. The earliest record of this is of an East-Indian named Tom, whose name was counted amongst the ‘headrights’ of a settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1635.
Columbus famously misidentified the indigenous Native Americans as ‘Indians’. The conquest of America was based in great part on the theft of these American’s lands. But ironically, it was the Asian Indians, brought in as indentured labourers, who enabled colonizers to own vast swathes of land for ‘free’.
Under the headright system, a European would receive a plot of land for free, for making the journey from the Old World to the New World and settling down. For every labourer they brought, they would also receive more land – up to 50 acres per head. George Menafie, who ‘owned’ Tony, had paid passage for as many as 24 such indentured labourers.
Under restrictive conditions, these labourers made a home in America. But the Naturalization Act of 1790 barred them from becoming citizens. The act restricted citizens to white aliens alone. Indentured servants, slaves and the entire non-white population were thus excluded.
Asides from the indentured workers, many Indians came to North America as lascars (ship men) in European ships. But these numbers were small in comparison to 20th-century migration. By the 1900s, Indians seeking immigration to the US needed to bypass restrictive and racist laws.
The first Indian to receive American citizenship was the Parsi merchant Bhicaji Balsara, in 1909. Bhicaji’s citizenship was granted by Circuit Judge Lacombe of New York’s Southern District, albeit reluctantly. Lacombe based his decision on the idea that Congress’s original naturalization act was intended for only free white persons. He worried that if the definition were to be widened to include “all branches of the great race or family known to ethnologists as the Aryan, Indo-European, or Caucasian…it…[would] bring in, not only the Parsees… which is probably the purest Aryan type, but also Afghans, Hindoos, Arabs, and Berbers.”
By 1917, the immigration of Asian labourers was banned by Congress. Known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, it sought to prevent the immigration of undesirables, which included the sick, the criminal, as well as the entirety of those who lived in the Asia-Pacific region. Furthermore, all immigrants above 16, besides those fleeing religious persecution, had to pass a literacy test.
Bhicaji received his dues because the courts considered him white. In 1923, the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind reintroduced the racial theory to settling matters of immigration. Bhagat Singh Thind, a ‘high-caste’ immigrant from Punjab, was applying for naturalization on the grounds that he, as an Aryan descendant, could be considered Caucasian and therefore ‘white’. It was a racist and casteist line of argument- Bhagat’s lawyers described lower-caste Indians as ‘aboriginal Indian mongoloids’ – and it did not work.
Bhagat later received citizenship by virtue of having served in the US Army. Many others did not receive the same favour – and immigration from India was in the region of a few hundred throughout this period.
The Luce–Celler Act of 1946 permitted a quota of 100 Indians and Filipinos to migrate to the US each year. It was not a large amount, and by the 1960s, there were fewer than 12,000 Indian immigrants in the United States. But change was happening, slowly.
The 1952 McCarran–Walter Act (also known as the Immigration and Nationality Act) passed despite a veto by then-president Harry Truman. It upheld the controversial quota system but removed earlier Asian exclusion acts. Calling to end the isolationist mindset, Truman said:
In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.
Donald Trump’s controversial ‘Muslim Ban’ order – the ‘Executive Order 13769 – Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States‘ – referenced this very act. The act was heavily amended in 1965, with all of its quotas removed. It changed the face of America forever.
The first wave of immigration in the 1960s favoured highly skilled doctors and scientists. The second wave was exponentially greater in size, being the relatives of these first-generation immigrants. And between 1980 and 2010, the Indian population in the US doubled every decade. Indians are now the second-largest migrant community in the United States and the country’s most economically successful community.
America’s gain was India’s loss; Thomas Friedman spoke in The World Is Flat of the ‘brain drain‘ that had taken place – India’s best and brightest had made the journey to the new world seeking greater opportunity. The results are clear, going by Pew Research; Indians are the most educated community in the United States with more than 70 percent above the age of 25 having college degrees, as well as the highest earning (making nearly 36 percent more than the median household income of all U.S. households).
Indians went on to set many firsts in their adopted home. Less than one percent of the US population, Indians founded eight percent of all its science and technology startups in 2012. The criticism that Indians have ‘taken’ American jobs is more than defeated by the contributions Indians have made to the entrepreneurial economy. Indians are also well represented in established companies. Sundar Pichai and Satya Nadella, the CEOs of two of the United States most recognizable companies – Google and Microsoft – are both Indian-American.
Indians overcame numerous obstacles to become American citizens. Amidst the ongoing divisive climate over immigration and Americanness, it’s worth remembering the past. There was a time when immigration policy in the United States was indiscernible from Nazi racial ideologies. The country has long faced a dilemma over ‘what’ makes someone American. In 1782, the Frenchman, J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur, wrote:
He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds.
Many Indians have done just this. Kalpana Chawla was born in Karnal, Punjab as an Indian citizen, and died in the earth’s atmosphere as a NASA astronaut. Indians like her have died for their adopted countries. Many now lead in top positions in politics; Nikki Haley was the Governor of South Carolina and is now the United State’s Ambassador to the United Nations. From the Democrats is Kamala Harris, a Senator from California.
Today, we know that it’s not what immigrants change about themselves, but what they add to a country that makes their worth. Like the Parsi analogy – of being the sugar to India’s milk – the Indian-Americans have made their name and worth in their adopted homes.
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