Indian Americans strengthen the U.S.

A look at Indian immigration in the U.S., from the days before quotas to today.

The Indian American population has soared, from fewer than 3,000 people in 1940 to 300,000-plus by 1980, 1.6 million by 2000 and 2.8 million by 2010. Now, people of Indian descent are estimated at some 3 million — 1 percent of the U.S — and Asians are on pace to become the county's largest immigrant group by 2065, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

As the National Academies recently documented, the "integration of immigrants into American society" remains strong.

But it wasn't always so.

This fall marks the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. It represented decades, even centuries, of fitful progress. In 1790, there was U.S. citizenship for free white persons. 1882 saw the so-called Chinese Exclusion Act, and 1917 the Barred Zone Act to exclude Asians more broadly.

Laws in 1921 and 1924 imposed quotas that, with the 1917 act, blocked all Asians except Filipinos; in 1934 they, too, were banned. The Asian Indian population actually declined from 1930 to 1940, a period of xenophobia and economic depression in the U.S. and beyond.

The 14th amendment in 1868 had enlarged citizenship rights, but judicial rulings yielded contradictory results in a nation that — like all others — was racially biased. As Eric Liu wrote in "The Accidental Asian": "To the judiciary system of the United States, Asian Indians were held to be: probably not white (1909), white (1910), white again (1913), not white (1917), white (1919 and 1920), not white (1923), still not white (1928), probably never again white (1939 and 1942)."

Amid World War II and the fight against Japanese imperialism, the Chinese Exclusion Act was reversed in 1943. In 1946, the exclusion of Indians and Filipinos was eased, as anti-colonialism surged worldwide. In 1952, immigration was opened further.

Yet because of tight lingering quotas (based on a National Origins Formula reflecting the 1890 and then 1920 U.S. population), not until 1965 did the U.S. more fully welcome Indians and others from Asia, Africa and the Middle East with expanded quotas and family reunification possibilities. (Immigrants from the Western Hemisphere actually faced quotas for the first time.) In 1965, Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York helped produce legislation that President Lyndon Johnson signed into law October 3rd, at the Statue of Liberty.

A generation later, 1986 brought the Immigration Reform and Control Act (with provisions concerning employers rarely enforced), and 1990 saw higher limits for immigrants and visas. Since then, despite pressure for comprehensive reform, innovation has often been left to administrative and judicial interpretation. President Barack Obama in 2012 adopted a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, an expansion of which is under court review.

Another controversy surrounds H-1B visas, which corporations sometimes abuse at the expense of both American workers — occasionally required to train their lower-cost replacements — and H-1 holders (whose fates are tied to employers). The U.S. recently reversed course from plans to speed up applications for "green cards" (permanent residency) in a way that would have helped Indians, among others, causing mass frustration. Other guest-workers include those exploited under H-2B visas. There will always be tension among different interests and waves of immigrants.

Still, the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (which took effect in 1968) was historic. Fifty years ago (in the same year as the Voting Rights Act), law moved the U.S. forward, countering the nativism that plagues all countries to different degrees, in different eras.

According to the Census Bureau, from 2013 to 2014, the number of foreign-born residents in the U.S. increased by 1.04 million — with more than half of the increase coming from Asia. The nation that was the greatest source of immigrants was India, at about 171,000 (ahead of China at 136,000 and Mexico at 130,000).

Indian Americans have contributed to communities across the United States. For example, many immigrants from India have arrived with backgrounds in such fields as medicine or engineering; many embraced an entrepreneurial spirit that has enlivened our economy in sectors from hotels and restaurants to computing. Schools, colleges, hospitals, businesses, literary culture, government and other realms reflect Indian American influence. The Obama administration includes U.S. Ambassador to India Richard Rahul Verma; the Justice Department's Vanita Gupta; Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; and Arati Prabhakar, who leads DARPA.

Like other immigrants, for five decades and more, Indians have not only come to the U.S. in increasing numbers. They, and their children, have become part of this country and its leadership. Even as some families return to India or travel back and forth, more are settling here — as global citizens in the American tradition.

Josiah H. Brown works in the nonprofit sector and lives in New Haven with his wife, a citizen of India and a U.S. permanent resident, and their children. Twitter: @Jhenryb92.

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