Out of India, En Masse and on the Way Up

Renu Kapani at a Subway store in Potomac Mills Mall that she owns with her husband, Rajesh.
Renu Kapani at a Subway store in Potomac Mills Mall that she owns with her husband, Rajesh. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Poonam Kapani Khosla steered her clients into the $1.3 million Chantilly model home, skipping trophy features like the Sub-Zero refrigerator. All talk was about having enough space to accommodate dozens of family members for dinners and extra bedrooms for the stream of relatives arriving from India to settle in the United States.

The real estate agent grasped the transformation occurring in the Washington region. The once-small Indian immigrant population, which for decades expanded at a slow but steady rate, has ballooned over the past decade. Immigrants from India are settling here faster than any group except Salvadorans.

Many Indians were among the recent wave of high-tech professionals who entered on temporary permits for skilled workers. When their spouses, children and siblings followed, their numbers soared, especially in Fairfax and Montgomery counties.

Backed by these growing numbers, Indians have been seeking a bigger voice in politics and business, through groups like the Indian American Leadership Initiative, which aims to put more Indian Americans into elective office, and TiE-DC, a networking club that helps connect Indian executives in the region with new businesses, funding and deals.

Hidden behind the $87,369 median income for Washington area Indian households -- higher than the median income for whites, other Asians, blacks and Hispanics, according to new Census Bureau figures -- there are some problems. Hundreds of thousands of South Asians are in this country illegally, largely by overstaying tourist or student visas, said Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, a District-based advocacy group. Their opportunities are more limited.

But the agendas of TiE-DC and IALI reflect the population's extraordinarily high achievements. About eight in 10 have college degrees, a higher proportion than for whites and other Asians. About seven in 10 are in professional and managerial jobs. And there are more than 8,300 Indian-owned businesses in the region.

Like many other immigrant groups, Indians often view starting a business as the quickest way to amass wealth. Khosla has launched restaurants, real estate firms and a tech company. The latter failed, but she said the others have earned her significant money. "I stopped counting the number of homes I've sold to Indians." she said.

By the Numbers

Khosla's uncle, Mohan Kapani, came to the United States in 1965 as a graduate student and moved to the Washington area in 1974 to work for IBM. He became part of a small, tight-knit cadre of educated professionals in the Washington area, employed by international organizations such as the World Bank or large technology companies willing to sponsor work permits and green cards. Over the next decade, University Boulevard in Langley Park evolved into the region's hub for Indian life, with a mix of vegetarian restaurants, travel agencies and retail stores, like Patel Brothers groceries and India Sari Palace.

According to the 2005 Census Bureau figures, the numbers have grown to 107,000 Indians in the Washington area, about 80 percent of whom are immigrants. This makes them second only to the 165,412 Salvadorans here, according to the Census. Many in the Indian community put their numbers even higher, saying the Census figures do not reflect illegal immigrants and others who do not respond to Census takers. The Salvadoran Embassy, citing similar reasons, puts the number of Salvadorans in this area at 500,000.

Many settled in top-performing school districts, especially Montgomery County, where 31,822 Indians reside, and Fairfax County, with 35,326. At Floris Elementary in Herndon, for instance, nearly four in 10 students are of Asian descent and the largest group of Asian students is Indian, said Lawrence Bussey, an education specialist with Fairfax County schools.

Merchants like Patel Brothers followed the migration, opening shops in Fairfax, Rockville, Hyattsville and Baltimore. Patel Brothers plans to open a sixth store, in Ashburn in Loudoun County, where the Indian population has grown nearly fourfold over the past five years. It is seeking a seventh location in Fredricksburg, according to Pankaj Sheth, owner of the chain.

Many new Hindu and Jain temples and Sikh gurdwaras have also appeared across the region, especially around subdivisions in Chantilly, Fairfax Station, Rockville and Hyattsville.

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