President Trump has been arguing for a new immigration policy, in which highly skilled immigrants are favored over anyone else in line, including family members (which his administration calls “chain migration”). And many Indian immigrants support that approach. In fact, the Republican Hindu Coalition held a recent rally — with about 200 Indian Americans attending — specifically to support the plan.
The coalition argues that Indian immigrants are highly skilled — and so would do well under the plan. It’s a sentiment shared by many Indian high-tech workers, doctors and others with advanced education.
But they’re wrong. In fact, Indian immigrants to the United States come via many different pathways, from many different backgrounds. What’s more, the group and its backers do not fully understand the administration’s real immigration priorities.
It’s true that Indian immigrants dominate the H1-B visa, a category for highly skilled workers — but there’s a catch
In recent years, most high-skilled Indian immigrants have come on the H1-B visa, a temporary visa that employers can use to bring in high-skilled workers when no qualified American is available. Since about 2001, Indian immigrants have held the majority of H1-B visas each year, in some years making up over 70 percent of H1-B visa holders.
But there’s the catch in Trump’s plan for Indian immigrants. While publicly arguing in favor of high-skilled immigrants, the Trump administration has quietly waged a campaign to limit the use of these visas, issuing a series of measures to reevaluate and restrict their use. Most recently, on Feb. 22, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services released a memo detailing new restrictions on H1-B visas.
Why the apparent contradiction in Trump’s approach — emphasizing skilled immigrants while restricting the visa that brings them in? This makes more sense once you look at the history of attitudes toward Indian immigrants in the United States.
But the deeper issue is race
Let’s start with a 1923 Supreme Court ruling. The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case underscored the racially inferior position of Indian immigrants. Bhagat Singh Thind was being blocked from citizenship by a 1790 law that reserved the right of citizenship to a “free white person.” Thind argued that as a “high caste Hindu,” he was Caucasian, and petitioned the Supreme Court to grant him citizenship. The Supreme Court denied his petition, ruling that Thind was not white in “accordance with the understanding of the common man.”
The 1920s were a period of racial anxiety about immigration, with many arguing publicly that white Americans were being overwhelmed by foreigners from darker countries, including southern Europe. Not until 1965, in response to the civil rights movement, did Congress pass the Immigrant and Naturalization Act, which eliminated race-based national quotas and favored skill and family-based immigration. That enabled relatively large numbers of skilled Indian immigrants to come to the United States. That’s worth emphasizing: The United States opened to skilled migrants from India only because of civil rights movements that directly challenged the racist history of earlier immigration laws.
When Trump asked why the United States couldn’t encourage immigrants from countries like Norway instead of countries in Africa, which he spoke of in vulgar language, he was fully in the spirit of earlier quotas for “white” countries. It’s a sentiment shared by other Trump administration officials. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has argued that the 1965 law led to a problematic explosion of “unassimilated” immigrants.
In 2015, while still senator, Sessions argued in favor of the 1924 law, saying that current numbers of “nonnative born” Americans were too high. “When the numbers reached about this high in 1924, the president and Congress changed the policy, and it slowed down immigration significantly … and it was good for America.” Sessions also favored stringent curbs on legal immigration, particularly for STEM jobs. Given that Indians are the biggest recipients of STEM-related visas, he may be especially concerned that high-skilled Indian immigrants are taking STEM jobs from “real” Americans.
Since 1965, the Indian-American population has emerged as one of the most successful subgroups in the United States. Indian immigrants generally arrive with a strong command of English, a product of Indian colonial history, extensive education and significant human capital. Consequently, Indians have had less experience with overt discrimination than other racial minorities. Nevertheless, in the eyes of Sessions and those who share his views, they are still not sufficiently “assimilated.” Like Bhagat Singh Thind, Indians will not be perceived as white in the “common understanding.”
All that can be seen in a wide range of incidents. For instance, during the 1980s, Indian immigrants faced a group called “dotbusters”, who violently targeted the expanding Indian community in New Jersey. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, some angry Americans attacked Indians, including the fatal shooting of a Sikh man in Arizona by a person who said he wanted to kill “towel heads.” In 2012, a white supremacist killed six people in a mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. More recently, in 2017 an angry gunman killed an Indian immigrant in Kansas, yelling, “Get out of my country!”
Most Indian immigrants to the U.S. are not highly skilled. They’re family members.
Moreover, even though Indians receive the biggest share of H1-B visas, most Indian immigrants are not highly skilled. Since the first wave of skilled Indian immigrants arrived, they’ve brought over their families in large numbers. As we show in our book, between 1970 and 2010, family-sponsored green card recipients from India outnumbered those whose green cards came through employment.
Indians, like all immigrant groups, have sought the comfort of family connections, strengthening their community ties and cultural identities. Trump and his aides have been vilifying the family-sponsored visa category, and favor restricting how many family members any immigrant can bring along after settling in the United States.
The Trump administration’s immigration policies are unlikely to benefit immigrants of Indian origin. Indian Americans may wish to build coalitions with other immigrant groups to advocate for a balance between skilled and family immigration.
Bidisha Biswas is professor of political science at Western Washington University. She writes on international security, immigration, and diaspora politics.
Ramya M. Vijaya is a professor of economics at Stockton University, New Jersey. She writes on immigration integration and income and wealth inequality.