What brought Indians to the United States, and what made Indian immigrants, as a whole, so successful once here?
That’s the question Sanjoy Chakravorty, Devesh Kapur, and Nirvikar Singh set out to answer in their book, “The Other One Percent: Indians in America.” They track the increase in Indian immigration to America, both after the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, and again during the (still-ongoing, in some ways) tech boom. They use data and research to show how the Indians who come to America are “triple selected” through India’s socioeconomic hierarchy, highly competitive education system, and the U.S. immigration system. If the one percent of the U.S. population that is Indian has done particularly well, the authors argue, it is perhaps because selection factors were such that the Indian-born population is nine times more educated that the population of the United States.
The book was published shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump’s election, and written before changes to the visa system and increased violence against Indians in America. So Foreign Policy spoke with Chakravorty and Singh to ask how they think the story of the other one percent will change in the time of Trump.
To start with the big picture: Toward the end of the book, you say that it’s still to be seen whether the 2016 election is as big a shift in immigration as the 1965 immigration law or the tech boom. The election’s over, and we’re a month and a bit into Trump’s presidency. What do you think now?
SC: It’s clear that this administration has a pretty distinct view on immigration and immigrant labor. I think there is a pretty large thrust, in a sociological sense, toward creating an Other – a non-white, immigrant population of the U.S. – and marginalizing them. That’s a huge part of the political agenda. And the Other is part of the America First agenda – to kind of cut down on not only foreign workers, but relations with other countries, cutting down on trade. There are plenty of signals that the H-1B visas system is going to be changed. Exactly how is unclear at this point. But it’s very likely to be more restrictive, if not abandoned all together. And it will have pretty significant consequences, not just for immigrants but for the tech industry. I’m sure there are some Indian tech workers who are visibly replacing so-called American workers, but by and large the industry has grown massively in 30 years. And a lot of it through foreign labor. And it raises the question, to me at least, why the American education system, who raised some of the top people – in the middle level [of the tech sector], that labor market really has not been generated in this country. And if there is a squeeze in that labor market, there will be pretty serious consequences.
NS: It’s hard to tell exactly what will happen. The initial signs are not encouraging from what I read. I know we’ve gone through cycles in the past with the H-1B visa program … to me, this comes in the context with Steve Bannon being on record in an interview saying something like, “Oh, there are too many South Asians.” Which seems pretty racist to me. One can be racist without using negative characterizations. Basically I think this is sort of what we kind of point out in our book: there have been eras where the United States adopted a very closed and nativist approach to immigration. It’s possible we’re heading in that direction. At least this administration seems to be very comfortable with that approach. American immigration policy is not just shaped by high-minded ideals, but by domestic politics and geopolitics. It’s kind of a weird situation. I think we’d all gotten used to post-1965 immigration policy, and this administration seems to want to question the fundamentals of that approach. The initial signs to me are not at all encouraging. It’s not just America first – there’s also a racial element to it. That adds a layer of discomfort.
Fast processing of H-1B visas has been suspended, at least for now. Do you think this will change, at least in the short term, Indian immigration to the United States?
SC: Honestly, I’m not sure what that particular tweak is going to do. [Fast processing of H-1B visas] basically gives a leg up to the big firms. They’re able to pay the extra dollars needed to fast track. Normally it’s six to eight weeks, they do it in a couple of weeks. There are plenty of reports that this is biased toward the big firms, and startups are unable to take advantage. I’m honestly not sure what this tweak will mean.
NS: I think to the extent that people are having trouble getting H-1B visas, I think straightforwardly that will slow down the pipeline. If Indian IT companies undertake structural shifts in how they distribute work across locations, that may be a more permanent shift. A company cannot rely on a fickle immigration policy. I think the other factor – the really chilling effect is going to be from the killings of Indian-Americans. Even me, I’m telling my children who were born in the U.S., please be extra careful.
Q: You briefly touch on violence against Indians in America – and in particular against Sikhs – in the book. An Indian immigrant was fatally shot yesterday, and it was the third time in two weeks that there’s been an attack on an Indian in the United States. How does this fit into the story of Indians in the United States, and do you think that the fact that so many Indians in America live not in big cities but, for professional reasons, what you describe as ethno-techno bubbles, makes them particularly visible/vulnerable at present?
SC: Many communities have bemoaned the fact that they’re not taken into consideration. They don’t get political traction. And yet when communities do become visible, they can become targets. And this is not the first time Indians have become targets. In the late 80s, there was the “dot buster” phenomenon in Jersey City. So their visibility can provoke, and does, and has in the past and will in the future, probably, racial anxiety and racial violence. Are they more vulnerable where they’re more visible? I honestly don’t know … the genie [of racially motivated violence] is out of the bottle. It will be very hard to put it back.
NS: I think that’s a reasonable inference. I had this conversation with my sons – one is in Oakland, and one is in North Carolina. The attack on a Sikh in Washington, in a suburb of Seattle. I told my kids – I’m in Santa Cruz, I’m mostly on campus – if I was living in Kansas, or in North Carolina, I think I’d be more worried. The Kansas shooting was particularly striking. These were not even Sikhs, they were brown-skinned. Obviously they were South Asian. I think the shooter knew that. It was just like, “Okay, you’re the wrong skin color.” Or, “Okay, you’re the wrong skin color, and you’re taking my job.” I think the current administration’s rhetoric – all those dog whistles were dog whistles.
Q: To what extent do you think the plight of Indians in the United States will impact U.S.-India relations under Trump?
SC: That’s a difficult question, because you know we have Mr. Trump’s equivalent as the prime minister of India. He uses very similar language. His people do violence on minorities, particularly Muslims. And he looks the other way, passively and sometimes openly encourages – uses coded language that kind of enables – this. So in a sense there’s a meeting of the minds there. But there is the contradiction of – but you can’t treat my people poorly when they’re over there, and we need to keep this transfer thing going, it’s good for your economy and my economy. So I honestly don’t know how those relations work. How does one have a stable relationship if the top is so unstable? Is that even feasible?
NS: On the one hand, the Indian government is very concerned. I think the Indian government views the Indian diaspora as a major asset and would want to speak up for that group. The irony is that the current government in India doesn’t have a great track record of inclusiveness itself. I don’t think that will really factor into it. It seems like Trump and Modi will get along. Maybe Modi can influence Trump to tone down some of his rhetoric and policies with respect to Indians in America They can say don’t do this with visas, or tone down your rhetoric, but there’s so much else going on.
Q: You say at several points in the book that Indian success in America is not because of inherent traits, but rather the factors that led to Indian immigration. Were you consciously trying to stress that message?
SC: It’s for a number of reasons. It is almost the singular message of the book. I really wrote the book for an Indian audience, because there are many myths in Indians about themselves, and we needed to address that. The way we put it, we call it triple selection. Indians call it hierarchy. The caste system, the complete inequality with access to education formed over the past 150 years, and in that group you have this ultra-competitive exam system – and most people coming over here have come through that ultra-competitive system. And then the U.S. lets in certain people. The people who are here are extremely fortunate not to be here – they’ve been fortunate their entire lives. Of course they’re going to do well. America is really getting a lot of talent for relatively little money. This group is pretty innovative, all of them are rising to the tops of their professions. There’s a lot of talent here. And that talent is in service of America. But these people were bloody lucky. They’re lucky there, and they’re lucky here. And for us it was important to say that.
NS: Our goal in the book was to be data driven. That’s what actually comes out of the data. There’s no evidence for a secret sauce. Yes, you can identify some – There are kinship ties and trust networks. I don’t want to say that sociological or cultural factors are irrelevant, but I think that even in those cases – they’re a relatively small part of the story. The biggest predictor is education, and Indians in America are really highly educated. We said, okay, let’s look at the data. And then that story emerged. I think it surprised us. I think there’s a huge lesson there for the United States as a whole – if you want to make America great again, you should really improve education for everyone.
(This interview has been condensed and edited.)
FOREIGN POLICY MAGAZINE