A Singular Population: Indian Immigrants in America

The largest non-native group in the United States is also the most successful. Yet COVID-19 and economic woes threaten to push more of them into poverty.

Print this page

Although every immigrant’s tale is remarkable, that of Indians coming to the United States over the past 50 years is unique on several fronts. Demographically, Indians represent the current largest source of new immigrants to America, surpassing even Mexicans or Chinese. Sociologically, they are by far the best educated group in the country — roughly three times more India-born residents have college degrees than the general population.

But the most striking distinction may be their economic status: Indian-American households have the single highest income level of any group in the country — more than twice as high as the general US population.

Devesh Kapur discussed the numbers and reason behind the Indian-American distinctions in a 2017 guest lecture presented by the Deepak and Neera Raj Center on Indian Economic Policies at Columbia University. “How did the population of one of the world’s poorest countries become the richest group in the United States?” he asked rhetorically.

A professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The Other One Percent: Indians in America (Oxford University Press, 2017), Kapur said: “What we learned in researching this book is that Indians in America did not resemble any other population anywhere; not the Indian population in India, nor the native population in the United States, nor any other immigrant group from any other nation.”

New data, released in October 2020, reveals that Indians in the United States are not immune to poverty. Census data shows that 6.5 percent of Indian-American households live below the poverty line. In addition, the report says, COVID-19 could add another 1.4 to 3.4 percent to their ranks, especially for people who work in industries hard-hit by the recession and pandemic, such as restaurants.

The Three Waves

The 3 million individuals of Indian origin who currently reside in the United States (roughly 1 percent of the total population) arrived in three distinct periods, Kapur said. The “early movers” came in the wake of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which replaced a national-origins quota system that governed immigration in the United States with a preference based on skills and family relationships. The 12,000 or so India-born immigrants a year arriving in this group were unusually well educated, with numbers favoring doctors, engineers and scientists.

Phase two of Indian immigration, dating from the early 1980s, was the “family” cohort, when some 30,000 relatives a year of those who had settled in the States came in.

About two-thirds of India-born Americans have arrived in the ongoing third wave, or what Kapur and his co-authors dubbed “the IT generation.” The influx of as many as 100,000 computer specialists a year from India began with concerns over Y2K in the mid 1990s, as American companies sought to revamp their systems to avoid “millennial meltdown” when computers programmed with a two-digit date code would have to cope with the dates of the 21st century. Approximately one out of every three visas issued to India-born immigrants goes to residents of the high-tech Hyderabad area, far more than to individuals from Bombay or Delhi, for example.

A central thesis of the book argues that how immigrants come to the United States matters in determining their eventual success. Most recent Indian immigrants arrived on the so-called H-1B visa program, granted to specialized new hires who have already secured jobs and hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. The visa, which can be extended for up to six years, indicates that the holder will graduate to immigrant status. (Kapur estimated that 90 percent of India-born immigrants have stayed in the United States as permanent residents.) From 1997 to 2013, according to the book, fully half of the 125,000 H-1B visas issued went to Indians. “The rest of the world got the other half.”

Arriving with jobs and steady sources of income, Indians skipped the “ghetto stage” common to most immigrant stories, when newcomers settle in urban enclaves with other home-country refugees. Instead, the India-influx located close to their jobs, living in middle-class or pricier neighborhoods in techy communities, such as the New York-New-Jersey area, Chicago and Washington, D.C. suburbs, and the outskirts of San Francisco and Dallas. Almost without exception, they started families and primed their children to receive similar levels of educational achievement.

Selected for Success

In each wave, the India-born immigrants benefited from “a triple selection” process that gave them a boost over typically poor and uneducated immigrants who come to the United States from other countries. The first two selections took place in India. As explained in the book: “The social system created a small pool of persons to receive higher education, who were urban, educated, and from high/dominant castes.” India’s examination system then selected individuals for specialized training in technical fields that also happened to be in demand in the United States. Kapur estimated that the India-American population is nine times more educated than individuals in the home country.

In the third selection, this pre-ordained pool naturally rose to the top of a US system that favored immigrants with IT skills. Forget the ladder to success, said Kapur. “These guys stepped into an elevator.”

Although Kapur credits this selection process with contributing more to the immigrants’ success than luck or personality traits such as ambition or thrift, he pointed to several other benefits that India-born Americans have in their favor. Because the United States is so far away, the immigrant stream was restricted to families that had money to afford passage, and virtually none entered illegally. Because India is a democracy, almost all immigrants left voluntarily. Because they entered the United States on work visas, most were young, in the early wage-earning stage of their careers. Because Indian norms placed a high value on marriage, divorce is uncommon, so the poverty that comes with single-parent households is diminished. In a country where just 63 percent of children live with two parents, 92 percent of Indian-American households remain intact.

Perhaps most important, all speak English. Although the United States is, by far, the largest destination of India-born immigrants, other Anglo-Saxon countries such as Canada, the U.K. and Australia have also seen large upticks in Indian immigration.

The Ones Left Behind

Compared to other Americans living in poverty, impoverished Indian Americans are more likely to be men, less likely to hold U.S. citizenship and more likely to speak Bengali or Punjabi versus Indian Americans overall.

In addition, their geographical location is also highly correlated with areas that have a higher concentration of unauthorized Indian immigrants, a population especially vulnerable to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19. Areas with the lowest- income settlements of Indian Americans were farming/semi-rural settlements (like Fresno in Kern County and Stanislaus County, both in California) and inner-city areas in New York, Chicago, Houston, and Detroit, which makes them similar to the general American population, where poverty is also concentrated in rural areas and inner cities.

Given the profile of poverty in the community what are some options for those who want to help Indian Americans in poverty? The authors suggest the following:

  1. A spatial strategy: This would focus on those counties where poverty is most concentrated.
  2. A sectoral strategy: This would reach out to those employed in the most COVID risk sectors such as hospitality and travel.
  3. A legal assistance strategy: This would try and provide legal assistance to undocumented workers and families who might be particularly vulnerable in these difficult times and to the poor facing specific hardships such as evictions due to the inability to pay their rents.
  4. Strategy directed at specific vulnerable groups, such as victims of domestic violence, children, old-age single households and those incarcerated.
  5. A skills-employment strategy: Helping impoverished households escape the vicious cycle of poverty by helping them find new jobs and possibly new occupations with re-training where needed.
articles by Topic