As a first-generation Indian American, I grew up with stories of my parents immigrating to America in the 1970s with little to their name but a good work ethic and some education. Their story became one of quiet determination to build a solid foundation for me, my brother and my extended family. I recently read an article from 1909 about earlier Indian immigrants called “The Hindu Invasion: A New Immigrant Problem.” This story opened my eyes to a broader history, and the struggles faced by this first wave of Indian Americans paints a picture that we can learn a lot from today.
Let’s rewind to the turn of the 19th century. The wounds of the Civil War were fresh. In half a century, the technological breakthroughs of the Industrial Revolution had transformed the United States from an agrarian economy to an increasingly urban manufacturing powerhouse that was also increasingly diverse: between 1860 and 1900, 14 million immigrants came to American shores seeking the American Dream.
By the 1890s, a trickle of Punjabis landed on the west coast of the US looking for work. Almost immediately locals took note, asking in the 1909 article, “Who are these tawny-skinned, black bearded, turbaned Asiatics? Do we want them? Are they desirable immigrants? Shall we welcome them or oppose their coming?”
To answer the question, a now-familiar refrain arose pitting labor versus capital.
The White working class was nervous, noting that “the coming of hordes of Asiatic laborers will keep wages down and crowd the white man to the wall, since a white man can not or will not come down to the Asiatic laborer’s low standard of living.”
Capitalists, however, needed every worker they could get. “Railroads are to be constructed, cities built... and scores of other industries await but the touch of labor to transform our country into a land of unexampled prosperity. We are eagerly seeking labor. If a white man wants work, why don’t he come forward?”
While our economy convulsed towards a new equilibrium, the United States Congress began considering a set of nativist immigration laws. In 1917, despite a veto from President Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed legislation that barred a laundry list of individuals including “homosexuals,” and “feeble-minded persons,” from becoming naturalized citizens. It also banned Asian immigration entirely. US Citizenship was hereby limited to “free white men.”
This narrative could continue to explore the story of Bhagat Singh Thind, whose pursuit of citizenship led to a failed 1923 Supreme Court challenge that ultimately restricted Indian immigration for decades (see Unites States v Bhagat Singh Thind). It could continue through the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s, which paved the way for many of our families to settle. It could include contemporary stories of a growing diaspora. But let’s pause for a second.
We’re in the midst of an election where we’re hearing a major party candidate use language straight from “The Hindu Invasion” to pit American workers against a different immigrant group. In 1917, our Congress determined Asians were unfit to immigrate to the US and banned the entire continent. Today, this same candidate for President is advocating for the exclusion of entire religions and regions from immigration to the US. We have an opportunity to learn from the struggles of those who came before us so that we don’t cause the same suffering endured during the last century. If you live in the US, please vote, and not just this year.
There are many more stories to be told about Indian American immigration, and immigrants in general. I’d love to hear yours!
New York City, Lower East Side/Chinatown