Illegal, uncared for: The other Indian Americans - Hindustan Times
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Illegal, uncared for: The other Indian Americans

Dec 18, 2023 05:13 PM IST

The Indian American community should actively engage in conversations with policymakers to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform in the US.

In the grand tapestry of American immigration, the story of Indian Americans usually unfolds as a tale of triumph and success. With nearly 4.5 million individuals, this vibrant community has earned the label of a “model minority” by excelling in various fields and making substantial contributions to the United States (US). Indian Americans boast significant market shares in several key sectors of the US economy, including the hospitality industry, health care, and information technology. There is hardly an industry without an Indian American CEO.

People from the Indian American diaspora pose for a picture as they hold a unity rally ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's historic visit to the United States, in Washington on Monday. (ANI Photo)
People from the Indian American diaspora pose for a picture as they hold a unity rally ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's historic visit to the United States, in Washington on Monday. (ANI Photo)

Politically, Indian Americans have found their place in the sun. Today, an unprecedented number of officeholders serve in federal, state, and local governments, including the vice-president of the United States and five members of the US Congress. The fact that two Indian Americans are currently running for the highest office in the land — President of the United States — would have been difficult to imagine a few decades ago. It showcases the community’s remarkable progress and contributions to America.

As the following statistics reveal, it’s not just a few individuals who are excelling. Indian Americans’ success is broad-based: Three-fourths of the community above the age of 25 hold Bachelor’s degrees, while two-fifths have obtained Master’s degrees, far exceeding the national average. The median household income of Indian Americans stands at over $130,000, more than double that of the national average. The phrase “model minority” encapsulates that Indian Americans have achieved success, embody the American dream and contribute positively to the nation’s socio-economic fabric. Their achievements have shielded the Indian American community writ large from the stereotypes and challenges often associated with immigrant populations.

However, beneath the veneer of the Indian American success story lies the untold story of a growing and often hidden community — the burgeoning population of undocumented Indian immigrants.

According to a new Pew Research Center estimate, their population reached 725,000 in 2021, making them the third-largest group of unauthorised immigrants after Mexicans and El Salvadoreans. This figure has steadily risen from 33,000 in 1996 to 540,000 in 2018 and now stands at 725,000. This means that 16% of the Indian American community — or one in six individuals of Indian heritage in the US — is undocumented. This segment of the Indian American population remains primarily unacknowledged within the larger Indian American community, creating a stark contrast between the success of a substantial majority and the struggles of a significant minority.

Historically, part of the Indian American community has distanced itself from the plight of undocumented immigrants. Unfortunately, many Indian Americans view undocumented immigrants as a liability to the US and have been hostile to any move to offer a path to citizenship for this group. Moreover, they have compared the unfortunate fate of Indian work visa holders, stuck in green card limbo (a condition highlighted by this columnist in the past), with that of undocumented immigrants. A section of the community has viewed any concession to the undocumented population as a zero-sum game that will affect the path to citizenship for Indians stuck in the green card backlog, which is not the case.

On social media, resentment toward the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants has been expressed, often emphasising the extended wait periods for Indians on work visas seeking permanent resident status. Additionally, some members of the community have adopted nativist arguments from US anti-immigration groups.

Unfortunately, the Indian and Indian American media, which have dutifully and rightly documented every success and milestone of the community, find it unworthy to highlight the struggles of undocumented Indians. The only time they make headlines is when someone or some family dies tragically while crossing the US border.

For instance, the death of four members of an Indian family who lost their lives while trying to cross the St. Lawrence River by boat from Canada to northeastern United States received significant coverage. So too did the death of a family of four who succumbed to freezing temperatures in a minus-40 Celsius blizzard last year. They had walked for 11 hours through snow to cross the border into Minnesota from the Canadian province of Manitoba.

The general lack of empathy within the larger Indian American population for the undocumented Indians, evident in the near-total absence of debate on the undocumented population, is concerning. There is a moral imperative on the part of the Indian American community to initiate a discussion regarding undocumented immigration, especially from India. Instead of distancing themselves from the issue or pretending that it doesn’t exist, a more compassionate perspective should be adopted. Undocumented immigration, even those involving Indians, is not just an economic or legal matter; it is a complex issue with human stories, often driven by dire circumstances in home countries.

Many individuals embark on the perilous journey of migration due to economic and other hardships, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Recognising this as a humanitarian issue can foster empathy.

The Indian American community as a whole should actively engage in conversations with politicians and policymakers to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform in the US. This reform should address the intricacies of the immigration system, ensuring fair and expedited processes for legal immigration. This includes providing green cards for individuals currently trapped in the green card limbo.

The story of undocumented Indian immigrants in the US unveils a complex narrative within the overall success story of Indian Americans. It calls for introspection, compassion, and a united effort to bridge the gap between the “model minority” and the hidden realities within the community.

By addressing the issue with empathy and advocating for comprehensive immigration reform, the Indian American community can play a pivotal role in shaping a more inclusive and understanding society in the US. These leadership actions can also add to its well-deserved status as a “model minority”.

Frank F Islam is an entrepreneur, civic leader, and thought leader based in Washington DC. The views expressed are personal

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