Claire Panetta
Context Link
April 18, 2000

South Asian Immigration in the US


Prior to 1965, the South Asian community in the US was relatively small, comprised primarily of a community of labor immigrants who had settled in California. In the 1920s, a large group of Punjabi Sikhs (almost exclusively men) emigrated to the west coast to work as farm laborers and migrant workers. (They have become popular because they, as a result of strict marriage laws, married Hispanic women in their communities.) In 1965 however, the US significantly relaxed its immigration laws and a wave of emigration from throughout South Asia began. Today, the South Asian American community is quite large (in 1990, it was estimated to be somewhere in the vicinity of 900,000). But more remarkable perhaps, is its diversity: within the Indian American community alone, there are seven major religions, 33 major languages, thousands of dialects, and six primary regional classifications. This variation manifests itself in a broad range of cultural practices which as the community grows, are more easily preserved. Whereas 20 years ago, most Indians were, in all likelihood, allied together simply because they came from the same country, the community is now large enough for its members to establish differentiation amongt themselves, but more importantly, they are now able to maintain regional cultural practices as well.

Unlike the Punjabis, the immigrants who arrived in the US after 1965 were predominantly highly educated professionals from the upper classes. They came to the US to pursue educational or occupational opportunities: frequently as doctors or engineers. Unlike other immigrant groups who are quickly marginalized from mainstream American society, the South Asians arriving in the US at this time were quickly embraced because of their professional success. (Indeed, South Asians, along with other Asian immigrant groups, have frequently been labeled the "model minority".)

A second wave of immigrants came to the US in the wake of those described above. These immigrants were frequently relatives of their predecessors and were generally not professionally educated. They comrpise a "merchant class, operating restaurants, grocery and liquor stores, etc". These members of the community have given rise to a persistent stereotype about South Asians as 7-11 or motel owners. In fact, this image of the community, as perpetuated by the media, has in many ways eclipsed those of their fellow community members.

These members of the community generally tend to live amongst other South Asians. By contrast, the financial stability and comfort which their predecessors found enabled them to move outside of urban areas into the more affluent suburbs. This is an interesting phenomenon because it resulted not only in fewer ethnic enclaves than one might expect to find, but has also influenced the experiences of both first and second generation South Asians living in suburban communities. While South Asians living in areas such as Jackson Heights or Toronto have been able to re-create more of the culture (i.e. - language, dress, food, etc) in diaspora, those living in areas where they may be one of two or three South Asian families have had a more challenging experience in trying to maintain cultural practices. Furthermore, the transfer of culture from one generation to the next grows increasingly difficult as children are exposed to much more concentrated mainstream American culture .

And this transfer of culture is very important for South Asian Americans, manifesting itself in the "cultural education" of the second generation. This education generally includes language skills, food preparation, religious beliefs and practices, trips "home" and of course, intra-community marriage. The inter-generational exchange of not only cultural practices, but values as well is intensely important to the South Asian community; indeed, the preservation of its cultural heritage has heavily influenced the experiences of South Asian immigrants throughout the US.




Agarwal, Priya, Passage from India: Post-1965 Immigrants and their Children. Palos Verdes, CA: Yuvati Publications, 1991.
Maira, Sunaina, and Srikanth, Rajini, eds., Contours of the Heart: South Asians Map North American. New York: The Asian American Writers' Workshop, 1996.
Iriye, A, and Hundley Jr, N., eds., The Asian American: The Historical Experience. Santa Barbara, CA: Clio Books, 1976.