Review of The Other One Percent


In The Other One Percent: Indians in America, published late in 2016, three Indian American professors make a case that the immigration of Indians to the U.S. is unmatched in history by any immigrant group coming to any country in the world. Their data and observations confirm what many experience as they encounter increasing numbers of Indian international students and IT workers. The book’s title is drawn from the fact that “people of Indian origin” now make up a little over one percent of the American population. The authors, Sanjoy Chakravorty (Temple University), Devesh Kapur (University of Pennsylvania), and Nirvikar Singh (University of California, Santa Cruz), have researched the reasons behind the recent remarkable growth in the Indian-American population and describe how it is that people from a developing nation with low human capital is now the most-educated and highest-income group in the world’s most advanced nation.

According to statistics cited by the authors, there were 147,000 new immigrants from India to the U.S. in 2014. It was the largest source of new immigrants to America – larger than China (about 132,000) or Mexico (about 130,000). India-born immigrants are now the second largest foreign-born group in the United States (after Mexicans). Indians (U.S. born and India-born) replaced Filipinos as the second-largest Asian immigrant group in 2012, and became the largest, overtaking China, in 2014. The growth is unprecedented because in 1990 people born in India were not even in the top ten of foreign-born populations in America.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was the major reason for the increase in immigration to the U.S. as immigration policy changed from a quota system to a system that favored highly-skilled immigrants and family relationships. The authors divide the post-1965 immigration of Indians to the U.S. into three phases. They call the first phase (1965-1979) Early Movers. About 12,000 Indians per year immigrated to the U.S. during this phase and about 45% had graduate or professional degrees, often medical degrees. Phase 2 (1980-1994), The Families, was characterized by Early Movers sponsoring their family members for family unification. About 30,000 came each year and many were still highly-skilled, but the percentage was lower than the Early Movers. Punjabis, who had been in the U.S. the longest, and Gujaratis were the largest groups. The family emphasis especially favored Indians because of the large families that characterize Indian culture. It is said that one Gujarati immigrant sponsored 100 family members during this period!

The third, and current, phase, called the IT Generation, began in 1995. Employment- and skill-related visas were (are) the most important entry category. South Indians (especially Telugus and Tamils) have become the dominant group in the current phase, and about one-third already had or later acquired master’s degrees. It is a highly selected group with specialized skills in the information technology sector or other science and technology (STEM) fields. About 120,000 immigrants from India arrive in the U.S. each year at the current time, although there is fluctuation.

The authors also make the interesting argument that Indian-Americans do 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” because they were “triply selected.” The first “selection” (in India) came from the fact that access to higher education normal is given to students with a high socioeconomic status. The second “selection” (also in India) came through an examination and education-financing system that further limited the number of individuals who received the inputs that made it possible to become eligible for immigration to the United States. The third “selection,” in the United States, came from an immigration system that was geared to admit students and workers who matched the need for IT workers and other skilled jobs. As a result of this “triple selection,” the authors suggest that the India-born population in the U.S. is three times more educated than the overall U.S. population and nine times more educated than the overall Indian population.  They also point out that “upper” castes and higher class Indians are favored in this selection.  

The authors show that India-born workers make up more than ten percent of the American labor force in some fields (computer science and engineering, and electrical engineering and technology) and that the IT Generation came to the United States either as students in science and technology fields with F-1 visas or as workers in computer-related professions with H-1B or L-1 visas. It is also very interesting that the authors “estimate that 90 percent or more of all Indians stayed on in the United States and became permanent residents (by getting green cards) or citizens. Seventy percent of the India-born with student visas are in STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), including one-third in engineering and one-fourth in computer-related fields.

One interesting factor that the authors highlight as contributing to the immigration flow comes from changes in the Indian education system. They show that in 1960, there was a limited number of spots in engineering colleges and 85% were public colleges. Gradual changes culminated with reforms in 1991 under the administration of Prime Minister Narasimha Rao led to an opening of higher education to private investors and the creation of private engineering colleges. By 2006, 85% of the engineering spots were in private colleges. By the mid-2000s, the total system was producing approximately 75,000 graduates annually in computer science and electrical engineering, and another 350,000 graduates in other science and engineering fields. By 2014 about 325,000 students were enrolled per year in computer science and related fields like electronics and electrical engineering, plus another 100,000 in other engineering and 250,000 in science fields.

Many of the private engineering colleges and IT workers are in the southern Indian states, so South India has become the largest source of Indian students who come to the United States. From 2008– 2012, the authors note that over 32 percent of all Indian international students in the United States came from Andhra Pradesh (including the restructured states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh), and over 8 and 7 percent, respectively, came from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Those who meet Indian international students as well as the engineering professors have noticed this trend.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book is the analysis of the change in Indian-Americans from an “invisible model minority” to an increasingly visible “outlier group of high-achievers”. They do not fit into any population, whether in India, or in the United States, or among the foreign-born or other Asians in America.

Other interesting analysis comes from Devesh Kapur’s findings on the caste composition of Indians in America. In 2003, the socioeconomic group with the highest status and income in India, which represented less than 3 percent of India’s population, accounted for almost 45 percent of Indian immigrants to the United States. In contrast, while the lowest socioeconomic groups in India accounted for one-third of India’s population, only 1.5 percent of U.S. immigration came from them. High castes (like Brahmins) and dominant castes (like Patels in Gujarat and Kapu and Kamma in Andhra Pradesh) constitute over 90 percent of Indians in America, distilled from a base of around one-fourth of the Hindu population in India.

The authors also provide interesting insight into why Indian immigrants do not tend to live in “ethnic enclaves” typical of low-income immigrants. The authors write that just as the need for social networks, safety, language, etc. often leaves little choice for new immigrants to settle elsewhere, the new “ethnoburbs” of Silicon Valley or suburban Dallas/Irving in Texas, or Reston in suburban Washington, D.C., also leave little settlement choice for immigrants from India. Their choice is limited by the type of the work they perform. The information technology industry is highly clustered, so Indian workers need to live close to their place of work. There is no doubt that these were not the immigrant enclaves of old, and they did not carry the pejorative connotations of those old neighborhoods, but they were not “communities of choice,” either. The authors conclude that they “are not aware of any other immigrant community in the United States that has faced these particular set of circumstances— that is, being concentrated in one industry that is also spatially clustered.”

The statistics and analysis presented in the book help the reader to gain understanding and insight into this remarkable group. Another characteristic is unpredictability. The authors suggest that the number of Indian-Americans in the U.S. could double from three million to six million in a short time. But I think it is also true that there could be ups and downs due to politics, both in U.S. and in India as well as other factors. But it is certain that there will continue to be massive number of Indians in the U.S. and this unique group continues to be open to friendships with Americans.

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