Devesh Kapur is the director of the Centre for Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of a new book – “The Other One Percent: Indians in America”, which will be released in New York this week. The book has been hailed as the most authoritative, data-driven, research based work on Indian-Americans.
In the backdrop of a heated debate on immigration in the election season, public events organised by Indians for Donald Trump, and the third and final presidential debate, Kapur spoke to HT about the Indian immigrant story:
Immigration has been a contentious issue in the US election. What has been the experience of Indians in America?
As we write in the introduction of the book, in work on immigration, there has been little attention on Indians because they are not a problem. Groups with challenges — poverty, education gaps — tend to get more attention. Indians have by and large done well. They have not been a problem group.
The only place when issues related to Indian-Americans come up is with regard to the H1B visa and whether there has been an impact of their larger numbers on native IT workers. Trump has mentioned the H1B visas once or twice, but that’s it. Indians have to wait the longest to get these visas converted to ‘green cards’ to become permanent residents, and there was hope that a reformed immigration bill would pass. But I think those hopes may now lie thwarted.
You mention that Indians in American constitute the most educated, highest income group of all immigrants. How did you arrive at this conclusion?
We really wanted to do a book that was based on unimpeachable sources of data. One core source of it has been the US Census Bureau. The American Community Survey gives the place of birth of the individual. Unlike the Indian census bureau, which hardly gives any data to anyone, they make it available to researchers and with short lags. It allows us to see the birth-place, and a host of socio-economic data from their education and income, to language spoken at home.
What explains this stunning rise of Indians in US?
The central factor is the selection story. You are drawing from a group which is from the top few percentage of a population in India, and comparing it to the median in America. Higher education in India till quite recently was a privilege of the few, of the upper castes and upper classes. This group had social and cultural capital. You were selected by birth, by higher education exams, by the American visa system. You are filtered through this triple selection process. That is the core reason.
But there are other reasons too. One, relative to other immigrant groups from Latin America and Asia, Indians are more fluent in English. Two, India’s paradoxical failures in manufacturing meant many people went into the IT/service sector. So you came into a sector that was rapidly expanding. Imagine if most people had come in as civil engineers, they may have had to climb stairs for upward mobility. But this new group got into an elevator because the IT sector was growing. This was pure luck.
The third reason is Indians are relatively politically liberal, but socially conservative. They have among the lowest divorce rates of all Asian groups. Family incomes are even higher than even personal incomes. You get two income families, which gives you a certain advantage.
And the fourth is that unlike other immigrants, an unusually large fraction has come through work visas. The normal story of immigration in US — be it the late 19th or early 20th century immigration of Italians and Irish — was that you were less educated than the average American and there was gradual upward mobility through generations. But you can get H1B only if your salary is higher than median salary. So you come not on the ground floor, but the second or third floor. Your entry into labour markets was assured. So it is not just who comes, but how you come — even as a legal immigrant — makes a considerable difference in the wages you get.
Last week, an Indian-American group organised an event for Donald Trump. There has also been impression that the Indian right derives a lot of support from the diaspora in the US. What do we know about the political preferences of Indian-Americans?
There is no doubt about this. Indians are more liberal than most immigrant groups. The perception that Indians in US are right-wing is much more to do with the laziness of Indian journalists and academics. It is based on conclusions from a vocal minority.
Among the immigrant groups, Indians are much more pro Democrat. Attitudes on so-called right-wing issues — like Muslims or affirmative action — are much more liberal than say that of the Chinese. They are way more liberal than the average Americans. We also found that the longer they stay in US, the more pro-Democrat they become in political orientation. The only issue where their view is more conservative than average American is on gay marriage. And that supports my contention that they are socially conservative.
In April 2016, a survey of Asian-American groups said 10% of Indians had a very favourable view of Trump. That 10% likes Trump can be very vocal. But 10% is just 10%. It is a distinct minority. Are there reactionary Indian-Americans who are bigoted and prejudiced? Yes, of course. But is that a minority or median? They are a minority. A large number don’t know or particularly care. Many do not come from elite families. A lower middle class Telugu-speaker has paid his way through engineering and come here. Their priority is making it economically in the US.
This is interesting because one would assume that with higher incomes, Indians would support the Republican platform with its promise of lower taxes.
Precisely. One would think they will be more Republicans because of their income. But Republicans lost them for two reasons. In the early 2000s, they moved towards evangelical Christianity; and the recent moves towards anti-immigrant, anti-minority positions alienated Indians further. Indians could have been a natural constituency for the socially and fiscally conservative Republican platform. They did not leave the Republican Party, but Republicans left them.
We are discussing the Indian vote, but in the big picture, does it matter?
No. If you look at the Congressmen who attended the Narendra Modi event at MSG, they are from constituencies where Indians are more than half percent. In the aggregate, they will not matter; in specific seats, they may matter. There is a decent probability that at least 3, maybe 4 Indian-Americans, could win seats in the Congress.
But their influence is growing. The second generation of Indians here is on the staff of Congressmen, they do law degrees which is the pathway to politics, and they are in the news media — all the discourse shapers. The second generation is more liberal because they go to better colleges and are more exposed to the socialisation effects of American higher education. The political views of native-Americans are often shaped by the political preferences of their parents — a sort of trickle-down effect. In the case of immigrants — and Indian-Americans — the political views are often shaped in a trickle-up manner. Children help shape the political views of parents.
How do Indians compare with, say, Chinese in terms of the politics?
In a survey of six major Asian immigrant groups — Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese, Indians, Chinese and Filipino in April 2016 — we got a sense of the voting attitudes. Indians have the highest support for Democrats; especially for Obama, much higher than the Chinese. Indians are also more deeply opposed to anti-Muslim politics, and are more committed to affirmative action proposals than the Chinese.
Is it the case they may be liberal in US, but support the right back in India?
One way to think about this is that more than half the Indians in the US have come after 2000 — this is the H1B visa. Many have come from South India. There is hardly much support for the BJP in south India. So they don’t quite have a record of supporting the right wing in India. People take events like support for Modi as support for the BJP. Many may support the leadership of Modi, but not necessarily the reactionary agenda of elements of the RSS.
You end on a cautious note. Is the high point of the Indian immigration story over?
We are going to see much more growth is the second generation. Most of them are very young. Most surveys are done on adults. Majority of the second generation are below 18. Whether these large flows will continue is an open question — some of course will. But in the last couple of years, worldwide, attitudes on immigration have hardened, as we saw with Brexit too. I would be somewhat cautious in making any firm projections of the future.