The Indian migrant in the US isn’t just from India

July 24th, 2008 - 12:36 pm ICT by IANS  

By Shubha Singh
The Indian community in America is said to be the fourth largest immigrant community after the Mexicans, Filipinos and Chinese in the US but a sizeable number of immigrants of Indian descent were not born in India. About one in five immigrants of Indian descent list a country other than India as their place of birth indicating that the Indian diaspora in the US is a much more varied overseas community with different levels of linkages to India. Migrants not arriving directly from their country of origin are known as ’secondary’ or ’second time’ migrants since their journey is not a direct from one from their ancestral land. As the volume of migration has increased in the past decade and a half, the patterns of migration and routes of arrival have also shown more variations. Indians are the leading group of secondary migrants in the United States, followed by the Chinese and Filipino migrants.

According to a study carried out by Aaron Terrazas of the Migration Policy Institute, out of the 1,734,337 immigrants of Indian ancestry living in the United States in 2006, about 81 percent were born in India. The remaining 19 percent of people of Indian origin were born in countries as diverse as Canada, Britain, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Kenya, Mexico and the countries of Southeast Asia and Europe. The largest segment of Indian immigrants not born in India is from Guyana forming four percent, with another two percent from Trinidad and Tobago. Fiji Islands, Canada, Britain, Kenya and surprisingly Mexico have contributed one percent each of this group of people of Indian origin in the US. Europe, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, South Africa make up the rest of the secondary migrants.

India has a large diaspora spread through almost all regions of the world and America remains a favoured destination for not just Indians living in India but also among people of Indian origin living in far-flung countries. Guyana, Trinidad and Fiji islands have sizeable populations of Indian origin, descendants of the indenture migration to these former British colonies in the 19th and early part of the 20th century. The Caribbean territories of Guyana and Trinidad have contributed the largest number in the category of Indian origin not born in India because of their region’s proximity to North America. Being small economies with limited opportunities it has long been a tradition for young men and women to go abroad for higher studies and better economic opportunities. In the early post-independence days, the migration was to Britain, which now has a large immigrant population from the West Indies. Later, migration from the Caribbean has been to the United States and the long decades of disturbed political conditions for Indians in Guyana led to a steady outward migration from the country. Fiji Indians, on the other hand, have migrated in greater numbers to neighbouring countries, Australia and New Zealand, followed by Canada and the US.

Over 12.5 percent of all immigrants to America in 2000 were people who arrived from countries other than those of their birth. American statistics show that secondary migrants are usually highly skilled and educated and have an economic advantage on migrating to America. Second time migrants of Indian descent usually find greater commonality among themselves whether they have migrated from Singapore, Hong Kong, Fiji or Guyana. Second time migrants tend to visit the same temples and associate in like-minded groups because of their similar growing up experiences in overseas Indian cultures in countries as far apart as Fiji and Trinidad. Many of them feel at a disadvantage at gatherings dominated with recent migrants from India who tend to look down on them for their seemingly old-fashioned style of speaking Hindi and outdated rituals.

According to estimates, about one third of Indian immigrants in the United States arrived after 2000 and more than half the Indian immigrants live in five states - in California, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Illinois. More than one fourth of the India-born immigrants (27.4 percent) work in IT-related occupations while another 20 percent work in management, business and finance. Another study by the Migration Policy Institute based on data from the US Department of Defence has shown that South Asians immigrants have also joined the American defence forces. Out of the 65,000 immigrants on active duty, there are several immigrants from South Asia serving in the American defence forces, with the majority serving in the navy. According to an executive order of July 2002, foreign born immigrants are eligible for expedited American citizenship. There are 390 foreign born personnel from India in the defence forces, 125 from Pakistan, 69 from Bangladesh, 49 from Nepal and 27 from Afghanistan.

There is another group of Indian immigrants - American immigration statistics show Indians as the fastest growing group of unauthorised immigrants during the period 2000-2006. Indian unauthorised immigrants had more than doubled in six years, going up from a figure of 120,000 in 2000 to 270,000 in 2006. However, immigration lawyers contend that unlike the Mexicans who walk across the border, the majority of these unauthorised Indian immigrants had entered the country on legal entry documents.

(Shubha Singh is a writer on the Indian diaspora and international affairs. She can be reached at

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