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Chasing the American Dream

Atul Bhardwaj ( is an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi.


How many Indians would be able to work in the United States (US) and how much the US military would be able to dominate the Indian armed forces are the two contentious issues in the current Indo–US engagement. While defence cooperation has shifted to the next level of interoperability, the aspiration of scores of Indian H-1B visa holders waiting for green cards remains in jeopardy.

The US has been the centre of attraction since the beginning of the 20th century for people on the lookout for better opportunities. The rich as well as the poor have benefited equally from liberal US immigration policies. The success stories of immigrants have enhanced the attractiveness of American capitalism and helped sell the American dream. The best minds across the globe are serving the US economy. The US has built a network of elite in various countries, which in turn supports the US’s hegemony. The immigration policy serves as an effective tool for the US foreign policy establishment. The concessions on immigration and visas is one of the main requests from countries interacting with the US. Relaxation or tightening of immigration norms and procedures is a good bargaining chip for the US negotiators engaged in extracting the best deal for the US.

For the conservatives, a liberal immigration policy is inimical to American interests. Immigrants are generally viewed as illegal aliens eating into the ever-dwindling jobs and social security budget of the government. Immigration phobia is an important hate instrument for the white supremacists. In February 2017, a US navy veteran had murdered an Indian engineer in Kansas. Immigration is the signature campaign of President Donald Trump’s politics of polarisation.

Trump’s “America First” agenda centred on creating jobs for his citizens intends to drastically reduce the number of immigrants. The Trump administration is engaged in “refinement” of the status of immigrants in the US. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) effectuated by the Barack Obama administration in 2012, which protected undocumented immigrants from deportation, was rescinded by Trump in September 2017. Trump is opposed to making the 7,00,000 DACA recipients eligible for citizenship. Agents of the Immigration and Customs Enforce­ment (ICE) have stepped up their efforts to apprehend illegal immigrants across the country.

Trump’s focus is not restricted to illegal immigrants. He also sees the legal immigrant workforce as a problem and intends to replace the “extended family chain migration” with a “merit-based” visa scheme in favour of highly paid and highly skilled workers from abroad. The US Department of Homeland Security has proposed that H-1B visa aspirants pre-register for the H-1B cap lottery and submit cap petitions only after they have won cap numbers.

The Indian professionals and students pursuing their American dream are palpably worried. The H-1B visa issue is one of the main concerns for the Indian foreign policy establishment. We need to ask whether it is worth imploring the Americans to relax their work visa norms. Should we allow them to take advantage of our century-old craze for US citizenship?

US Citizenship and Humiliation

Ever since the beginning of the 20th century, when the US began replacing Britain as the global economic powerhouse, Indians have been yearning to immigrate to the US. In 1910, the total number of Indians in the US were only 1,782, but “this number soon fell off as the American policy became one of selection at first, restriction later and finally one of exclusion” (Chandrasekhar 1944: 138). However, as early as the 1920s, rich Indians had started going to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to become engineers.

Nico Slate, in Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, narrates the saga of Indians seeking naturalisation in the US. In the years between 1908 and 1922, 69 Indians dodged the US Naturalization Act of 1790 that reserved naturalisation only for “free white persons.” The Chinese, Japanese, Malays and American Indians were categorised under the non-white category. However, there was a window of opportunity available to Indians to prove their “legal whiteness.” And, there were always many Indians willing to go to any length to convince the American judges of their whiteness.

Slate tells us that it was never easy for Indians, identified by the British as “niggers.” The American judges were always reluctant to grant “whiteness” to Indians. “Negroid” characteristics were attributed to low-caste Indians who were paired with Africans (Slate 2011: 80). The US Dictionary of Races or Peoples, published by the United States Immigration Commission in 1911, divided Indians on the basis of their colour and caste. It segregated “Pure Hindus,” Aryans from North India, from the relatively dark-complexioned Dravidians who hailed from South India. Middle-class Indians highlighted their “Caucasian” status by resorting to the two-nation theory of Indian civilis­ation, which differentiated them from the low-caste dark-skinned Indians (Slate 2011: 89). Akhay Kumar Mozumdar, the first Indian to gain naturalisation on the West Coast, declared, “I am a high-caste Hindu of pure blood belonging to what is known as the warrior caste or ruling caste.”

Abba Dolla, a native of Calcutta whose parents were from Afghanistan, testified in court that he was of “pure Caucasian blood” (Slate 2011: 393). However, the judge was not satisfied. Dolla’s dark complexion and ­­­­­­eyes told a different story. The judge gave Dolla a second chance by asking him to remove his shirt. After a detailed examination of his skin, the judge certified Dolla’s whiteness by stating,

The skin of his arm where it had been protected from the sun and weather by his clothing was found to be several shades lighter than that of his face and hands, and was sufficiently transparent for the blue color of the veins to show very clearly. (Slate 2011: 397)

Dolla had desired US citizenship to such an extent that prior to proceeding to the court he had bought his space in a “whites-only” cemetery in Savannah on the West Coast.

Bhagat Singh Thind, a US army veteran, was, however, not as lucky as Dolla. In 1923, Thind applied for naturalisation claiming whiteness on the basis of his high-class Hindu status that was different from “Indian Mongoloids” (Slate 2011: 430). For some reason, unlike his predecessors, Thind opted against establishing his Caucasian identity. As a result, the courts dismissed his application. Thind’s case had serious ramifications for the entire Indian community in the US. In 1923, many Indian Americans were denaturalised and their citizenship revoked. In addition, Indians also lost the right to immigrate to the US.

Upper-caste Indians considered themselves racially superior to low-caste Hindus and Africans in the US and, hence, rightfully entitled to the whites club. In fact, in order to distinguish themselves from African Americans, the upper-caste Hindus resorted to wearing a turban in the US.

In 1940, only 2,405 Indians lived in the US. The 1946 Luce–Celler Act proposed by Republican Clare Boothe Luce (wife of Henry Luce, owner of Time magazine) and Democrat Emanuel Celler allowed 100 each of Filipinos and Indians to immigrate to the US per year. In 1960, the number of Indians in the US increased to 12,000 (Zong and Batalova 2017). The numbers of Indians in the US increased manifold in the 1970s when the immigration laws were relaxed. The lure of US citizenship continues to spur millions of Indians. Around 2.4 million Indian immigrants are estimated to be living in the US as of 2015, “including roughly 1 million who are ­scientists and engineers, the fears are existential; although roughly 45 percent are naturalized citizens, hundreds of thousands still depend on impermanent visas that must be periodically renewed” (Sataline 2017).


The continuous flow of trained workforce from India to the US has deprived India of leaders who could guide the indigenous innovation efforts. Take the example of Commodore Arogyaswami Paulraj, who left the Indian Navy in 1990 to migrate to the US. Paulraj had desig­ned the APSOH project, a hull-mounted sonar for anti-submarine frigates. When the project was in the initial stages of trial, he was sent on a sabbatical to Stanford University in 1983. In 1986, Paulraj became the founding director of the Centre for Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, Bangalore for the Defence Research and Development Organisation. And, yet, we in India failed to invest in him and the US was quick to pick up the scientist in his early 50s. Recently, Paulraj was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame of the United States Patent Office for his 1992 US patent on MIMO (Multiple In–Multiple Out) wireless technology. He is in the illustrious company of wireless pioneers that includes Jagdish Chandra Bose and Guglielmo Marconi. Our best information technology (IT) brains from Indian Institutes of Technology have immigrated to the US, enabling the US to profiteer from the IT revolution.

President Trump’s policy of “Buy American, Hire American” is not just ideologically driven, but a technological imperative. As the US moves towards driverless trucks and cars, the need for South Asian drivers reduces considerably. Artificial intelligence will obviate the need for “code coolies” from India. 3D printing will render factories redundant and further shrink the US job market. The fact is that, Trump or no Trump, robotic walls will not allow immigrants entry into the US. Trump is exploiting the opportunity to push his anti-immigration agenda to appease his far right constituency.

The US is in decline; its rising debt is forcing it to reduce its burden on immigrants. The US’s homeland security will use the latest facial recognition techniques to weed out all illegal entrants to the US and closely monitor the entry of the legal immigrants. In such a situation, goading the US to grant special concessions for immigrants may be counterproductive with India being arm-twisted into compromising its strategic interests. The main issue is, for how long will our foreign policy continue to serve the parochial class and caste interests of a few in the name of national interest?


Chandrasekhar, S (1944): “Indian Immigration to the US,” Far Eastern Survey, Vol 13, No 15, pp 138–43.

Sataline, Suzanne (2017): “Trump Has Started a Brain Drain Back to India,” Foreign Policy, 22 September, viewed on 29 October 2017,

Slate, Nico (2011): Colored Cosmopolitanism: The Shared Struggle for Freedom in the United States and India, Kindle edition, Harvard University Press.

Zong, Jie and Jeanne Batalova (2017): “Indian Immigrants in the United States,” Migration Policy Institute, 31 August, viewed on 15 October 2017,

Updated On : 26th Feb, 2018


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