Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast


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Dr. Bruce LaBrack's Study of South Asian Immigrants

The pattern of immigration from South Asian countries has changed since 1965. For example, where once Sikh immigration predominated from India before that year, immigration from other parts of India became more widespread and settlement more diverse to countries of destination. As Dr. Labrack (1) observed in his work, "South Asians", in Our Cultural Heritage: A Guide to America's Principal Ethnic Groups. Greenwood Press, 1997, pp. (with permission)--

After 1965 the preeminence of California as the center of South Asian American Life declined, becoming only one of the eight popular destinations. By the 1990's eight major industrial-urban states located in the East (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey), Southwest (Texas), mid-West (Michigan, Illinois, Ohio), and West (California) accounted for 70% of the U.S. South Asian population. This obviously reflects a distribution of the nation's industrial, university, service, and high-tech sectors of the economy in which engineers, scientists, academics, doctors and nurses would find employment. Within states there are preferred cities such as New York, Chicago, San Jose, Los Angeles/Long Beach, Washington, DC., and Houston.

Overall, statistically the new immigrants appear intellectually, financially, and socially-accomplished. A profile of those born in India shows a relatively young, upwardly mobile population. Perhaps most dramatic when compared to the early immigrants, the socio-economic and educational portraits of India-born U.S. South Asians are a complete reversal of circumstances of their predecessor's first half-century.

In the 1990 census they were shown to have the highest median household income, family income, per capita income, and annual median income ($40,625) of any foreign-born group. They also ranked first in holding stocks and IRA's, in rates of educational achievement, and in the attainment of managerial or professional positions in a 1991 survey of five Asian American groups.

Many of America's major educational institutions, health care facilities, or research laboratories have South Asians as part of their staffs.

Doctors of South Asian descent are represented in numbers out of all proportion to the size of their population cohort and are emblematic of the high educational level which symbolizes the South Asian professional immigrant of the past thirty years. As early as 1980, of the some 400,000 South Asians in America, 11% of the men and 8% of the women were physicians, another 7% of the women were nurses. Married South Asian couples who are both physicians are quite common. Moreover, 17% of the remaining males were either engineers, architects, or surveyors. By mid-1997 it is estimated perhaps 4% (22,000) of the entire nation's medical doctors are South Asian immigrants from India or of South Asian descent. It has been claimed that many inner city public hospitals simply could not function if South Asian medical personnel were unavailable as they can constitute as high as 40% of the staff physicians and 50% of the nurses. In Ohio, one out of six physicians is South Asian and several other states approach that ratio.

However, this favorable overall picture of South Asian achievement is somewhat misleading. The major gains and benefits have been enjoyed mostly by South Asian immigrants who established themselves prior to the 1980's or those trained in medicine or cutting-edge technologies which are in high demand, such as computer engineering and software, lasers, or physics. For those entering after around 1985, the picture is one of declining median income, fewer professional/managerial positions, a much higher unemployment rate, higher rates of business failures, and higher rates of families in poverty. India-born immigrants ranked 12th in a national survey of individuals and families in poverty in 1993 and a regional Pacific Rim States study in 1995 claimed that California and the highest percentage (14%) of Indian American children living in poverty.


Although no firm, reliable national statistics are available on the numbers or proportions of South Asian linguistic diversity in America, there are some estimates from regions with high concentrations of immigrants such as New York and Los Angeles. In 1980 the percentages for New York were given as 34% Gujurati, 20% Hindi, and 24% combined Dravidian languages (Tamil, Kannada, Malallyalam, Telegu). Distribution in Southern California in the same period was estimated at 20% each for Punjabi and Gujurati, Urdu 18%, Hindi 16%, Dravidian languages 12%, and Bengali 11%. It is certain that these have already changed somewhat (Gujurati likely having gained overall) and will continue to do so as the combination of new immigration and internal population shifts rearrange the mix of languages, religions, settlement patterns , and destinations across America.

Bibliography on Recent Asian American Immigration

General information on Asian American immigration including South Asian Americans can be obtained in:

Sucheng Chan, 1991. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Twayne's Immigrant Heritage of America Series). Riverside, N.J.: Twayne Publishing.

Robert W. Gardner, Bryant Robey, & Peter C. Smith, 1985. Asian Americans: Growth, Change, and Diversity, Population Bulletin, 40:4, Population Reference Bureau, Inc. Washington,D.C.

Bill Ong Hing, 1993. Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Harry H.L. Kitano, and Roger Daniels, 1988. Asian American: Emerging Minorities. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Brett H. Melendy, 1977, Asian In America: Filipinos, Koreans, and Asian Indians. Boston: Twayne Publishers.

United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, Statistical Yearbooks of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington, DC., 1975-1996.

Ronald Takaki, 1989. Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. New York: Penguin.

(1)Dr.Bruce LaBrack is Professor of Anthropology, School of International Studies,University of the Pacific, Stockton, California.

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