An affluent class of doctors, investment bankers, entrepreneurs and software engineers. Yet, so many of their country brethren remain poor, underemployed, without health care, living in cramped conditions. Sounds like the familiar tale of the two Indias? Yes—except it’s in the United States.
The other side of the NRI success story gets little attention in the Indian or western press; occasional caricatures of store or gas station workers dwell on thick accents and strange mannerisms. Those who found companies and ace spelling bees, donate extra cash to politicians and start schools in rural India, indeed deserve media celebration. But as the US grapples with reforming its confusing, conflicting immigration policies, it’s worth remembering that for the roughly one million Indians waiting for green cards or their right to live and work in the US, there’s a sizable group of Indians (400,000 by one estimate) there illegally, constituting the fastest growing group of undocumented immigrants in the US between 2000 and 2005.
Immigration reform affects countless Indians seeking opportunity on the US shores, where I happen to be travelling right now. But the divide within the community between high- and low-skilled labourers, and an “us versus them” attitude has sunk both these groups’ agendas and ambitions to become Americans. For India, these missteps might prove to be a boon, as at least one recent study by the Kauffman Foundation and a few prominent universities predicts that frustrated immigrants might simply give up and return home, namely India and China. That’s hardly the way India, an emerging land of opportunity in its own right, should attract talent—by default.
On the day I arrived in the US last week, the non-profit advocacy group, South Asian American Leaders for Tomorrow, released another study of groups serving South Asians that shows they typically operate on meagre budgets of less than $500,000 and suffer from limited funds and human resources. Most of the 31 organizations surveyed function as first points of contact for desis trying to find their way in the US or to deal with a crisis.
Consider the first reaction to the report on one blog: “Let’s see—an organization claims to represent South Asians and doesn’t mention a single word about the issues facing skilled, legal immigrants!” For the last few months, the highly skilled set’s refrain has been strikingly self-centred and alienating: We are the face of success. The rest be damned.
“This whole model minority myth works against us,” said Aruna Rao, director of educational programmes at the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Jersey and programme director of South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey. “Every time I attend a South Asian event, it’s about, ‘We’re so wonderful,’ or ‘We’re so highly educated’.” The idea of Asians being held up as a “model” is insulting to other groups, of course—and Asians themselves, as they get held up to standards that might be impossible to attain due to lesser education, decreased opportunity—or illegal status.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a research organization based in Washington, estimates 400,000 Indians are in the US illegally. Most likely overstayed tourist, student or high-skilled visas. Indians’ numbers are relatively tiny— at less than two million, hardly a size that can afford to see its voices so dissonant. For comparison’s sake, an estimated 15% of the US population is Hispanic, or a whopping 45 million. Yet, while the rest of the concerned parties focused on the need to revamp all immigration policies, with illegal migrants forming the largest protest base, Indians and their high-tech lobbies attempted to set themselves apart, asking if their issues could be resolved separately, not to be linked with all those people who broke the laws to enter the US.
In the end, nobody got their way. Because, as US lawmakers explained, nobody wanted to touch the controversial topic of immigration, no matter what the means of entry. Thus, reform efforts failed and Congress might not resume discussions until 2009 or 2010.
“In terms of legalization, the undocumented are the most vocal,” said Asma Warsi Chaudry, executive director of Boaz Community Corp., an immigration advocacy group in New Jersey with about 20% South Asian clients. “But the South Asian community is not politically empowered yet.”
Imagine what could happen if South Asians, their money, their clout and their lobbies had aligned with the more mainstream advocates of immigration reform; after all, with Indians ranking fourth among undocumented migrants in the US, they’d have every right to be at the table. Immigration Voice, a group that has been the fiercest in its fight for expediting of green cards, plans to rally in Washington on 18 September and has begun sending emails and fliers to various South Asian groups. Its plea for support answers its own question as to what the strategy should be: “We aim to resolve this issue, but we cannot do it alone...”
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