Immigrant Bengalis

“Professor Johnston often said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know you were part of a tree.”

                                                                                Michael  Crichton

 "If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday."

Pearl Buck

The number of Indian immigrants in the US is now approaching three million. By and large these Indian Americans are happy and productivemembers of the society. Many have succeeded beyond their expectations and have risen to high positions in their chosen fields. The vast majority is enjoying peaceful, middle-class lifestyles in big cities and small towns across America, taking care of their homes and families, educating their children, and being good neighbors. Some are struggling financially but continuing to work hard, knowing that sooner or later they will do well in this "land of opportunity". A few unfortunate ones have faced mistrust, discrimination, even violence, but such cases have been relatively rare, and the victims could seek legal remedies, if necessary. All in all, the Indian diaspora in the US has come to be recognized as a shining example of a "model minority".

That was not the case before the Immigration & Naturalization Act of 1965 (signed into law by President Johnson in 1968).  That law made possible large-scale entry of Indians and other Asians into the US. For many decades prior to that ground-breaking law, the country had followed immigration policies based on the firm belief that America was for Europeans only. To protect the country's ethnic homogeneity, the US Congress had enacted many laws that welcomed immigrants from Europe while excluding Chinese, Indians and other "racially inferior" Asians. So, for almost one hundred years before 1968, Indians were considered as one of many "unwelcome minorities".

To be blunt, American immigration and naturalization policies before 1968 were rarely, if ever, enlightened or progressive. They were primarily driven by societal factors such as xenophobia and racism, economic factors like labor shortages and wage pressures, and political factors like international relations and image. Conscience or compassion was hardly a consideration for the American policy-makers as far as Asians were concerned. While we, the Indian immigrants arriving after 1968, have clearly benefited from the relatively recent changes in American policies and politics, we should understand and remember that our predecessors in this country had to survive cruel indignities for many, many years. Not knowing the sad realities our predecessors faced may leave us and our progeny vulnerable in the future. As Maya Angelou said, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be un-lived but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

Laws Impacting Immigration of Indians

It should be made clear at the outset that the primary targets for the early immigration laws were the Chinese, not the Indian immigrants. However, such laws were later broadened and applied to include people from much of Asia including Korea, the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Indochina, the Middle East, and even Russia. (Note: Interestingly, the Japanese received special treatment from the American authorities, both good and bad. Relations were cordial between Japan and the US during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and the Japanese immigrants received better treatments than those given to the Chinese and other Asians. However, during World War II, Japanese Americans, many of whom were US citizens by birth, received shockingly harsh and unfair treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, citizens and non-citizens alike, were rounded up and detained in internment camps, without trials and simply in the name of "national security". This was a truly shameful part of  the American history.)

When and why did the animosity towards the Chinese began to raise its ugly head?  Chinese laborers had begun to arrive in large numbers in the 1850s after gold had been discovered in California. When the "gold rush" in the West began to wane around 1870, hostility towards low-paid but hard-working Chinese workers began to increase. Thousands of Chinese contract laborers had also worked on the Trans-Continental Railroad, and they were left jobless at the end of the project (also around 1870), creating large-scale unemployment and poverty. The resulting political pressure eventually led to the Page Act of 1875. It was the first "exclusionary law" passed by the US Congress to prevent "criminals, prostitutes and Chinese contract laborers" from entering the country. Although Indian workers were not a factor in this legislation, this act and its subsequent modifications and extensions had a profound impact on the immigration and naturalization of people from the Indian subcontinent for the next seventy years.

Once the proverbial cat was out of the bag, the hatred towards the Chinese laborers snowballed, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 became the capstone of the "stop the Chinese" movement. This law imposed a ten-year ban on the entry of Chinese laborers, prohibited naturalization of Chinese workers already in the country, and called  for the deportation of the Chinese found to be residing in the country illegally. Two follow-on laws in the next decade imposed even tighter restrictions on the Chinese.

The American lawmakers found some ingenious ways to make life very difficult for the immigrants from non-European countries in general, and Asian countries in particular. The Expatriation Act of 1907 required that women who married foreigners had to assume the citizenship of their husbands. As a result, many women lost their US citizenship unless their husbands became American citizens. For Indian men living in this country at that time, this requirement must have put them in a no-win predicament. Marrying an Indian meant that the American spouse had to accept the citizenship of the partner who was not allowed to become an American citizen!  Fifteen years later, this law was repealed.

The anti-Asian xenophobia in America reached its pinnacle in 1917 with the passage of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act. This was a landmark law that extended the concept of "exclusion" beyond China to include a large swath of Asia, extending from Korea to the Middle East, including the countries of the Indian subcontinent. This was the first law that specifically barred Indians from entering the country with the intent to immigrate. China was an ally of the US in the World War I (1914-1918), and the Chinese government vehemently opposed this act. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill but the Congress, riding on the anti-Chinese sentiment in the country, overrode the veto to enact the law.

The next shoe fell in 1924 with the passage of the Johnson Act. This law established the infamous "National Origins Quota” system, designed to ensure "stability in the ethnic composition" of the US. The law made the provisions of the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone Actpermanent. It tightened restrictions against Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Japanese and other “Asiatic laborers”. The law also created a new visa category, called Temporary Visitors, for students, professionals and the clergy.

The arrival of the World War II (1939-1945) finally made the American lawmakers realize the benefits of treating its Asian allies fairly. In 1943 the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act  finally made immigration and naturalization of Chinese workers legal. Unfortunately, under this law, an annual quota of only 105 "new entry visas" were allocated to China. This law, passed to reward a good World War II ally (China), is a good example of American tokenism in immigration policies.

Asians in America, including Indians, had to wait till the end of World War II to gain immigration and naturalization rights. The Luce-Cellar Act of 1946 broadened the Chinese Exclusion Repeal Act of 1943 to allow immigration and naturalization of Filipinos and Indians.  President Truman signed the bill into law. For the first time Indians and other Asians were legally allowed to immigrate and naturalize. However the number of people from Asian countries who could actually do so was very small. That was because the National Origins Quota, established back in 1924, was basically left in tact, making large-scale immigration of Asians impossible until 1968 when President Johnson threw open America's doors to Asians and other non-white settlers.

Cruel Indignities: From Resentment to Discrimination to Violence

So what kinds of cruel indignities did our predecessors face in the pre-1968 years, especially before 1946 when they were finally given naturalization rights? The types of  indignities varied from location to location and evolved over time, and included resentment, discrimination, segregation, open hostility, even occasional violence.

Before they could enter the US, immigrants, particularly from Asia, had to convince the authorities that they were not "criminals or prostitutes" (1875 Act), "convicts, lunatics or idiots" (1882 Act), "polygamists, mentally ill or carrying contagious diseases" (1891 Act), "anarchists, political extremists, beggars or epileptics" (1903 Act), "imbeciles, feeble-minded or guilty of moral turpitude" (1907 Act), "homosexuals, criminals, insane, alcoholics, paupers, vagrants or people with constitutional psychopathy" (1917 Act), or "subversives" (1940 Act).

Insulting or demeaning words and labels were often the precursors to openly hostile treatments. The most notorious case of violence towards Indian workers was "the Bellingham riot" of 1907. Starting in 1903, bands of Punjabi workers, mostly Sikhs from Canada, had arrived in this city in the state of Washington to work in lumber and railroad industries. By the time the riot broke out, there were several hundred Sikhs living in Bellingham's "Hindoo alley". Resentment against these hard-working but low-paid men and women ran high, and one night in September 1907, a mob of several hundred white people attacked the residents of the "Hindoo alley", drove the Indian workers and their families out of their homes and looted their properties. Some 125 Sikhs were physically pushed out of the city and 400 were jailed by the police under the guise of "protective custody". Within a matter of days Bellingham was totally free of Indian laborers. One white resident was reported to have gloated that the Indians had been "wiped off the face" of Bellingham. As the displaced Sikh laborers moved to other towns in Washington, Oregon and California, they faced similar resentment from the local people, and in some instances, suffered violence as well. These hostilities continued for many years until these hard-working Sikh workers secured grudging acceptance from their local communities.

Segregation was the indignity imposed on another group of Indian settlers. Some twenty to thirty years before the bands of Sikh workers began to arrive in the US, a couple of hundred Bengali Muslim silk traders had settled along the East Coast and in several southern cities like New Orleans and Atlanta. These chikondars and their stories had received little publicity before the book, BengaliHarlem, was published in 2013. Unlike the Sikh workers in the West Coast in the early twentieth century, these "Hindoo" traders did not face significant social resentment or opposition. In the communities where they settled, they were mostly treated as exotic foreigners and as objects of curiosity. However, Jim Crow rules and etiquette forced them to live in black or colored neighborhoods, and marrying white women was prohibited. Not surprisingly, most of these chikondars ended up marrying women of color and raising their children in mixed race households with divided religious affiliations. These chikondars were probably able to escape the hostility and violence that confronted the Sikh workers years later because they did not arrive in large groups nor did they build prominent places of worship like the Sikhs. (Note that for many decades, people from the Indian subcontinent were called "Hindoos" even if they were Muslims or Sikhs or Christians.)

Inter-racial marriage was socially frowned upon and legally prohibited for a long time. For example, the marriage of B. K. Singh to the 16 year old daughter of his white tenant caused a huge uproar in Arizona in 1918. Owning real estate was also a major challenge for our predecessors. Land and home ownership was possible for an Indian only if he married an American citizen which was, of course, prohibited under anti-miscegenation laws!

Some Indian intellectuals and students had to live under a constant threat of deportation. Until independence in 1947 all Indians were British subjects, and many of the Indians living in the US were considered by the British rulers as dangerous freedom-seeking criminals. The long arm of the British Intelligence reached into the U.S., thanks to the strong alliance between America and Great Britain. As a result, the British had full support of the American government in spying on Indian students and intellectuals living in the US and in deporting the "undesirables" to India.

The Federal government was quite aggressive in challenging citizenship granted to Asians by local judges. Although non-Caucasians were barred from American citizenship until 1946, a few Indians did manage to obtain citizenship by convincing local judges that they were Aryans/Caucasians. In one case, the individual reportedly rolled up his sleeves to show the pale skin on his upper arms to the judge to win his case. Most of these successful citizenship hearings took place between 1908 and 1915. Notable among these successful petitioners were two well-known Indians. A.K. Mozumdar (1864-1953) received his citizenship in 1912, and Tarak Nath Das (1884-1958) received his in 1914. However, with the enactment of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act in 1917, the US government decided to challenge these citizenship all the way to the Supreme Court. In the landmark case, the US vs Bharat Singh Thind (1923), the Court ruled in favor of the government and thus stripped Thind, Mozumdar, Das and other Indians of their hard-earned citizenship. Fortunately Mozumdar and Das lived long enough in the US to regain their citizenship in 1946 with the passage of the Luce-Cellar Act.

Racial discrimination was a potent tool used by the American society against blacks and "coloreds", and many Indians had to suffer such indignities on a daily basis. A sad and highly offensive account of such discrimination has been recounted by the famous Bengali researcher-inventor-industrialist Prof Amar Gopal Bose (of Bose speakers fame). His father, Nani Gopal, had arrived at Ellis Island in 1920, settled in the Philadelphia area and married an American schoolteacher (marrying an American citizen had become legal in 1922). Whenever he went to any local restaurant with his wife and his young son, Amar, they would not be served any food because they were a mixed race family. 

Changes in Policies and Attitudes after 1968

The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 signaled a remarkably positive change in the immigration policies of the United States.  The infamous, racially based "National Origins Quota" system was gone, and the US opened its doors to the world on a fairer and more rational basis. Two post-1968 laws further strengthened this non-discriminatory "open door" policy.

The Immigration Act of 1990 (became effective in 1995) added two provisions that significantly benefited the entry of people from the Indian sub-continent. The Diversity Visa Program, created by this law, made available 55,000 (later changed to 50,000) permanent residency visas annually to people from countries that were historically under-represented in the US population. Visas were given to applicants through a lottery process; educational qualifications or existing family ties were not considered. This program enabled a large number of Bangladeshis to immigrate to the US. The 2010 US Census reported that approximately 51,000 Bangladeshis were living in the country at that time, mostly because of this lottery program. -- The second feature of this law, "Temporary Worker Visas for Highly Skilled Individuals", known as H1B visas, paved the way for a large-scale influx of IT professionals, mostly from India. These visas were given on a non-immigration basis (visa holder could only stay in the US for a specified period) to individuals with at least a bachelor's degree. The visa holders also had to be sponsored as a professional worker by a registered organization or corporation in the US. The law set an annual cap of 65,000 H1B visas.

The other law that welcomed qualified foreigners into the US workforce was the American Competitiveness Act of 1998. This lawtemporarily increased the annual quota of H1B visas to over 100,000 for three years. After FY2001, the quota reverted back to 65,000. A follow-on act in 2000 again increased the ceiling on the number of H1B visas for three more years (2001-2003) and relaxed many rules. For example, H1B visas issued to employees of universities, non-profit organizations and government research establishments were no longer included in the annual "visa cap."

Thanks to these very significant liberalizations of the American immigration laws, the total number of H1B visa holders currently living in the country is estimated to have reached 650,000. A large fraction of these visa holders are from India, mostly in the IT field.

As the immigration laws changed so did the societal attitudes towards immigrants from India, China and other Asian countries. Changes did not happen overnight and took a several decades to gain a solid foot-hold. Indian (and other Asian) students and professors became very successful in American universities and research organizations; physicians and surgeons trained in India became commonplace and highly respected; India-educated engineers and IT professionals became ubiquitous; and Indian shop-owners, taxi drivers and other service industry employees became familiar faces in many cities and towns. A number of Indian immigrants and their descendants rose to very high positions such as governors of states and CEOs of  global corporations while a few received recognition such as the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Grammy Award and memberships in the National Academies of Science and Engineering. Many successful high-tech companies were founded by entrepreneurs of Indian origin, and Indians made a mark in a wide variety of fields  ranging from journalism to finance to the performing arts. 

Occasional Incidents of Violence

Not everything has gone smoothly for Indian Americans since the liberalization of US immigration laws began in 1968. There have been many occasions when Indian Americans have been victims of resentment, harassment, vandalism, even physical assault. For example, in the late 1980s, bands of “dot-busters” frequently engaged in violence against Indian immigrants in parts of New Jersey and New York. These gangs were controlled by law enforcement only after violent assaults on several Indian Americans in cities like Jersey City and Hoboken, NJ, led to coordinated political action by local South Asian communities. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, there were several incidents around the country when innocent Sikhs were mistaken as Muslims and killed by misguided individuals and groups. In 2010, Dr Dibyendu Sinha, an IT professional, was attacked by a gang of five high school students in Old Bridge, NJ, in front of his wife and son, in a random act of brutal violence. Dr Sinha died a few days later as a result of the injuries from the beating by the thrill-seeking gang. Probably the worst example of a hate crime against Indian Americans took place on August 5, 2015, in Oak Creek, WI, when an ignorant, misguided, hate-crazed gunman killed six and injured several more at a Sikh temple, thinking that these Sikhs were “Muslim terrorists”. At a different level, resentment against large-scale “outsourcing” of IT services to companies in India simmered for several years until it led to attempts by a few state legislatures to legally prohibit their governments from send their IT work to India. Such resentment seems to have subsided in recent years but may reappear in the future if the rise in xenophobia and anti-globalization sentiments seen in this year's election cycle continues to gain strength. 

What May Lie Ahead

From humble beginnings, Asian immigrants in general, and Indian Americans in particular, have come a long way in achieving acceptance, recognition and success in America. Admittedly there have been some rough patches even in recent decades but all in all, Indian immigrants and their descendants in this country are on a positive trajectory. Unfortunately this year's election campaigns seem to have awakened the sleeping dogs of racism, xenophobia and religious intolerance in the minds of some voters. Hopefully these sleeping dogs of negativity would go back to their peaceful slumber once the election season is over. For if they do not, America may slowly regress to its shameful history of discrimination, segregation and violence against foreign-born members of the society, especially those of non-European origin. It is in our best interest to be politically alert and active and take every conceivable step to forestall any backsliding toward a racist and xenophobic society in America.

For the long term, Indian immigrants and their descendants should proactively pursue all avenues available to them for open and frequent cultural exchange with their neighbors, coworkers and friends. Only through greater familiarity and understanding would  all segments of the American society come to appreciate and value each other more. 


In the roughly fifty years since the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, dramatic changes have taken place in the mindset of the American government and society.  Much of America now welcomes the diversity it has achieved through open and fair immigration from all countries. However, immigrants from India and other non-European countries should be cognizant of misguided policies and attitudes of the past and be vigilant in protecting their hard-earned rights. Indian immigrants and their  descendants should also actively promote greater mutual understanding among all segments of society, irrespective of their country of origin and faith of choice.

Acknowledgment: An earlier version of this article was published in the July/August, 2015, issue of DuKool. The author wishes to thank DuKool for permission to reprint much of that article.

(Posted August 1, 2016)

Readers interested in commenting on this article should send their remarks to or

Comments received on August 1, 2016, from Sujan DG: "Very informative article!"

Comments received on August 3, 2016, from Amitabha C.: "Well researched and very well written. I read bits and pieces pf the immigration policy of the past but your article summarizes the history very well. A required reading for the next generation."  

Comments received on August 2, 2016, from Tinty B.: "Thank you for a very informative article. I will be using this information to teach my class with due credit to you. And if you allow me to do so, I may use the article for primary document analysis assignments " 

Comments received on August 3, 2016, from Prabir B.: "I read the article with intense interest. It is very informative and draws a picture of the mindset of the lawmakers (and the general population) of those early years. -- I did not realize before, until I read your article, that liberal and humane laws were passed only in 1965. That is like yesterday! Please keep writing."

Comments received on August 3, 2016, from Ankuresh G.: "A well researched and well written article. Enjoyed reading it. Some of the recent incidents I know about but I was not aware of the history of earlier immigration laws and how it affected lives of our predecessors. We should not take for granted the privileges we are enjoying now, particularly at this politically polarizing atmosphere. We should do our best to get involved and preserve them. Thanks for a very timely article."

Comments received on August 7, 2016, from Ananda C.: "...A highly informative, well-written and well-researched article that all people, young and old, of Indian ancestry should read to get a historical perspective, particularly at this time of political uncertainty and negativism as demonstrated by Mr. Trump."

Laws That Shaped Our Immigration History
Debajyoti Chatterji