Pacific Link: The KQED Asian Education Initiative
History Timelines Lesson Plans Community Resources

Angel Island

US Immigration

US Foreign Policy

China

Immigration From India

Immigration from:
China | Japan | Philippines | Russia | India

Early immigration from India to the United States was very short-lived, lasting only from the late 1800s until the 1917 Immigration Law instituted the Asiatic Barred Zone. These earliest immigrants came from the Punjab region of India. Most were Sikh men, though some came from the Muslim and Hindu communities.

In 1849, the British annexed the Punjab region into the rest of its colonial holdings in India. The subsequent land reform laws disenfranchised many Punjabis, and younger sons were encouraged to find work abroad. Their destinations ranged from British territories in Africa to the Caribbean to Hong Kong and Singapore to Canada. Many Sikhs found employment with the British army, often ending up being posted in many of these same far-reaching places.

Sikh men

Sikh men arriving at Angel Island.

Sikh soldiers fought on behalf of the British Empire in the Middle East and Africa, were sent to Beijing, China, in 1900 to put down the Boxer Rebellion, and fought in World War I. After their service, many made their way to Vancouver, Canada. They found employment in the burgeoning lumber industry, and, as subjects of the British Commonwealth, they were able to travel freely. But as their numbers grew, discrimination against them by Canadian workers of European descent also grew. Indeed, European Canadian worker protests became so strong that, eventually, ships carrying Indians to Vancouver were barred from landing.

These workers found their way further south, into the northwestern United States, where an economic boom was in the works. From Washington to Oregon, and eventually California, the Indian immigrants worked in the lumber industry, found jobs building railroads, and worked in the orchards and vineyards throughout the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial valleys. And like the Indian immigrants in Canada, they received an acrimonious reception from workers of European descent not wanting to compete against them for jobs.

Initially, Indian immigrants could enter the United States directly, through one of its ports. Many entered through San Francisco; it is estimated that some 3,000 people from India came through the Angel Island Immigration Station. Then the 1917 law created the Asiatic Barred Zone, which defined by latitude and longitude an area that effectively restricted immigrants from South and Southeast Asia. This put a stop to most Indian immigration, and although the ban was lifted for a new annual quota in 1943, Indian American communities did not see significant growth until after the 1965 immigration reforms. Some of the earlier immigrants were known to have married into Mexican Californian families.

Notwithstanding the Asiatic Barred Zone, some Indian students, diplomats and other prominent individuals were able to pass through U.S. borders by finding sponsorship from an influential group or institution. Citizenship, however, remained an elusive dream, despite a major court challenge with Bhagat Singh Thind v. United States (1924), which attempted to override the color barrier created by the 1790 Naturalization Law. Singh Thind argued that because Indians were descendents of the ancient Aryan people, they qualified as Caucasians and therefore were White and could be naturalized as citizens under existing law. The Supreme Court disagreed with Thind's definition of terms and insisted that "White" was not the equivalent of "Caucasian."

Another prominent individual, Dalip Singh Saund, came to the United States as a student and earned a Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of California at Berkeley. Over the next 20 years of his life, he worked in agriculture, became a successful businessman and established the Hindustan Association of America (HAA). As head of the HAA, Saund advocated for the rights of Indian immigrants to attain citizenship. In 1946, the Luce-Cellar Bill passed through the U.S. Congress and granted citizenship to the existing Indian immigrants in the country. Later in 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act overturned the racially discriminating bias against non-Whites and allowed all immigrants the opportunity to become naturalized. In 1957, as a member of the Democratic Party representing District 29, the Riverside and Imperial valleys of California, Saund became the first Asian to hold a congressional office.

Copyright © 1994-2014 KQED Inc. All Rights Reserved.