The Hidden Muscle in the Immigration Debate - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Hidden Muscle in the Immigration Debate

The Hidden Muscle in the Immigration Debate

By Sanjena Sathian

Indian Sikh pilgrims wait at immigration at the Attari International Railway Station, between India and Pakistan, about 35 km from northern Indian city Amritsar, on October 12, 2009. About 70 pilgrims were forced to cut shot the Sikh Guru Ramdass birth anniversary pilgrimage the Pakistani temple Gurdwara Punja Sahib, and other shrines, due to security concerns following the militant attack on Pakistan's Rawalpindi army headquarters. AFP PHOTO / NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
SourceNarinder Nanu/AFP/Getty


Because if this group has a real impact, American immigration policy might change in a big way.

By Sanjena Sathian

If you were an immigration-reform lobbyist, you probably wouldn’t put Avinash Conda’s story front and center. It’s not hugely sad. No teary separation between child and parent. No detention. No major financial struggles. The 27-year-old’s story is, he says upon reflection, a “best-case scenario.”

He came to Kentucky from Hyderabad, India, for college, and quickly got a work visa with help from his first employer; when that ran out, he moved to a New York tech company and got his H-1B visa. He’s now a senior SEO manager at Shutterfly in cushy Silicon Valley. He didn’t even have it as rough as a character in your average angsty Jhumpa Lahiri short story.

But Conda is now part of a rising number of first- and second-generation Indian-Americans who may turn out to be some of the most important players in the country’s ever-mounting immigration debate. Well-educated and highly skilled, they are bent on addressing issues like border fences, undocumented workers and more, and may well have the clout to shape the talk. In Conda’s case, he’s leading an organizing team for a group called — backed by heavyweights like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — which represents the tech community and is single-mindedly focused on passing comprehensive immigration reform. As he puts it, he’s jockeying for change on behalf of people he “didn’t even know existed” not long ago. 

It doesn’t hurt to have booming Silicon Valley wheedling Washington.

At a time when President Obama is pushing for immigration reform, and when it’s sure to be on everyone’s tongue in 2016, much has changed for Indian-Americans. In 1980, 400,000 Indian immigrants lived in the U.S. Today, that number is 2.8 million. It was enough, in 2012, to occasionally swing the vote to the left in traditionally Republican districts like Orange County.

This group’s real power may lie not in their vote numbers — they’re a mere 3 percent of the electorate — but in their prominence and wealth: A Pew report showed that Indian-Americans have the highest average income levels in the U.S., a median of $88,000 per year. Some are already flexing that muscle. Groups like Conda’s work on grassroots campaigns — everything from “sharing stories” to crucial clicks on those “Help Pass Reform” buttons. Last March, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), a traditionally apolitical group, began pushing on Capitol Hill for reform. (AAPI did not respond to a request for comment.) And with Indians’ huge presence in tech, well … it doesn’t hurt to have booming Silicon Valley wheedling Washington.

Portrait of Avinash Conda

Avinash Conda had an easy path — but still considers himself an immigration activist.

Source Pete Souza/The White house

On immigration, there’s a lot up for debate, from unaccompanied minors to caps on H-1B visas, meant for those with advanced degrees who can get employers to sponsor their stint here. The high-skilled stuff is most associated with Indian-Americans, but still more applies: An oft-forgotten undocumented population lives in the U.S. Between 2000 and 2011, that group grew the second-most, after only Hondurans, according to Department of Homeland Security statistics. Or take H-4 visas, issued to dependents (often wives) of those here to work. 

For Indian-Americans, the story goes way back, though. While today they’re best-known as doctors and engineers, Indian-Americans have a more complicated history. They first arrived in California in the 19th century during the gold rush. Others made their way here, often illegally, during Colonial times by jumping ship at New York or New Jersey ports. It was less than a century ago that the Supreme Court ruled against a Sikh immigrant named Bhagat Singh Thind who claimed he was Caucasian, thereby banning all Indians from immigrating to the U.S. until 1965, when the gates reopened.

Today, Indian-Americans overwhelmingly (83 percent, Pew found) believe immigrants are good for America. But will they act on this belief? There’s a difference between casting a vote and picketing on Capitol Hill. And even if Indians are sympathetic to reform over some issues, like shortening the waiting list, many get their backs up when it comes to being lumped with Hispanics or the undocumented. So let’s say Indians do push for H-1B reform and get it — that still may not trickle down to comprehensive policy, says Jayesh Rathod, professor of law and director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at American University’s law school.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nev., Jan. 29, 2013.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks on immigration reform at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Jan. 29, 2013.

And the “auntie-uncle community” often feels more like “How can we let those illegal immigrants drain our resources?” says second-gen Sapna Pandya, who works on immigration and language issues as the director of the Washington, D.C.-based Many Languages One Voice. The daughter of doctors, Pandya is familiar with upper-middle-class Indians who see their lives in culs-de-sac as far from the border fence.

However it plays out, don’t assume “Indians for immigrants” means “votes for the left.” Sure, there’s Obama’s push. But George W. Bush was strong on guest-worker visa rights, while Obama has deported many more people. And with Jeb Bush (who is married to a Mexican-born woman), Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and the like, the GOP is well-armed. And in 2016, wonders Karthick Ramakrishnan, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, who studies ethnicity’s interaction with politics, “What if Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley were a VP candidate?”

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