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Butterfly and Indian immigration to US

There were just 12000 Indian immigrants to US till 1965 and by 2013 the figure had reached north of 2 million. Much of this growth came in just preceding two decades. In fact, India has become the 2nd largest source of immigrants to US after Mexico.

Indian Immigrant Population in the United States, 1980-2013 (Source –

What exactly happened in 1965? And why that concerns with my review of this book (The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World) by Tara Zahra? A book that gives deep insights about history of migration from Eastern Europe post 1850 till today.

The answers lie in the immigration politics of United States since 1850s and emigration politics/culture of Eastern Europe that culminated in 1965 immigration reforms. Reforms that changed American notion of citizenship and have as per modern experience turned over the bitter legacy of the past. In the rest of my article, I would attempt to summarize how Tara Zahra has dealt with these issues in her book.

Before 1965, European heritage was at the heart of American immigration policies. Most opponents of 1965 immigration reform made a case for protecting Judeo-Christian heritage of America (read European). This theme was visible in both internal (racial) and external (immigration) fronts. As an outcome for long time (prior to 1965) US favored immigration almost exclusively from Europe.

While US did prefer immigrants from Europe, that essentially in practice meant immigrants from Western Europe. However, As Tara Zahra writes in her book, the notion of European and whites were closely inter-twined with each other. Eastern/Southern Europeans even though whites were considered to be of inferior stock and hence not likely to assimilate to American culture. Irrespective, there was a wide-spread sympathy for protecting the fellow whites and ensuring their well-being in terms of their work (better work/living conditions versus Asians/Blacks). Soon that white race brotherhood was about to be shattered.

On the other hand, Austrian-Hugarian dual monarchy and its predecessor (Habsburg empire) were aspiring to be new colonizing force and considered emigration from their lands a national threat to such a cause. As Tara Zahra explains in her book, each young emigrant was a loss for being a potential recruit for royal army, source of labor for businesses of revenue generating nobles and as tiller of farmland. In that context, repeated attempts were made to dissuade such an emigration. This included trial of travel agents (who happened to be Jewish), stricter emigration laws as one by Hungary in 1903, issuing royal decree of amnesty for draft drodgers etc.

In-spite of these attempts, almost 12 million emigrated from dual monarchy (Eastern Europe) to shores of the new world between 1880 and 1910. As per the distribution, 81% of the total immigrants to United states between these period were Eastern Europeans. Among those, they were equally split between Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Jewish origins. Rest were primarily from southern Europe.

Most emigrants from Eastern Europe were primarily driven by three factors – economic opportunity, avoidance of military duty (true for Slovaks and other Austrian-Hungarian empire subjects) and finally religious persecution. Most of the poorer subjects of Austrian-Hungarian and Russian empires were desperate to improve their economic situation and US held a magical charm of opportunity for them. Jewish emigration was almost equally driven by religious persecution and family/economic emigration.

However, as I stated earlier, there were wide-spread concerns on the quality of Eastern and Southern European immigration. Dillingham commission was formed by US Congress  in 1907 to investigate this. In 1911, the commission came out with a scathing report. It suggested that new immigrants to united states of southern/eastern european stock were dramatically different from natives living in US and they cannot be assimilated. The natives here referred Americans of Western European descent who were also the imperialist powers of those time.

Coming just 20 years after the effectively barring of Chinese immigration in 1882 through Chinese Exclusion act, the Dillingham commission paved the way for restrictive acts of 1917, 1921 and finally 1924 which set up the total annual immigration quota of a country to 2% of its population living inside United States in 1910. However, there was NO quota for preferred population of Western Europe.

Indian were already barred by Asiatic Barred Zone act of 1917 and were considered the least preferred race to immigrate to United States. Through 1924 act (not over-ruled by 1952 lifting of barred zone act), it effectively eliminated any possibility of Indian immigration to United States.

Whether it was correlated or not, the travails of eastern european immigration effectively shunted out Indians from the new world for almost 50 years till 1965 happened.

Some call it as the butterfly effect!


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