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South Asian Migration to the United States, 1700s–2010s  

Uzma Quraishi

Empire looms large in the history of migrations from South Asia to the United States. Although the South Asia region generally denotes the broader Indian subcontinent, historically, most of its US-bound migrations originated in the early 21st-century nation-states of Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan, that is, formerly British India. Beginning in the 1700s, migrant streams from South Asia included such varied categories as coerced and free labor, farmers, students, high-tech workers, and temporary, cyclical, and permanent residents—warranting the use of the term migrants rather than immigrants. In the 18th century, people from the Indian subcontinent were ensnared in British and American imperial circuits of slavery and indenture. A century later, they forged new migration pathways for trade and labor. Employers desired South Asian labor, even as ordinary Americans both spurned South Asians and fetishized their “exotic” goods and exoticized spirituality. In the early 20th century, South Asian migrants on the Pacific Coast mounted a US-based resistance effort to overthrow the British Raj, prompting close state regulation of South Asian migration into North America. Groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League successfully pressured legislators to pass exclusionary federal immigration policies and legally mandated racial segregation at the municipal and state levels in western states. In the early 1920s, the US court system denied South Asians the right to naturalized citizenship, although ultimately, all Asians per the 1870 naturalization statutes and various Supreme Court rulings. Resident South Asians resisted these strictures for decades, finally meeting with success during World War II. The mid- to late 20th century provided fresh opportunities and challenges for skilled workers from South Asia, though these migrations derived from US global dominance and consolidation of its empire in the postwar era. Throughout, the rights of South Asian migrants, imperial subjects, and citizens were subject to the inconsistent whims of the state.