Friday, July 03, 2009

Vinay Lal, "The Other Indians"

We finally have a pedagogically useful introductory book on the history of the South Asian American community, Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (see an earlier post on Vinay Lal by Abhi here). Lal’s book covers some of the same topics as Prashad's The Karma of Brown Folk but is much more heavily factual and closely researched -– it’s a work of history rather than a political polemic –- and it’s rich with useful and well-sourced statistics. If I were to ask students to read something about the history of South Asians in the U.S., say, in conjunction with a segment of a course relating to Indian immigrant fiction, I would probably assign this book.

In lieu of a comprehensive review, below are a few highlights and interesting tidbits from The Other Indians that I picked up on: Elihu Yale, early Immigration/Legal issues, Religion, and the old terminology question.

Elihu Yale

Lal's chapter on the early American relationship with India was interesting to me, specifically the account of Elihu Yale (i.e., the Yale who gave Yale University its name):

Well before Indians first began to arrive in some numbers in the United States a little before 1900, trade had brough the products of ‘East India’ –tea, spices, silk, muslin, opium—to New England homes. Salem owed its greatness to the commerce with the East . . . It is the ‘magnificent Oriental plunder’ accumulated by Elihu Yale in India, who served as a lowly clerk in the East India Company’s offices before he rose to assume charge of the Madras Presidency, that lifted a New England college founded in 1676 from the doldrums and prompted its founders to rename the college in honor of the wealthy donor. As a young boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, later to be known as the ‘Sage of Concord’ and the leader of a group of writers and thinkers who would be characterized as the ‘Transcendentalists,’ often visited Boston’s ‘India Wharf’ which had by his time becomethe leading center of trade with China and India. Emerson confided to his journal in 1836 that everything in ‘this era’ had been made ‘subservient’ to ‘Trade,’ and ‘On us the most picturesque contrasts are crowded. We have the beautiful costume of the Hindoo and the Turk in our streets.’ (Lal, 8)

I have sometimes wondered whether folks at Yale today ever stop to think about the colonial legacy of Elihu Yale. (Is there anyone reading this who went to Yale, who's looked into it?)

The Dark Years: Bhagat Singh Thind, 1920-1940

I also found Lal’s account of the legal history of Indian-American citizens following the Asian Exclusion Act informative. After allowing a first wave of immigrants from India around the turn of the century, U.S. immigration authorities started to tighten restrictions on Indian immigrants by 1910, rejecting more and more applicants, in part because of fears about the Ghadr movement, and in part because of rising general xenophobia about immigrants from Asia. Still, prior to 1923, many Indians could get around racial restrictions by claiming to be ’Caucasian.’ In 1923, this was reversed, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Bhagat Singh Thind needed to be ‘de-naturalized’:

In early 1923, the Supreme Court heard on appeal from the Immigration Bureau the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, whose application for naturalization had been granted in the face of the Bureau’s opposition. Thind, a Caucasian of ‘high-caste Hindu’ stock ‘of full Indian blood,’ enterd the U.S. through Seattle in 1912, enrolled as a student at Berkeley in 1913, and was one of a handful of Indians who fought in World War I under the U.S. army. . . . Thind’s lawyers rested their case on the two-fold argument that, on the anthropological evidence, north Indians were Aryans and thus Caucasians, and, secondly, by judicial precedent Caucasians were to be construed as whites. Justice Sutherland took the contrary view: in the ‘understanding of the common man,’ . . . ‘white’ clearly denoted a person of European origins. ‘It may be true,’ wrote Sutherland, ‘that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable profound differences between them today.’ The ‘Aryan theory’ had been ‘rejected by most, if not all, modern writers on the subject of ethnology,’ and the word ‘Caucasian,’ Sutherland argued, ‘is in scarcely better repute.’ (Lal, 37-38)

Funny that Judge Sutherland, in 1923, was casting doubt on the Aryan invasion theory even then. (Isn’t it strange that some people still want to believe it’s true, even today?)

Another surprise in Lal’s account is of the years subsequent to the Thind case: despite the fact that the U.S. had decided it could de-naturalize Indian immigrants who had achieved citizenship, in practice, it happened to very few people. A lawyer named Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, successfully went to the Supreme Court in 1927, to defend his naturalization as valid, and after that de-naturalization was quite rare. The real impact of the Asian Exclusion Act and the Thind case was that Indians no longer immigrated to the U.S., and many who had already settled here decided to leave. According to the U.S. census, there were 8000 Indians in California in 1917, but only 1,476 by 1940 (Lal, 40). Throughout the entire country, there were only 2,045 self-identified Indians present in the U.S. in 1940. (Just forty years later, in 1980, the Census recorded 387,223 Indians in the U.S., and that number has of course jumped again in both 1990 and 2000.)

Religion: Hindu Temple Architecture

I also learned from Lal’s treatment of religion as it is practiced by Indian Americans. He does not ignore some of the radical religious groups, like the VHP-A. But he doesn’t obsess over them either, and he makes space for a detailed account of the complexities of Hinduism as it is actually practiced in the U.S. by ordinary people. He has, for instance, interesting details on houses of worship, referring to some of the new temples that have been built with strict adherence to architecture stipulated the Shilpa Sastras, as well as the more syncretic temples that are structured very differently than they would be in India. I thought the following was interesting, along these lines:

A large metropolitan center such as Los Angeles is home to a Murugan temple, at least two Radha Krishna temples, a Kali Mandir, a Devi Mandir, a Sanatan Dharma Mandir, a Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a Sri Venkateswara temple, and close to a dozen other temples. The nondescript Valley Hindu Temple of Northridge, where a sizable Indian community has developed over the last two decades, is representative of the other, nonsectarian tradition of Hindu temples in the United States, insofar as the temple houses a diverse array of deities—Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Durga, Lakshmi, to name a few—and welcomes Hindus in the diaspora of all persuasions. It has sometimes been suggested that Hindus in the diaspora may be less attentive to distinctions which hold sway in India, such as those between north and south, Vaishnavites and Saivites, and so on. Whether this is partly on account of their own minority status in the U.S. is an interesting and yet unresolved question. Whether this phenomenon is as distinct as is sometimes argued is also questionable. While images of both Vishnu and Shiva are not usually housed under one roof in Hindu temples in India, and the mythological works known as the Puranas—where the history, genealogy, and worship of these gods is articulated—are exceedingly sectarian, the Puranas are less exclusive than is commonly argued. Thus, a Vaishnava Purana usually elevates Vishnu as the supreme God but still has ample room for Shiva; a Saivite Purana inverses the order. A Devi Purana, dedicated to the Goddess, will similarly render secondary the male Gods. (Lal, 73-74)

I wonder if any readers who have been to different temples around the U.S. (and perhaps also in India) might have any comments on temple construction in the U.S. vs. India. (It might seem like an obscure topic, but actually I think architecture of houses of worship says a lot about the way people practice their faiths.)

The Old Terminology Problem: Desi, South Asian, etc.

Though I think very highly of Lal’s book, his discussion of terminology did raise some questions for me at certain points. Lal eschews the word “desi,” and settles on “Indian-American,” and explains carefully why he’s doing so. I can’t reproduce all of Lal’s arguments along these lines, but the following paragraph stood out to me as an interesting (though not necessarily compelling) critique of “desi”:

Though there is no gainsaying the fact that many proponents of the term ‘desi’ similarly seek to invoke its widest and most pluralistic meanings, calling forth the shared lives of many South Asians, the term operates on many different and disjunctive registers. As I have often been reminded by an old friend from Jaisalmer, in Western Rajasthan, words such as ‘country’ mean quite different things to people from metropolitan centers and those who earn their livelihoods in India’s tens of thousands of villages and smaller towns. When my friend chances to remark ‘Hamare desh me aisa hota hai’ (‘This is how it happens in our country’), by desh he clearly means his part of the country. The observation invokes not so much the nation in the abstract, much less Bharat, but rather a frame of mind and a set of habits. The word ‘desi’ also calls to mind home-grown products: thus, for example, no that liberalization has opened the Indian market to a whole array of foreign goods, including Western/hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables, one hears often of the contrast between foreign vegetables and those branded ‘desi’—the latter being small and (in common belief) much more palatable to the taste than foreign varieties. There is, it appears to me, something unsettling and certainly odd about the fact that the most enthusiastic proponents of the word ‘desi’ are precisely those diasporic Indians who, in many ways, have least claim to the word and its multiple inheritances, considering their location in metropolitan centers of thought and their immense distance from local and vernacular knowledge systems. For these reasons among many, I have, except in a few particular instances, eschewed the word ‘desi’ when speaking of Indian Americans. (Lal, xi)

I understand Lal’s reasoning, though I don’t think it’s necessarily always a mark against "desi" that many people who use the term are diasporic, and perhaps less connected to South Asian culture. I don't think the variations in the way "desi" (and videsi and pardesi) is used within northern India necessarily make the diasporic deployment of it less true within its context. Language can change.

Later, Lal also addresses the term "South Asian American," and introduces some concerns about it that will be familiar to readers of the endless debates over terminology that have taken place on Sepia Mutiny over the years (to wit: the problem of tokenizing or ignoring ‘smaller’ countries in South Asia; the fact that few people outside of secular/progressive communities would actually identify themselves primarily as “South Asian”; the confusion of South Asia with Southeast Asia; the difficulties of limiting South Asia geographically, with Afghanistan on the west and Burma on the east, etc.).

[Incidentally, I also address the terminology question in this published essay.]

Again, while the problems with the term "South Asian" (or "South Asian American") are real, they are not insurmountable, and Lal’s reasons for electing not to use the term were not entirely convincing to me. In the end, he seems to settle on "Indian American" because, "it appears to me to best do justice to those people who are the subject of this book." In effect, it seems to me that Lal may have decided for practical reasons to focus primarily on immigrants from India in particular as the subject of his book, and some of his arguments about the problems with the term “South Asian” (or “South Asian American”) might be beside the point.

That said, The Other Indians is a great read and a very helpful book overall.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Review: Nikita Lalwani, "Gifted"

The debut novel by Nikita Lalwani, Gifted , makes for quite enjoyable reading. It's about an Indian girl's coming of age in Cardiff, Wales, as a math prodigy pushed and prodded by an overly controlling father.

The father's obsession with having his daughter achieve a very rigid kind of academic greatness should ring a bell with second gen/ABD readers, especially given the apparent desi fascination with things like Spelling Bees and World Records. For most middle class desi kids growing up in the west, childhood is often (whether you like it or not) all about "studies" -- and Lalwani's book shows a case of that parental obsession taken to an extreme.

That said, Lalwani's Rumi (short for Rumika) is in fact genuinely interested in math and numbers from an early age, and Lalwani does a good job of taking us into her head without drowning the reader in math problems. Though I'm not particularly mathematically inclined myself, I do remember there being a certain luminosity to math problems as a child/teenager -- something beautiful in algebraic abstractions, or the spiraling concept of infinity in calculus. (Unfortunately for me, I tended to be more enthusiastic about the aesthetics of the math than in actually solving the problems at hand...)

Here's a short passage from early on in Gifted, where Rumi (age 8 at the time) is chatting with her relations while on a trip to India. They are discussing real-life math prodigy, Shakuntala Devi, who was able to multiply two thirteen digit numbers in her head:

Rumi and Jaggi Bhaiya talk about world records, in particular about Shakuntala Devi, the maths genius who multiplied tow thirteen digit numbers in twenty-eight seconds the year before. Rumi has seen Shakuntala Devi on TV, her kindly smile gracing the airwaves like the most favorite auntie you can imagine, big red bindi shining out from the center of her forehead with the super-force of blood. Rumi has a funny feeling when she sees Shakuntala Devi on the screen. It is as though she is related to her. Or something. Even her mum and dad are charged and excited when they see her on the box, thrilled by the contradictions of cotton sari, center parting, blond hair-sprayed host and acrobatic maths.

'But why did they treat her like that? In itself, it is proof of the superiority complex that the West has over us,' Jaggi Bhaiya is saying.

'What is superiority complex?' Rumi asks.

'When a culture thinks they are better than us, that we are dirty, cheating scoundrels. That is why they insulted Shakuntala Devi in this way. You cannot deny it!'

He is referring to the text added next to the entry in The Guinness Book of Records. Rumi knows the words, having Jaggi recite them and having read them in her own edition: 'Some experts on calculating prodigies refuse to give credence to the above--largely on the grounds that it is so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other invigilated prodigy.'

Gifted is somewhat different from other Brit-Asian fiction by writers like Hanif Kureishi, in that the social context isn't especially politicized. In Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Landerette, the central subject is the tension about race and identity -- with the rise of the National Front on the one hand, and the emergence of the racially self-conscious British Black Arts Movement and the Southall Black Sisters on the other.

Though Gifted is also set in the 1980s, politics and race isn't really an issue. Lalwani's characters are in a more isolated, "mainstream" context, and the story is really about the internal dynamics of a single, deeply dysfunctional nuclear family. If anything politics enters in obliquely in passages like the one above, where the question is really whether and how respect is given by the world to "gifted" Indians. Like Jaggi Bhaiya, Rumi's father smolders with a simultaneous pride and insecurity about his image as a middle-class Indian in British society, and his neuroses are partly what drive him to treat his daughter as he does.

I tend to suspect that this book will be slightly more popular with women than with men, though it is (thankfully) a far cry from those deeply irritating Chitra Divakaruni type books, where the goal is for the desi woman to "find herself," usually after extricating herself from a bad marriage with a bad desi man. Dating and boys do play a role in Gifted, but again, the story is really about Rumi's fraught relationship with her father and mother, and all those familiar clichés of 1st/2nd gen Indian fiction (i.e., involving arranged marriage) are fortunately absent.

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted is available at

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Torn About Bobby Jindal

I should start by saying this: I know, if I lived in Louisiana, that I wouldn't vote for Bobby Jindal. I just disagree with him too strongly on the social issues -- intelligent design and abortion rights, for starters -- to let my sense of ethnic loyalty get the better of me.

But I can't help but be somewhat torn when I see photos like this:


The rest of the very interesting New York Times profile explains what this represents: Jindal is slowly winning over the rural white voters in northern Louisiana, staunch Republicans (can anyone say David Duke?) who couldn't bring themselves to vote for him when he ran for governor four years ago. He's also learning how to avoid giving the impression that he is an overachieving policy wonk (which he undoubtedly is), so as to better connect with ordinary Louisianans.

For me, Jindal's growing success at this (again, encapsulated in the photo above) taps into an anxiety I myself have had as a child of immigrants -- who became the first (and only) person in my extended family to earn a Ph.D. Even if your tastes and cultural values are profoundly "Americanized," as mine are, there remains a sense that you don't quite "fit," which tends to be exacerbated (for me, especially) every time some a-hole on South Street (in Philly) mutters something about "there goes Bin Laden" when I walk down the street. Part of the anxiety comes from the ignorance and xenophobia of some Americans, but a good part of it comes from myself, an internalized sense of remaining not-quite-pukka despite everything.

If Jindal wins, his victory will suggest to me he's somehow overcome both sides of the immigrant's anxiety syndrome: the part that comes from others' mistrust, and also the part that comes from himself -- his own sense of being something different, something other than a "normal" American, or in this case, a representative Louisianan. If he wins, I won't cheer, but I will, I expect, quietly feel a certain sense of pride at his accomplishment despite my strong disagreement with his kind of politics. Not just because he's a fellow desi -- it's actually more complex than that. Rather, the pride will be because he's a fellow desi who's evidently achieved, after a struggle, something I've long aspired to do: shake that dude's hand.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

New vs. Old U.S. Citizenship Tests

It's fair to say that we ought to be able to pass the tests we ask other people to take. The U.S. citizenship test has traditionally had enough oddball questions in its question pool that I suspect many citizens wouldn't actually pass. Now it's been revised, and the Times surveys a range of ideological responses to the changes -- some immigrants groups are outraged, etc. However, if you look at the actual exams (the new exam question pool is here; a comparison of the new and old exams is here), it seems clear that the new exam is a huge improvement from the point of view of mechanics: the clarity and phrasing of the questions is now much, much better.

For example, one old question was "Where does freedom of speech come from?" What is that asking, exactly? Another bad one: "Why are there 100 senators in the U.S. Senate?" It's obvious what is meant (50 states X 2 senators per state), but the phrasing is bad. It's now so much why as how you get 100 senators.

Another poorly phrased question from the old exam is "What are some of the basic beliefs of the Declaration of Independence?" Again, it's a bit strange to refer to the "beliefs" of a written document. Better phrasing might be, "What are some of the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence?"

Among the new questions, there are very few that have these kinds of problems. Admittedly, some of them are a bit more difficult from a straight historical perspective ("What territory did the United States purchase from France in 1803?"), but it's not hard to go learn (and yes, memorize) the answers.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

Does Diversity Cause Us To Mistrust One Another?

Via Ruchira Paul and 3QD, an article in the Boston Globe about the work of Robert Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist. The Globe summarizes the gist of the article as follows:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.

The study comes at a time when the future of the American melting pot is the focus of intense political debate, from immigration to race-based admissions to schools, and it poses challenges to advocates on all sides of the issues. The study is already being cited by some conservatives as proof of the harm large-scale immigration causes to the nation's social fabric. But with demographic trends already pushing the nation inexorably toward greater diversity, the real question may yet lie ahead: how to handle the unsettling social changes that Putnam's research predicts. (link)

What makes this all more interesting is the fact that Robert Putnam is not himself a conservative, but a progressive-minded scholar who supports diversity. He didn't expect these findings when he started this project, and has worked hard to make sure they are understood correctly -- though anti-immigrant conservatives have definitely been eating this up.

I want to speculate a little on how South Asian immigrants might fit into the 'diversity problem' Putnam's study raises, but before that it seems important to get into a little more detail about just what Putnam is saying. Please forgive the long quote:

The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties.

Putnam knew he had provocative findings on his hands. He worried about coming under some of the same liberal attacks that greeted Daniel Patrick Moynihan's landmark 1965 report on the social costs associated with the breakdown of the black family. There is always the risk of being pilloried as the bearer of "an inconvenient truth," says Putnam.

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time "kicking the tires really hard" to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents -- all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

"People would say, 'I bet you forgot about X,'" Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. "There were 20 or 30 X's."

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to "distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television." (link)

Wow -- that's a long list of problems associated with living in diverse communities! Personally, I've never felt the difference Putnam's study finds, but for the most part I've mainly lived in relatively diverse places. I've lived in glum diverse places (Malden, MA; Bethlehem, PA) -- where no one would give me the time of day or even stop and say 'hi' -- and somewhat happier diverse places (Potomac, MD; Parsippany, NJ; New Haven, CT; Durham, NC; and my current town of Conshohocken, PA). Most places I've lived, though, I've felt that most people do "hunker down" and spend their evenings in front of the TV. I've never lived in the vibrant downtown of a big city (sigh), nor have I ever lived in a place that was really ethnically homogeneous -- so perhaps I've only seen one side of this.

People interested in seeing more detail -- and hearing it directly from Putnam, might want to check out the article in question here. For the most part it should be readable for non-academics (it helps if you know what he means by "social capital"), though Putnam does get into some statistical analysis that goes over my head.

The other big questions are 1) why could this be happening, 2) what can be done about it, and 3) is it a permanent problem, or merely a temporary phenomenon associated with recent immigration, which will dissipate over time?

One can easily speculate that the answer to (1) has to do with the natural mistrust produced when people have different ethnic and racial backgrounds, different cultural values, speak different languages, and so on. The answers to (2) and (3) are harder.

Again, thinking speculatively here, I'm not sure that anything can be actively done about (2), but I do feel quite confident on (3) that the mistrust and the lower "social capital" Putnam sees in more diverse communities is likely to dissipate over time -- as immigrants acculturate and/or assimilate. Here, one's experience as a second-gen desi comes into play. And the high levels of interracial dating and marrying out of one's ethnic group seen among second and third generation Asian immigrants suggests that blending is already well under way.

Putnam himself agrees with that prognosis, and in his article, quotes Barack Obama to that effect. Obama has called for:

. . . an America where race is understood in the same way that the ethnic diversity of the white population is understood. People take pride in being Irish-American and Italian-American. They have a particular culture that infuses the (whole) culture and makes it richer and more interesting. But it's not something that determines people's life chances and there is no sense of superiority or inferiority. . . . [I]f we can expand that attitude to embrace African-Americans and Latino-Americans and Asian-Americans, then . . . all our kids can feel comfortable with the worlds they are coming out of, knowing they are part of something larger. (link)

Obama is in effect calling for "race" to start acting more like immigrant "ethnicity" -- for it to be malleable, and open to the possibility of its own diminishing value as an element of division. Are South Asians a "race" or an "ethnicity"? Though I'm proud of my Indian heritage and proud of being both an Indian American and a practicing Sikh, I tend to agree with Obama on the value of thinking of oneself as part of "something larger," and of not allowing one's ethnic background to determine one's "life chances."

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Maltreated H-1B Workers Begin to Find a Voice

There was a thought-provoking article in the SF Chronicle Sunday on the current quandaries faced by high-skilled foreign workers on H-1B Visas in the U.S. A very large proportion of these are Indian (49%), and in high-tech and computer fields (45%).

Currently, the system has problems on every side: first, representatives of software companies (chief among them Microsoft's Bill Gates) have loudly asserted that they need for the number of available H-1B visas to be increased, as there are currently significant numbers of unfilled positions in many computer related fields (and this is even despite the explosion of outsourcing in the past five years). Secondly, there is confusion about whether H-1B should be understood as a temporary visa, or the first stage on the path to a green card; most Indians I know presume it's the latter, while the government still seems to think it's the former. And finally, the system clearly hasn't been working very well for the immigrants themselves: it currently takes between 6 and 12 years for an Indian on an H-1B to be given a green card, even with employers willing to sponsor them. Confusingly, it takes much less time for H-1B workers from other national backgrounds to be given a green card once they find sponsorship.

One of the surprises to me in the SF Chronicle article is the fact that the USCIS doesn't even really know how many H-1B workers with Green Card sponsors there are:

Stuck in the middle is a federal government that has problems tracking the visas. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that oversees this guest-worker program, can't answer basic questions including:

-- How many foreign-born professionals are working in the United States on H-1B visas now?

-- What percentage of H-1B visa holders seek green cards instead of returning home?

-- How many H-1B visa holders and family members are awaiting green cards?

"The cumulative numbers you are looking for simply aren't available," said Citizenship and Immigration Services spokesman Chris Bentley. "These are not issues we track."

This admission of ignorance is really depressing: it suggests how low on the government's priority list the H1-B workers really are. "It's not something we track" is a way of saying, "no one really seems to care about this."

Fortunately, a new organization has cropped up to advocate for H-1B workers: Immigration Voice. They've hired a PR firm to help them make their case in public, and they're trying to influence the push to reform the H-1B system that is currently starting to work its way through Congress.

On a personal note, I should say that my wife started working in the U.S. (in the Bay Area) on an H-1B visa, and I've seen the ins and outs of this deeply flawed system at work. I feel strongly that the H1-B system is essential to the U.S. economy, and that H-1B workers, who come to the U.S. with advanced university degrees and unique skills, ought to be fast-tracked to permanent resident (Green Card) status. As it is, 1.1 million people (according to Immigration Voice's number) are currently waiting in limbo, unsure whether to plan on staying in the U.S. permanently -- and everything that might come with that -- or whether they should continue to presume they'll be heading back to the countries they started from.

Finally, I also think second-gen desis in the U.S. -- particularly all the desi lawyers out there -- ought to be advocating for better treatment for the Indians who are here on H-1B visas. As of now I haven't seen much of this.

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