The History Of Discriminatory Immigration Laws That Kept Indians Out Of The US For 40 Years

Shefali K. Chandan

May 09, 2017, 05:33 PM | Updated 05:33 PM IST

Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the immigration ban that was imposed by US President Donald Trump at Los Angeles International Airport on 29 January 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Protesters hold signs during a demonstration against the immigration ban that was imposed by US President Donald Trump at Los Angeles International Airport on 29 January 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
  • What is coming to the fore now has a century and more of history behind it
  • “Get out of my country” is what the white, Navy veteran Adam Purinton is alleged to have said before shooting and killing Indian Srinivas Kuchibhotla and wounding Alok Madasani in Austin’s Bar and Grill in Olathe, Kansas, on the evening of February 22.

    A Sikh victim of a shooting on Friday, March 3, was also told to “go back to your country”. In the past two weeks, four Indians have been shot at, two fatally, sending shock waves through the Indian American community. The 3.3 million Indian Americans have come to relish their reputation as a “model minority”. In 2014, the Smithsonian Museum feted the community through a special exhibit - “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation”, highlighting the breadth and diversity of accomplishments of Indian Americans. The Indian American story is a success story, and desis and Americans alike flaunt it. It’s been easy to believe that America’s doors would always remain open to deserving desis. However, Indians are unaware that race and labour have coalesced many times in the past to influence and alter the nation’s immigration laws. Hostility toward “Hindu” immigrants was rampant at the turn of the century and immigration laws passed as an outcome of this hostility, stripped Indians of US citizenship and kept Indians out of the United States for 40 years.

    The “Hindus” being described by the San Francisco Call in the excerpt above, were in fact mostly Sikhs. It didn’t matter. “Hindus” generally referred to all Indians, who first started to arrive in the United States on the west coast in 1899. While they were primarily Sikhs, many Hindus and Muslims were included as well. India was under British rule at the time, and Punjabis were, in effect, forced to leave in search of better prospects elsewhere. They were being impoverished by a colonial administration that imposed high taxes and forced this agrarian community to grow cash crops rather than food, to benefit the new industries of Great Britain. Punjabis, affected by drought and famine, looked abroad for better prospects. Many joined the British Army. Upon hearing of higher wages in America, several thousand Indians set out to find their fortunes in the US over a period of about 20 years.

    An article in the San Francisco Call on April 6, 1899, described the arrival of four such Indians: “The four Sikhs who arrived on the Nippon Maru the other day were permitted yesterday to land by the immigration officials. The quartet formed the most picturesque group that has been seen on the Pacific Mail dock for many a day. One of them, Bakkshlied (sic) Singh, speaks English with fluency, the others just a little. They are all fine looking men”.

    The Indian immigrants to both the US & Canada (many went by ship to Canada’s Pacific coast) worked primarily as labourers in lumber mills and iron foundries. Many helped build the Western Pacific Railroad lines. Eventually, many Punjabis took up farming in the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial Valleys of Central and Southern California. Between 1899 and 1908, about 150-200 Indians arrived every year. By 1910, a total of 4,713 Indian immigrants had come to America, including those who crossed the border from Canada (this number increased to 6,795 by 1920, by any accounts a small number).

    The initial, bemused reactions to the Indian arrivals soon turned to hostility, discrimination, violence and ultimately exclusionary immigration laws. Resentment toward the primarily labouring classes of Indians (as well as Japanese and Koreans) by the local European immigrant labour unions and leaders led to the formation of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League (renamed the Asiatic Exclusion League in 1907). The stated goal of the Asiatic Exclusion League was to extend the Chinese Exclusion Act to all Asians.

    The Chinese Exclusion Act had prohibited the immigration of Chinese labour since the time it had been signed into law by President Chester Arthur in 1882. The law was repealed only in 1943.

    On 14 May 1907, 67 labour unions including the influential Building Trades Council (BTC) and the Sailors’ Union formed the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League. Based in San Francisco, the objective of the League was to bring about legislation to keep all Asian labour out of the US. Ironically, the leadership of the League were immigrants themselves. Patrick McCarthy, the President of the Building Trades Council, was an immigrant from Ireland and Andrew Furuseth of the Sailors’ Union was from Norway.

    The San Francisco Building Trades Council was one of the most powerful local labour bodies within the American Federation of Labor (AFL), and P.H. McCarthy eventually became the 29th Mayor of San Francisco from 1910 to 1912.

    The first president of the League - Olaf Tveitmoe - was also a Norwegian immigrant and the founding editor of the weekly newspaper, “Organised Labor”, the official organ of the States and Local Building Trades Councils of California. A letter from Olaf A. Tveitmoe, published in the April & May 1906 (combined) edition of the paper he edited - Organised Labor - states the fears and intentions of the League:

    “The Japanese and Korean Exclusion League held its annual meeting Sunday and transacted its regular business as contemplated before the disaster.” (...)

    “Attention was called to the fact that if it had not been for the efforts of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, assisted by United labour, the Foster bill would have passed Congress and thus the Chinese Exclusion Act would have been virtually repealed. It would have thrown down the bars and admitted every Chinaman to our shores who desires to come here. The burden of proof would have devolved on us and thousands of coolies would have found a free entry under the guise of merchants, students and travellers.”

    (...) “The literature and statistics sent out by the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League have done wonderful work in educating the public.”

    “Thousands of fair minded and well meaning people who were biased and ignorant on the question of Japanese immigration have during the last year, entirely changed their views on the subject. They have learned the truth that the Japanese coolie is even a greater menace to the existence of the white race, to the progress and prosperity of our country than is the Chinese coolie. But if there has been danger from Asiatic immigration to our state before, that danger has not lessened now.”

    “On the contrary, it has increased. The great calamity which befell San Francisco will furnish the Orient with lurid tales of opportunity for employment and profit. California, the land of fabulous wealth, revenue and mountains of gold, and San Francisco with its fantastic wages will be exploited before the ignorant coolies until they will come in shiploads like an endless swarm of rats.”

    “Do not for a moment think that the Japanese will keep away on account of the earthquakes. They are raised on earthquakes in Japan, and the earthquake will only make the Nepponese coolies feel more at home in California.”

    “Great as the recent catastrophe has been, let us take care lest we encounter a greater one. We can withstand the earthquake. We can survive the fire.”

    “As long as California is white man’s country, it will remain one of the grandest and best states in the union, but the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited Asiatic coolie invasion, there will be no more California”.

    It was this climate of hostility that eventually led to the riots of 1907 in the town of Bellingham, northwestern Washington. The town was home to nearly 800 members of the Japanese and Korean Exclusion League, and Indian workers, like the Chinese and Japanese before them, were met with hostility and racism. A boomtown in the early 20th century, Bellingham employed hundreds of migrant workers, including many Asian-Indians, in its lumber mills.

    It is estimated that about 250 Indians were working in Bellingham’s lumber mills at the time of the riots.

    On 4 September 1907, about 500 working class white men gathered to drive the Indians out of the city. The riot began when the mob of white men chased and beat two Sikh workers on the street. They eventually went from house to house (boarding houses where they typically lived in groups) and mill to mill to drive the Indians out. That night about 200 or so Indians were rounded up at the City Hall in Bellingham and eventually, in about ten days every single Indian had left the town never to return.

    In retrospect, the coverage of the Indian community in Bellingham newspapers might have tipped off readers to the racial tension that eventually erupted in the riots. On 16 September 1906, an article titled “Have We a Dusky Peril” in a local Bellingham paper, the Puget Sound, lamented:

    “Work is plentiful in the mills. In fact too plentiful and this is responsible for the ease with which the foreigners have found employment. The scarcity of white men has led mills to accept the service of those whom American workers regard as a common enemy. They feel that wages will be reduced if suppressive measures are not taken in the beginning. They argue, also, that the presence of several scores or hundreds of Hindus in Bellingham will act as a brake on the city’s progress. A strong point against them, they say, is that they live cheaply and save their earnings to return to India to spend them”.

    “Keep the Hindus out,” wrote one reader to the editor of the paper. “Their code of morals is bad from our point of view, and if allowed the freedom which they naturally expect in America, they will eventually become troublesome”.

    The narrative on the Indian experience in America focuses almost entirely on the five decades after 1965, when the passage of the Hart-Celler Act, opened the doors to Asians, Latinos, Africans and Southern Europeans, ending the “national origins” quotas that had been in place since 1924.

    Indians revel in their successes in America since the doors opened but completely gloss over the struggles and racism experienced by the first Indians who immigrated. Pioneers like Dalip Singh Saund, who lobbied and fought for citizenship rights for Asians and the struggles of the San Francisco-based Gadar party are all but unknown to the Indian American community. Nor are the Bellingham riots described above, known to Indians.

    But the relative openness of the past five decades may be coming to an end, and as the Trump administration looks to impose limits on the HI- B category, used by a large number of Indians, the door is shutting again - driven as it always has - by the white working class and co-opted politicians.

    Indians scarcely know that the Hart-Celler Act too, though it repudiated many of the restrictions from an earlier era, allowing Indians and others to immigrate to the US after being barred for 40 years, didn’t pass with unequivocal and untempered public support. It’s passage at the time, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, seemed like the right thing to do for a country that was trying to move beyond a racist past. Even its promoters in Congress didn’t foresee the massive changes that it would bring to the demographic composition of the country.

    President Johnson, summed up the sentiments of those who’d promoted the bill in his remarks at the signing ceremony: “This bill that we will sign today is not a sweeping bill. It does not affect the lives of millions”. The Secretary of State predicted that only 8000 immigrants from India were estimated to move to the US in the five years after the bill’s passage!

    Nonetheless, the Hart-Celler Act was a huge step forward from the infamous National Origins Act (1924), also known as the Asian Exclusion Act, which was passed for no other reason but to preserve the current Northern European composition of the US and maintain its homogeneity. An annual quota of 153,700 was established according to a formula based on 2 per cent of the population of each nation of origin by the census of 1890.

    Since ethnic English, Irish and Germans made up most of the US population before 1890 (Southern & Eastern Europeans came later) the countries most favoured by this formula were, of course, Great Britain (43 per cent of the annual quota), Germany (17 per cent) and Ireland (12 per cent). From 1924 to 1965, a period of 40 years, 70 per cent of the immigrants allowed to enter the US were from these three countries alone.

    The National Origins Act passed almost unanimously with only six dissenting votes in the US Senate. Asians were completely barred from entering the US since the National Origins Act also prohibited those nationalities that the US Supreme Court had, in 1923, prohibited from citizenship. In an interview with NPR’s Jennifer Ludden in May 2006, Stephen Klineberg, a sociologist at Rice University remarked "The law was just unbelievable in its clarity of racism. It declared that Northern Europeans are a superior subspecies of the white race. The Nordics were superior to the Alpines, who in turn were superior to the Mediterranean, and all of them were superior to the Jews and the Asians."

    Only a year earlier, in 1923, in a landmark case - United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, the Supreme Court had ruled that Indians were not eligible for citizenship. Much earlier, the 1790 Naturalization Act had provided that only “free white persons” could be naturalised. A concession was made in 1870 to include “persons of African nativity and descent”. The law always made it clear that Asians were to be excluded from naturalisation but some Indians were able to become naturalised by claiming they were Caucasian and white and so eligible. The 1923 verdict by the Supreme Court settled the matter, and the Supreme Court declared that Indians were not white “by the understanding of the common man”.

    The ruling was devastating to Indians, and worse was applied retroactively. Indians who had managed to become naturalised before the judgment now saw their citizenship rescinded. In California, where most Indians resided then, only citizens could own property and as a result of which many Indians - mostly farmers - lost their property. A good number returned home, and the number of Indians in the US dwindled to a few thousand.

    The recent Presidential elections are only the beginning of the pushback on immigrants. Quotas under family reunification provisions are bound to be tightened, and H1-B visas curtailed. The 3 million Indians who call America home, remain destined to be, as they have been, a micro-minority. The Hart-Celler Act of 1965, has heard its death knell.

    Shefali Kaajal Chandan is the editor of Jano (, a new online history magazine for Asian Indian families.

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