Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States

Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States

by Monisha Das Gupta

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Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States by Monisha Das Gupta

In Unruly Immigrants, Monisha Das Gupta explores the innovative strategies that South Asian feminist, queer, and labor organizations in the United States have developed to assert claims to rights for immigrants without the privileges or security of citizenship. Since the 1980s many South Asian immigrants have found the India-centered “model minority” politics of previous generations inadequate to the task of redressing problems such as violence against women, homophobia, racism, and poverty. Thus they have devised new models of immigrant advocacy, seeking rights that are mobile rather than rooted in national membership, and advancing their claims as migrants rather than as citizens-to-be. Creating social justice organizations, they have inventively constructed a transnational complex of rights by drawing on local, national, and international laws to seek entitlements for their constituencies.

Das Gupta offers an ethnography of seven South Asian organizations in the northeastern United States, looking at their development and politics as well as the conflicts that have emerged within the groups over questions of sexual, class, and political identities. She examines the ways that women’s organizations have defined and responded to questions of domestic violence as they relate to women’s immigration status; she describes the construction of a transnational South Asian queer identity and culture by people often marginalized by both mainstream South Asian and queer communities in the United States; and she draws attention to the efforts of labor groups who have sought economic justice for taxi drivers and domestic workers by confronting local policies that exploit cheap immigrant labor. Responding to the shortcomings of the state, their communities, and the larger social movements of which they are a part, these groups challenge the assumption that citizenship is the necessary basis of rights claims.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822338987
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 10/31/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Monisha Das Gupta is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawai’i.

Read an Excerpt

Unruly Immigrants

Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3898-7

Chapter One

Terms of Belonging

In October 1994 at Boston's Northeastern University a group of South Asian students organized a forum titled "Shades of Brown." An organization to which I belonged, South Asian Women for Action (SAWA), had been invited to the forum, and I volunteered to attend along with another SAWA member. We arrived at the event expecting to discuss our gendered experiences of the value placed on skin color by our families and communities. As feminists, we were eager to hear from other South Asian women, especially those who, like my SAWA friend, had grown up in the United States.

To our surprise, the forum generated a heated debate about the image in the United States of South Asians as model minorities-that is, people of color who had been portrayed as being successful in the United States because of their cultural values and their determination to work hard. The image seemed to appeal to many participants, most of whom were from the area's elite universities. Most followed in the footsteps of their professional parents, preparing for careers in medicine, law, or the sciences. These students saw a number of merits in being stereotyped"positively." Wasn't it better to be a model minority than a demonized one? One student confessed that she liked being complimented on her long dark hair and burnished skin. Emboldened, another participant explained that the model minority image could and did inspire South Asian youths to be better than their white peers. The image provided him with an incentive to preserve South Asian values, which he felt fueled the group's success in the United States.

A few of us in the room strenuously disagreed. Buying into the model minority image, we argued, erased those South Asian immigrant experiences that deviate from this myth of success. A Northeastern University student pointed out that some South Asian students on that very campus were the children of motel owners. For them, the model minority image had been elusive. My friend and I, as community representatives, talked about how the image pitted South Asians against African Americans and Latina/os, thereby impairing our chances to build alliances with them when doing progressive issue based work.

At one point, a dark-skinned Harvard medical student burst out: "I'd rather be a model minority than have a white woman passing me clutch her purse." For a minute, we all sat there speechless. Pulsing in the room was his desire to deracinate himself; to distance himself from a loaded history of racialized, sexualized, and gendered constructions of criminality; to somehow escape the treatment meted out routinely to young black men and sometimes to inner-city South Asian youth-as SAWA members knew from their brothers' brushes with the criminal justice system. My friend and I glanced at each other across the room. We had to intervene. But confronting South Asian racism toward other minority groups, couched in such pleas as this young man's, was not easy. The conversation petered out. Walking out into the dusk on Huntington Avenue, I wondered how we South Asians had come to be wedged between blacks and whites. And what enabled some of us in that room to resist the model minority image and others to hide behind it?

At this time as part of my research I was looking at a 1976 testimony to the U.S. Congress by a representative of the Association of Indians in America (AIA) who requested the addition of a separate category in the census for immigrants of Indian ancestry. The document struck me as extraordinary in that it represented these immigrants' ungainly wrestling with U.S. racial categories. As such, it disturbed me greatly; in those pages I heard the echoes of the Harvard student's simultaneous awareness of and retreat from race. In my role as an activist in the 1990s in the process of reconceptualizing my identity as a woman of color and collectively framing anti-racist South Asian politics, I wanted to connect the two moments to understand the processes that racialized South Asians. Thus began an excavation. I pored over government documents -congressional hearings, censuses, interagency and Civil Rights Commission reports, notices in the Federal Register, and circulars from the Office of Management and Budget. I tracked down the AIA testifier, Manoranjan Dutta, and conducted multiple phone interviews with him to grasp the urgencies that informed the AIA's framing of race and rights.

Between 1975 and 1979 the AIA, committed to fostering habits of good citizenship among newly arrived immigrants, mobilized certain sections to confront race- and nationality-based discrimination in their new home. Many immigrants were both puzzled and outraged at their first encounter with discrimination. In India, they had been the beneficiaries of full citizenship on account of their class, caste, and, in some cases, male privilege. Their unequal treatment in the United States, they felt, relegated them to second-class citizenship. For them, full citizenship meant equality in the political sphere and in the realm of rights. Their treatment in their new homeland as abstract liberal citizens would mean that particularities of race, color, gender, and national origin could not interfere with their enjoyment of rights. Consequently, the immigrants embarked on a campaign to demand protection against their mistreatment.

Safeguards against the forms of discrimination they faced were ensured by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the implementation of which explicitly tied group rights to racial categorization. On finding out that U.S. residents from the "Indian subcontinent" had been classified as white in the 1970 census, some immigrants campaigned to see themselves as a separate group in the 1980 census and thus officially be recognized as a minority. At no time before the 1970 census were immigrants of Indian descent in the United States categorized as white.

The AIA-driven redesignation of these immigrants as nonwhites in the 1980 census has been mischaracterized as a moment when they were converted into "instant ethnics" who gained access to minority rights (Espiritu 1992, 126); or as a case of mistaken identity (Fisher 1980, 129); or as an example of the political expediency of this new group, which quickly learned to manipulate group rights (Helweg and Helweg 1990, 155). In this chapter, I offer a rereading of the legal-bureaucratic minoritization through the lens of race, rights, and citizenship-three historically shaped and tightly intertwined categories (see Glenn 2002; Kerber 1997; Lowe 1996). What emerges from my analysis of congressional hearings, census categories, and government documents on racial and ethnic classification in the 1970s reveals a messy process, which paradoxically interfered with rather than enhanced the immigrants' claims to full citizenship. The black and white paradigm of race, race relations, and civil rights in the United States-unfamiliar to the new immigrants-was largely responsible for the complications. In the United States, black and white histories and experiences continue to provide the yardstick against which all experiences of racial oppression and privilege are measured, thereby obscuring the many modes through which groups entering the United States are in fact racialized (Aguilar-San Juan 1994; Martinez 1998; Moran 1998; Okihiro 1994; Omi and Takagi 1998; Ong 2000; Shah 1994).

The paradigm demanded that the new immigrants of Indian descent establish their rights claims through examining their closeness to or distance from the two dominant categories, white and black. The immigrants had to consider whether they were actually white, since they were contesting their assignment to that category. Entrapped in the incoherence that underlies racial thinking and the racial classification system itself, as well as their own ambivalence about racialization, the immigrants, despite their efforts to take control of the process, accepted their liminal place in the racial order.

The AIA's participation in the black-white racial logic of the state, as well as its belief in liberal democracy as elite postcolonials who had been served well by its principles in India, limited the political possibilities of that moment to place taking. The acceptance of racially ambiguous terms of belonging to the U.S. national body led to a troubling indeterminacy about the status of South Asians as minorities and their entitlement to civil rights protection. Racial ambiguity meant that the immigrants' admission to full citizenship rested on not being reliant on group rights (such as affirmative action) or welfare protections for which they had fought. Such a paradox interfered with recognizing the racism directed at South Asians, the legitimacy of South Asian rights claims, and the ability of South Asian immigrants to form alliances with other U.S. minorities on the basis of their day-to-day experiences of discrimination.

Historical Context: Of Race and Rights

In order to establish the relationship between race, rights, and citizenship, I begin by connecting two seemingly disparate periods-the pre-World War II era when immigrants from the British colony of India were excluded from U.S. citizenship and the post-1965 chapter when immigrants from partitioned and independent nations in South Asia were eligible to enter the United States and, in due course, apply for naturalization. In both periods, race was salient in determining what rights the immigrants could enjoy. Early-twentieth-century Indian immigrants, like other Asian immigrants before them, found their rights greatly curtailed when they were denied citizenship on the grounds that they were not white. In the post-1965 period, a new wave of immigrants, though eligible for formal citizenship, had to establish their minority racial status to become entitled to group rights that would protect them from institutional discrimination.

Until 1923, Indian immigrants seeking to naturalize as U.S. citizens argued that they were Caucasian and, therefore, white. This claim to whiteness was a way for them to access rights, and most U.S. courts accepted the argument. By relying on a combination of ethnological arguments and interpretations of the legislative intent of the 1790 law that restricted naturalization to a "free white person," the courts ruled that South Asians were white because they were Caucasians and, therefore, naturalizable (Haney-López 1996; Jensen 1988). In 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark case denied a Japanese national, Takao Ozawa, American citizenship by arguing that the court understood that "white" was synonymous with "Caucasian" (Haney-López 1996, 85). But in 1923, the court reversed its understanding in Bhagat Singh Thind's case when it decreed that not all Caucasians were white, thereby disqualifying Indians from whiteness and citizenship. Now classified as aliens ineligible for citizenship, Indians joined Chinese and Japanese immigrants. The ruling came amid the escalating xenophobia that had already succeeded in putting in place an Asiatic barred zone in the 1917 Pacific Immigration Act that excluded immigrants from British India. The Thind ruling had immediate effects on the immigrants' rights. California lost no time in applying to South Asians its alien land law (which was passed in 1913, amended in 1920, and already governing Japanese immigrants) and began to deny South Asians licenses to marry white women under its anti-miscegenation law (Chan 1991, 47, 95; Jensen 1988, 259; Leonard 1985). Between 1923 and 1927, sixty-five South Asians were denaturalized-among whom were men who had won their citizenship after years of litigation (Jensen 1988, 264).

While the court ruled that Indians, regardless of whether they were Caucasian, did not enter popular understandings of "white," it did not specify what sort of nonwhites they were. They could not be deemed black. Legally, that category referred to native-born persons of African descent who were citizens under the fourteenth amendment. Within the black-white framework, then, early Indian immigrants were racialized as a group that was neither white nor black so that they could be deprived of rights enjoyed by whites and formally granted to blacks-who could not, however, exercise them in practice in the Jim Crow South. These race-based denials of rights continued until 1946. That year, despite some opposition, residents of Indian descent in the United States were made eligible for citizenship in recognition of British India's efforts in World War II.

In the four decades following Thind, the census consistently categorized Indians as nonwhite but kept changing the group's nomenclature. Tracking the changes in the categories specified in the census race question reveals how this legal-bureaucratic process reconstructed race. Indians appeared in the census of both 1920 and 1930 as "Hindu" and were counted under "All other" races (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1921, 29, table 1 n.1; 1933, 32, table 4 n.1). Rather than referring to religion, "Hindu" in public discourse was a racialized term that implied that these immigrants were backward and unassimilable-in short, the irreducible racial other (Haney-López 1996, 87-88, 93; Leonard 1992, 24). The 1940 census listed "Hindu" separately along with Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1943, 5, table 1). After 1940, the term "Hindu" lost its currency until 1960. The 1950 U.S. census summary (1953) made no reference to Indian immigrants. But the 1950 California census, in its definition of "race and color," replaced "Hindu" with "Asiatic Indians" and counted them among "all other" races (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1952). The U.S. 1960 summary (1964, xlii) in its definition of terms called immigrants of Indian descent "Asian Indians," and stated that they would fall under the residual category of " 'all other' races." The term "Hindu" reappeared in the Census Bureau's instruction to enumerators in an attempt to distinguish "Asian Indians" from Native Americans. The instructions read: "Indians-For persons originating in India (except those of European stock), mark 'Other' and specify as 'Hindu.' If there is an entry of 'Indian' on the Advanced Census Report be sure you know whether the person is an American Indian or an Asian Indian" (1964, cxiii). In 1965 Congress lifted racial quotas imposed on immigration. This event inaugurated a new period of inflow that overwhelmingly came from Asia, with India being a top sending country.

The 1970 census departed from all previous censuses by counting immigrants of Indian descent under "white." This reassignment from nonwhite to white at a moment when the state was installing measures to protect minoritized groups from the discrimination they historically faced blocked the new immigrants' access to new civil rights provisions like affirmative action. The definition of terms in the 1970 U.S. census summary specified that "persons who did not classify themselves in one of the specific race categories on the questionnaire but entered Mexican, Puerto Rican or a response suggesting Indo-European stock" (1973, app. 15; emphasis mine) were to be reassigned to the category "white." This recategorization erased the decades-long history of race-based discrimination against Indian immigrants, galvanizing the AIA into action. By 1970, immigrants from India and other South Asian countries formed a critical mass for self-advocacy. The number of "Asian Indians" admitted to the United States had jumped from 1,973 between 1951 and 1960 to 27,189 between 1961 and 1970 in the wake of the 1965 immigration amendments (Gall and Gall 1993, 411, table 515).


Excerpted from Unruly Immigrants by MONISHA DAS GUPTA Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


INTRODUCTION: Encounters....................27
CHAPTER 1: Terms of Belonging....................56
CHAPTER 2: Contests over Culture....................82
CHAPTER 3: Law and Oppression....................109
CHAPTER 4: "Owning Our Lives": Women's Organizations....................159
CHAPTER 5: Subverting Seductions: Queer Organizations....................208
CHAPTER 6: "Know Your Place in History": Labor Organizations....................255
Works Cited....................299

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