Indian Influx


Explosion of Indian Population Changes Face of Local Immigration

Just call them the overlooked immigrants. The heated debate over the surge in the country’s Latino population has spread to the D.C. area, especially in Northern Virginia, where local authorities have been cracking down on mostly Hispanic illegal immigrants. And for years, the region’s Ethiopian populace, which is the largest outside of Ethiopia itself, has been highlighted and talked about in and out of the city. But over the past decade, another subset has experienced a far less-noticed but equally steady growth — immigrants hailing from India.

According to the latest American Community Survey released by the U.S. Census Bureau this summer, Indians are second only to El Salvadorians in the region’s immigrant population. As of 2007, more than 100,000 Indians had moved in. Demographers say this increase has been relatively recent, coinciding with the overall immigrant growth over the last few years. In fact, as of a year ago, an astounding one out of every five residents in the Washington area was born outside the country.

India’s role in this shift is not surprising, experts say. “Immigrants from India tend to be one of the most highly skilled anywhere. This region demands high-skilled workers, which distinguishes us from other areas of the country,” said Brookings Institution senior fellow Audrey Singer, who in the spring co-authored a book on the nation’s immigration trends. “We’ve got a knowledge-based economy. We have a lot of high-skilled, high-tech workers and many of them are immigrants.”

Given their professional and educational backgrounds, it’s no surprise that Indian Americans tend to rank at the top of various social indicators. For instance, according to the 2000 U.S. Census (the last year for which information was available), Indian Americans have the highest educational qualifications of all national origin groups in the United States. About 64 percent have attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 28 percent for the overall U.S. population.

That’s likely why Indians also earn a higher median income than any group in this country — ,0000 — surpassing the median income of whites, other Asians, blacks and Hispanics.

A more recent November 2006 article in the Washington Post confirmed these impressive statistics, noting that: “About eight in 10 have college degrees, a higher proportion than for whites and other Asians. About seven in 10 are in professional and managerial jobs. And there are more than 8,300 Indian-owned businesses in the region.”

And as these workers establish themselves professionally, they often sponsor other family members from abroad to join them here, further boosting their presence.

In 2003, Brookings scholars mapped these immigrant patterns and found that most Indians live outside of D.C., dispersed in the suburbs of the region, with a slight preference toward Maryland. Jobs are the reason for these preferences.

In fact, Montgomery County, Md., officials have begun to lead trade missions to India in an effort to attract Indian businesses to their county. Incidentally, this strategy is also being used across the river in Annandale, Va., to spur business growth among Korean immigrants — which rank closely behind their Indian counterparts. (According to Singer’s analysis, Koreans represent 5 percent of the region’s immigrants to India’s 6 percent.)

Along with starting up various businesses, Indians have also stepped into the political arena to gain clout commiserate with their increased numbers. As a result, prominent American-Indian lobbying groups have set up shop in Washington, such as the U.S.-India Business Council, which helped lobby for a landmark U.S.-India civilian nuclear agreement that passed in October. Others are playing a more direct role in influencing the political landscape, such as Republican Gov. Piyush “Bobby” Jindal of Louisiana, the first elected Indian-American governor in U.S. history.

The fact that Indians have pumped wealth and business into the area’s economy may be one factor why the influx has not attracted the same kind of negative attention as the growth in the Hispanic community, which tends to occupy lower-paying, manual jobs and has come under fire by critics for increasing crime and straining social services.

But the Indian explosion hasn’t gone unnoticed either. As India’s foothold in the Washington region has increased, so have the number of businesses and organizations serving residents of Indian descent. Specialty restaurants and religious temples have sprouted up throughout the area, along with a number of associations looking to tap this burgeoning market.

For example, the Network of South Asian Professionals, which began in 1995, now boasts more than 5,000 members and 10,000 to 12,000 unique visitors each month to its Web site, Association President Suchin Adhlakha said the idea is to create networking and business opportunities for members, many of them Indian, who tend to skew toward the younger side, with an average age of 27. “They’re often new to the city,” he said. “The highest percentage are IT or in consulting … you’ll also have the medical student from Omaha who wanted to do their residency here.”

The D.C. region’s Netsap chapter is one of 23 nationally. Pretty much all of the chapters are in metropolitan centers, where Indian and other South Asian immigrants tend to cluster. Besides networking, members can also take part in professional development workshops and a handful of events geared toward the arts.

One of the biggest of these is an annual South Asian theater festival done in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution that regularly attracts several hundred attendees, according to Adhlakha. “People are finding us,” he said. “We do know that people are looking for that something or another to bridge that gap, and we try to be that.”

Another group in the region catering to the Indian population, the Academy of Indian Culture and Arts (AICA), is more focused on directly promoting the arts. Academy President Tapan Rath, who moved to the area from the Bay area in California, founded the effort as a way of fostering a more culturally aware community.

Classes at the AICA site in Sterling, Va., for instance, range from teaching dance traditions like Kathak — a classical solo narrative discipline that is the national dance of Pakistan — to musical instruments such as the Indian sitar.

More than 100 students are currently enrolled, with the majority between 4 and 8 years old from families that live in Loudoun County, Va., according to Rath. “It’s really a wonderful extracurricular activity for them,” he said, “a diversion from their regular day to day to learn about their culture.”

Even larger D.C.-based arts organizations have tapped into this phenomenon as well. For instance, the recent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery exhibition “Garden and Cosmos: The Royal Paintings of Jodhpur” (see review in last month’s issue of The Washington Diplomat) capped off a yearlong “Inspired by India” series of events co-sponsored by the Smithsonian on the National Mall.

About the Author

Dena Levitz is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.