Politics & Policy

Indian Americans, Don’t Let the Democratic Party Take Your Support for Granted

Bobby Jindal at a Republican Leadership Conference event in 2015. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Indian Americans should take a close look at the platforms of GOP congressional candidates.

The Indian-American community tends to overwhelmingly favor the Democratic party. In a recent poll, 65 percent of Indian Americans viewed the Democrats favorably, whereas only 18 percent had favorable opinions of the Republicans. In the last election, the share of Indian Americans voting for President Obama was an overwhelming majority, 84 percent — more than Obama’s share of Hispanics or women.

Part of the reason for this trend, no doubt, is that the Democrats have been enormously successful in presenting themselves as the party of the minorities. The perception that Democrats are the pro-immigrant party is robust. Republicans, on the other hand, are seen as the anti-immigration force in American politics. If you are an immigrant from a minority background, then, you’re supposed to vote Democrat.

Yet it’s not obvious that the Democrats have made a meaningful effort to represent the interests of the Indian community in recent history. In fact, many of the policies that the party has fought to keep in place systemically disadvantage people of Indian origin living in America.

On the issue of immigration, for example, the Democrats have repeatedly refused to consider any reforms unless they were part of a package deal granting a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The immigration system in its present form, however, places unreasonable burdens on Indian workers when compared with those of other nationalities.

For instance, the U.S. currently employs a country-based quota system for specific immigration categories. Under the current regulations, no country may receive more than 7 percent of the permanent-residence visas, or “green cards,” within either the family-based or employment-based categories.

At first glance, this may sound like a good idea for ensuring diversity in the immigrant pool. But in practice, the system merely rewards countries for being small. Larger countries — India, for example, with its population of 1.25 billion people — naturally send more immigrants to the U.S. and thus run up against the per-country limit faster.

What this means in practice for Indian workers looking to settle in the U.S. is that the wait periods from the time they receive a job offer to the time they are able to receive a green card are extremely long. They vary over time, but for Indians the wait period is more than ten years! Applicants from smaller countries, on the other hand, are able to receive permanent residence status more or less immediately if they have an employer who is willing to sponsor them.

As a direct consequence of this policy, many Indian Americans who have suffered through the process themselves have friends and relatives who have been stuck in immigration limbo for more than a decade. While they are waiting for their green cards, such applicants must obtain a H1-B visa to remain in the U.S. That visa has its own lottery system, so many are forced to leave the country. The regulations also give employers an inordinate amount of power over the visa holders, because it’s not easy to switch employers or remain legally in the U.S. if you’re laid off.

A bill to eliminate these country quotas for employment-based immigration was introduced in 2011 by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah). The bill passed the Republican-majority House, but unfortunately, the Democrat-controlled Senate did not take it up.

In a similar vein, the House in 2012 passed a bill to replace the green-card lottery with a program to grant permanent-residence visas to holders of advanced degrees in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) from American universities. This would have enormously benefited the many Indian students pursuing such degrees in the U.S. And the bill would have abolished the lottery program, which is unavailable to people born in India (as well as other countries with big populations) and brings in a large pool of unskilled workers with virtually no previous ties to the U.S. The Democratic-majority Senate blocked this piece of immigration-reform legislation as well.

Another issue with respect to which the Democratic platform fails to represent Indian American interests is affirmative action in undergraduate admissions. Researchers have found that race-based affirmative-action policies, in their current form, significantly disadvantage Asian Americans relative to any other racial category.

Sociologists Thomas J. Epenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford of Princeton University have shown that, all else being equal, an Asian-American applicant to an elite college must score 140 points higher on the SAT, out of 1600, than her white counterpart to have an equal chance of admission. (The gap with respect to other racial categories is even larger: 270 points relative to Hispanics and 450 relative to African Americans.) Epenshade and Radford find that if affirmative action were based on socioeconomic status rather than race, the share of Asian students admitted to elite universities would rise substantially.

Indeed, this is what has taken place in California. In 1996, voters passed Proposition 209, which amended the state’s constitution to ban public universities from using racial preferences in admissions. As a result, the share of Asian Americans within the University of California system has increased, most dramatically at UC Berkeley. California’s Democratic politicians, however, have consistently opposed the law.

These particular issues aside, is there any respect in which the Democratic party is more welcoming to racial minorities, and therefore to Indian Americans? Recent electoral history seems to suggest otherwise. The two most prominent Indian-American politicians — Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, and Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina – are both Republicans. Furthermore, the Republicans fielded several minority candidates, including Jindal, in the most recent presidential primaries. The perception that Democrats are the party of the minorities may owe more to branding than to facts.

#related#Despite all of these concerns, however, many Indian voters may still find good reasons to favor the Democrats overall. Indeed, for many people, the Republican presidential nominee this time around is an unacceptable choice. But the presidential race is not the only one that matters. Indian Americans, even if they vote for Hillary Clinton, ought to take a close look at the platforms of Senate and House candidates from both parties.

Moreover, they ought to hold their current Democratic representatives in Congress accountable, making them more responsive to the concerns and interests of the community. With a population of roughly 3 million and growing, Indian Americans are in a position to significantly influence electoral outcomes in several districts. Let’s not allow the Democratic party to take us for granted.


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