When did Indians emigrate to the USA?

The overview - Journal for ecumenical encounters and international cooperation

India: Knowledge as an export hit

Indian computer specialists have been in demand overseas for decades

The recruitment of foreign specialists in the field of information and communication technology is a new step for Germany. In the USA, Canada and Australia, on the other hand, the issuing of visas for sought-after specialists has been practiced for decades. There are many Indians among them.

by Gayathri Vasudevan

Cross-border migration has so far received little attention from economists and politicians in India. Although there is little systematic data collection on this subject, it is widely assumed that there is a continuous brain drain. Already in the first phase, which began in the early 1950s and lasted until the mid-1970s, a significantly higher proportion of skilled workers with technical training and professional qualifications left India for industrialized countries than was the case in previous centuries. At the time, most of the emigrants were unskilled and dispossessed workers. In a 1994 study on international migration, the current Vice Chancellor of the University of Delhi, Deepak Nayyar, found that during this phase qualified workers emigrated mainly to Great Britain, the USA, Canada and, to a lesser extent, to Western Europe and Australia.

A second phase of international migration of Indian labor began in the mid-1970s and peaked in the early 1980s. The destination of these emigrants was mostly the oil exporting countries of the Middle East. In contrast to the first wave of emigration after independence, people who were poorly or not at all qualified emigrated for the most part. The few well-qualified workers found jobs in industry or in offices. According to government statistics, the percentage of migrants with technical and professional qualifications fell from 88 percent in 1971 to 57 percent in 1975. Contrary to the general trend, when emigrating to the industrialized countries, particularly the United States, the technically trained workers were still there always in the plural. According to Deepak Nayyar, 13.4 percent of the highly skilled workers who immigrated to the United States between 1981 and 1990 were from India, although Indians made up only 3.6 percent of all immigrants to the United States during the same period.

While the Middle East continues to be the destination of many Indians, computer specialists have recently preferred to emigrate to industrialized countries, especially the USA, Canada, Australia, Singapore, Germany and the UK. In the late 1990s, they also went, to a lesser extent, to other Western European countries, notably the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Ireland. Migration to Western European countries is a comparatively new trend that is not yet clearly noticeable in these countries. It is attributed to the far-reaching global economic changes in the 1990s, especially the introduction of computer technology in both the manufacturing and service sectors.

The number of Indian immigrants in the US grew from 50,000 in 1970 to 722,000 in 1998. A study carried out by Steven A. Camarota in 1999 for the Center for Immigration Studies indicates that only 6 percent of US-based Indians live below the poverty line. For immigrants from Mexico or the Dominican Republic, this proportion was 31 and 38 percent, respectively, in 1998. The author concludes from this on the professional qualifications of Indian immigrants. It can also be assumed that Indian immigrants are comparatively successful in their jobs because Indian immigrants in the USA do not receive any state social benefits.

The fact that the USA, compared to other industrialized countries, makes it easier for specialists to enter the country and gives them a work permit and residence permit may also contribute to this. In addition, the Immigration Act of 1990 increased the number of visas with work permits from 54,000 previously to 140,000 per year, and this number has increased steadily since then.

Prior to 1990, less than 10 percent of all immigrants came to the United States for their professional qualifications, while approximately 21 percent have since been admitted for these reasons. Highly qualified specialists from India have made particular use of this situation and have increasingly emigrated to the United States.

Skilled workers have always had much better chances of asserting themselves in the US labor market than unskilled or poorly qualified workers. Only in the past few years has this led to a noticeable increase in the number of foreign engineers and scientists on the US labor market. Micro-studies have shown that this highly qualified workforce, mostly engineers, is mainly employed in the expanding and rapidly growing information technology (IT) industry, which was affected by a downturn in the past year.

The effects of the strong growth in the IT sector were first reflected in the new immigration law and are now also being reflected in the Indian share of immigration. 38.5 percent of all immigrants who had come to the United States in the previous years and who were granted permanent residence in 1994 were Indian. The United States also created an admission category called "H-1B non-immigrant" for those on fixed-term contracts in specialized occupations. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (Immigration and Naturalization Service, INS), most immigrants in this category have come from India since 1994: they make up 16 percent of all immigrant workers under H-1B conditions.

Migration from India to Australia has a much longer tradition than emigration to the United States. It goes back to the early 19th century when a large proportion of Sikhs and Muslims from the Punjab immigrated to Australia as agricultural workers and traders. The next major phase of immigration came after the end of World War II and with Indian independence, when English citizens and Anglo-Indians who were born in India immigrated to Australia. As a result of the relaxation of restrictive immigration policies in 1966, the numbers soared. The number of immigrants born in India has grown steadily since then, from 15,754 in 1966 to 41,675 in 1981 and finally to 77,689 in 1996. This means that between 1,500 and 3,100 immigrants arrived in Australia each year. However, immigrants from other countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, China and the Philippines came to Australia in far greater numbers, so that the Indian proportion was comparatively low. According to the 1996 population statistics, of a total of 1,008,327 immigrants, 145,498 were from southern Asia, which is approximately 14 percent of the total Asian population in Australia.

Individuals can apply for a permanent residence permit in Australia based on a number of admission criteria. Indians consistently used either the category of family reunification or that of professional skills. By the late 1980s, the majority of Indians immigrated to Australia through family reunification. A major shift can be seen in the 1990s, when the number of qualified Indians more than doubled compared to family migrants. According to population statistics for the same period, one in three Indian residents holds a university degree and has a median weekly income of A $ 375. That is 28 percent above the average Australian income.

Two interesting conclusions can be drawn from this data. First, the proportion of those who report employment in the IT industry has skyrocketed. According to the Australian government, 17 percent of all Australian businesses have their own computer skills, which includes web designers. Depending on the industry, the proportion of companies with their own computer specialists fluctuates between 10 percent in the construction industry, for personnel and other service providers, and 46 percent in the electricity, gas and water industries. This shows how broadly the need for computer specialists is. The IT industry generated a profit of over 4 billion US dollars in 1995 through exports alone. This sector is at the forefront of the Australian export economy. Australia's information and communications technology exports are now higher than the country's wool and wheat exports and more than double those of the automotive and crude oil industries. So one can guess that the expanding IT sector has taken in large numbers of Indian migrants. Second, it can be assumed with reasonable certainty that only a few Indians from Australia return to their homeland, as the proportion of the highly qualified Indian workforce there is growing steadily and has increased significantly again, especially in recent years.

Another important emigration destination for emigrants from the Commonwealth and former colonies is Great Britain. Immigrants from South Asia, especially from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, have always made up a high percentage of them. In 1991, residents without a British passport made up 7.4 percent of the total UK population. Of these, 5.5 percent belonged to ethnic minorities, the majority of whom were not born in Great Britain.

In 2000, migration researcher Aslan Zorlu compared five major immigrant groups (by British census categories) with native British people in terms of their professional activities: Blacks, Indians, Pakistani / Bangladeshi and those from "various other ethnic minorities". The study found that a relatively high proportion of men and women from India were employed. Indian men only lagged behind white men in terms of the proportion of full-time employees. Although the proportion of Indian women in full-time employment is comparatively lower, it is still more than among groups from Pakistan and Bangladesh and other ethnic minorities. Alongside Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, Indians are among the groups that are primarily employed in the private sector. Among the Indian workers, compared to the other groups, the least physical work is done. In line with this, Indians have the highest average weekly income. In a comparison between the five groups examined, Indian immigrants also show a relatively high proportion of people who can be assigned to the "highly qualified" category.

In Canada, India-born people made up 16 percent of all immigrants in 1991. Until the 1960s, immigrants to Canada came mainly from the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. Immigration from Asian countries rose sharply following changes in the law in the 1970s. Canada's population statistics provide information about the percentage of undergraduate or postgraduate degrees within an immigrant population. In the knowledge-based professions, there was a large increase in immigrants with permanent residence permits from the mid-1980s to 1997. They rose in the computer specialists during this period. fifteen times as much and for engineers ten times as much. In addition, the number of newly hired IT engineers, systems analysts and programmers grew from 124,000 to 163,000. Almost a third of this increase was accounted for by immigrants who only came to the country after 1990. The 1996 statistics show that between 1991 and 1996, 6.9 percent of all immigrants were Indian and that India had the largest contingent of immigrants after Canada after Hong Kong and China. The 1996 data confirms that most engineers with permanent residence permits only recently immigrated.

About 17 percent of those who recently immigrated to Canada from Asia are Indian. In Toronto and Vancouver, their proportion of the population of recent immigrants in Canada is 7.5 and 8.5 percent, respectively. These cities show a high concentration of new economic sectors, in particular information technology is strongly represented. It is therefore very likely that Indian immigrants are primarily responsible for the success of these rapidly growing industries in Canada.

The information technology industry is increasingly gaining a foothold in other industrialized countries. The expansion is, however, slowed by a drastic shortage of qualified workers, which is why many countries are recruiting qualified workers from other countries. India, with its reservoir of well-trained skilled workers, has become an important competitor for other sending countries. This tendency can be seen in the Netherlands, for example, where the number of work permits issued annually for computer scientists from abroad rose to a record 450 in 1999. In Germany and Japan, the upper limit for the number of people who were allowed to immigrate because they could prove that they were employed increased significantly between 1999 and 2001.

In India itself, there are no systematic data on the level and fluctuation of emigration and return of highly qualified skilled workers. Between 1995 and 2000, the Indian IT industry recorded an overall growth of over 42.4 percent. This means that their growth rate is almost twice as high as in many industrialized countries. In 1999 and 2000, more than 65 percent of the Indian IT sector's annual revenues came from the software industry. Significantly, more than 185 companies leave that in the list of business journal Fortune and which includes the 500 largest companies in the world that manufacture their software from Indian producers.

When Indian software manufacturers develop products for export, it usually means that a large part of the customer's work is done overseas and not in India itself. According to Richard Heeks, who has been continuously monitoring the IT sector in India for a long time In 1988, an average of 65 percent of export contracts were done entirely by the customer, while only 35 percent had work processes in India itself. So it can be said that the export of software in particular is ultimately always associated with the temporary emigration of workers from India. Since the export economy, particularly in the software sector, is heavily concentrated in the United States and some markets in Western Europe, most IT specialists inevitably migrate to these countries.

The money transfers from the emigrants to their old homeland are difficult to prove. Between 1974/75 and 1994/95 there was obviously a general increase in private money transfers from abroad. However, the cash flows do not all come from the same regions. In the period from 1974/75 to 1984/85 there was an increase in payments, especially from the Gulf region, while from 1984/85 to 1994/95 the dollar region and the OECD countries showed the highest growth rates. In contrast, the flow of capital from the oil-rich regions fell steadily.

These net private transfers must be interpreted with caution, but it can be assumed with some certainty that the relative increase or decrease has to do with the migration flows between India and the respective countries. If one compares the data on the Indian share of the immigrant population of a country including the recently immigrated persons with the increased or decreased remittances and support contributions from the corresponding regions, this conclusion is obvious. The most significant increases in remittances came from the United States, Great Britain, Canada and Australia - those countries that had a high demand for skilled workers in the recent past.

Attempts to calculate the economic cost of losing human capital are controversial. However, it must be recognized that India, as a developing country, is inevitably disadvantaged when it comes to providing a highly skilled workforce with competitive jobs and appropriate pay. It therefore runs the risk of losing its best minds. Contrary to the general expectation that over time - and especially in connection with the current global downturn in the IT sector - a return migration will set in, cursory estimates show that less than one percent of Indians abroad will return to India forever.

For some time now there have been repeated reports of the development of strong intellectual diaspora communities in India.Although this does not compensate for the mass emigration of highly qualified Indians, these diaspora networks try to strengthen the links between emigrated Indian intellectuals and their homeland in order to involve them in the development process of the country. The most successful of these communities arose in the US Silicon Valley. Outside the USA, similarly strong networks have developed in Vancouver and Toronto (Canada), in Great Britain as well as in Sydney and Melbourne (Australia). Many internet groups offer their advice and support at addresses such as www.return2india.com.

The tendency towards emigration as well as its possible reversal, the associated brain drain and loss of know-how as well as the effects of the diaspora networks can only be meaningfully discussed within the framework of a comprehensive employment policy for highly qualified specialists. Above all, labor market and educational policy would have to be coordinated. Such a policy would also have to take into account the liberalized world economy dominated by aggressive trade interests.


Steven A. Camarota: Immigrants in the United States - 1998. Center for Immigration Studies, Washington 1999.

Deepak Nayyar: Migration, Remittances and Capital Flows. The Indian Experience. Oxford University Press, New Dehli 1994.

Aslan Zorlu: Ethnic Minorities in the UK: Burden or Benefit? Department of Economics, Amsterdam 2000.

Shobhana Ramabadran

An Indian software expert in the USA

Shobhana Ramabadran worked as a software expert at United Media, the subsidiary of a multimedia group headquartered in New York. She is 29 years old with a two year old son and is married to a software expert who works for one of the largest insurance companies in New York. Shobhana has lived in suburban New York, New Jersey, where many Indians have settled for over four years. She received an annual salary of $ 60,000 and her husband has an income of more than $ 100,000 a year.

Before their marriage, Shobhana lived in Gujarat, one of the most economically advanced states in India. She originally comes from Tamil Nadu, where most of the country's engineers and software experts come from. Since she comes from an environment in which training and work are the norm for women, she consciously decided and qualified for a well-paid profession. Therefore, she was still unmarried when she planned to emigrate to the United States.

However, like most unmarried young women in India, her parents did not agree that their daughter wanted to go abroad without a husband. Therefore, she initially worked as a software expert for the company's programs Oracle in a OutsourcingCompany in Gujarat. After her marriage - an alliance arranged by parents and relatives with a software expert - she moved to New York and found thanks to her experience with the widely used Oracleand PowerBuilderPrograms a place. She worked for two and a half years United Media and gave up the job when her son was six months old. It was too much time caring for her child and commuting between New York and New Jersey to work.

When her son was one and a half years old and was placed in a day nursery, she began looking for a job again. At this point, however, the American economy had already entered a recession and the knowledge that was still in demand a year ago was considered obsolete. Today, after a year of looking for a job, she has come to terms with the fact that a year's break in working life in a rapidly changing industry like the software industry is too much. Like many of her compatriots, she is now experiencing that she has to continue her education before she can find a job again. Shobhana is faced with the double challenge of having to combine work and family as a woman without receiving any state support, and at the same time working in an industry in which generational changes take place in extremely short periods of time.

Gayathri Vasudevan

from: the overview 03/2002, page 51


Gayathri Vasudevan:

Gayathri Vasudevan received his PhD from the Institute for Social and Economic Change in Bangalore, India. She prepares studies and project proposals on behalf of the World Bank, the "United Nations Development Program" and the "International Labor Organization".