South Asian Immigration in the United States: A Gendered Perspective

Article excerpt

At the best of times, immigrants are viewed with suspicion by host societies. In recent years, however, public discourse on immigration has acquired particularly negative undertones, with surveillance as the central narrative. Leaning heavily on identification and deportation of undocumented immigrants, U.S. policy has held a significant anti-immigrant bias over the last decade. In the midst of this divisive rhetoric, it is easy to lose track of the strengths of immigration and its contribution to nation building.

Migrants, by definition, move "to another country or region to better their material or social conditions and improve prospects for themselves or their family" (International Organization for Migration 2011a). The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that there were 214 million international migrants worldwide in 2011, up from an estimated 150 million in 2001 (International Organization for Migration n.d.). Although there are numerous reasons for these heightened levels of human migration, a major one is globalization and the resulting incentives and ease of mobility of labor from lower- to higher-wage countries.

This article presents an analysis of South Asian immigration as it impacts women. Comprised of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, South Asia encompasses a diverse landscape of language, religion, race, and a multitude of other identity lines. Despite these differences, social and cultural similarities bring the people of this region together as a unified whole and allow U.S. public policy to treat this region as a bloc. Yet, men and women experience immigration in very different ways. Women face unique challenges that are often exacerbated by unintended consequences of immigration policies and practices. Activist organizations like Manavi have grown to address these imbalances, and landmark legislation like the United States' Violence Against Women Act have helped restore some rights to women immigrants. What is critically needed, however, is a reframing of the conversation. Women need to be viewed as primary immigrants in the same way as men, not as dependents or derivatives of men.


According to the 2010 Census, there are 3.4 million South Asians living in the United States today (U.S. Census Bureau 2010). Although South Asian immigration into the United States began around the turn of the twentieth century, the major waves of South Asian immigrants came after the passage of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, or the Hart-Cellar Act. This legislation brought in a cadre of highly skilled South Asian laborers to meet shortages of certain professions in the United States. The Hart-Cellar Act replaced the previous quota system based on national origin preferences with a new system based on the principles of family reunification and special occupational skills. This legislation allowed a large influx of South Asian professionals such as engineers and doctors. These were mainly male immigrants who were given entry on temporary professional visas called H1B. They could sponsor their spouses and children on dependent visas called H4. Even today, a large number of South Asians enter the United States on these visas.


Immigration policy in the United States has historically been male-centric, built upon primary entry for males and secondary entry for females, who are generally wives and fiancees. Before the mid-nineteenth century, a woman's legal status in the United States was generally based on the principle of coverture, under which a married woman's legal rights were merged into those of her husband. Her rights were not seen as separate from those of her husband. She could not own property or sign contracts. Much to the contrary, "the husband was granted all power over his wife and children" (Abraham 2000). Although the legal system's gender imbalance has gradually been addressed with women's activism, immigration law still remains profoundly influenced by the principal of coverture (Abraham 2000). …