Redefining The Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston during the Cold War

The following is an excerpt from Uzma Quraishi’s Redefining The Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston during the Cold War, winner of the 2021 Theodore Saloutos Book Prize. Remember to enter promo code 01DAH40 at checkout for 40% off any UNC Press book!

In the 1950s, a small number of immigrants and college students from India and Pakistan began arriving in the United States for employment either via the McCarran-Walter Act (1952) or to pursue higher education at American universities. Later, with passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a relatively select group of Indians and Pakistanis applied for U.S. admission under the act’s third or sixth preferences: those with exceptional ability or professionals and skilled laborers in short supply. The spouses and children of resident aliens entered the country under family reunification, the second preference of the act. Thus, the confluence of South Asians’ technological preparedness and the loosening of U.S. immigration restrictions, as well as the South Asian and American need for skilled labor, were crucial in accelerating rates of immigration to the United States. A lesser known source of this migration stream was the explicit pro-American public diplomacy conducted in India and Pakistan beginning in the early Cold War years. As Indians and Pakistanis completed their education at American universities, they searched for receptive labor markets in major U.S. cities, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston. By the 1970s, they found Houston to be an employment magnet, especially in engineering, and many settled in the city, laying the foundations for growing Indian and Pakistani communities. Many students remained in or soon returned to the United States to fill the demands of the labor market.

Their success after migration, however, was contingent on factors more complex than educational pedigree. Through their neighborhood residential patterns, public school selection, appeals to class conformity, and racial calculations, South Asian immigrants used their material wealth to position themselves strategically to gain the maximum privileges associated with whiteness. They also sought to create social and physical distance between themselves and other racialized, marginalized groups: African Americans and Latino/as. Simultaneously, they negotiated thick Indian or Pakistani identities and, perhaps more interestingly, a pan–South Asian identity. I call this narrower form of panethnicity “interethnicity,” wherein immigrants willingly overlooked premigration national antagonisms, religious differences, and language barriers in order to create community in diaspora. The benefits of the selective nature of immigration policy and South Asians’ entry as skilled professionals and university students both materialized quickly and accrued over time. The economic and social wages enjoyed by South Asian immigrants, unlike whites, however, were complicated by immigrants’ own racialization in southern American society.

The narrative arc of this post–World War II Indian and Pakistani immigration history to the United States begins with the formation of migration linkages among the South Asian middle classes, follows with the immigration of education-oriented South Asians, and ends with their incorporation into class and race hierarchies in a transitional Jim Crow city. The origins of this migration stream can be located in prewar, middle-class British India and a changing postwar world, in which the American and Soviet governments sought to broaden their spheres of influence and power in the Third World. Extensive Cold War public diplomacy programs in India and Pakistan targeted the middle classes, generating fresh interest in visiting and studying in the United States. Domestically, Cold War priorities recast long-reviled and excluded Asian Americans and immigrants as a new model minority.

Uzma Quraishi is assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University.