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Immigration policy is the glue that binds Indian-Americans and the Democratic Party. Through its image as the natural home of immigrants, the Democratic Party has continued to win the Indian-American vote, even as its initiatives on issues ranging from taxes to healthcare to education have increasingly worked against the interests of the Indian-American community. The current debate on immigration reform however could break the half-century alliance between Indian-Americans and the Democratic Party. It has given rise to a reformist faction of the Republican Party whose values are more consistent with those of today’s Indian-American community.
The Democratic Party won Indian-American sympathies during the immigration debates of the 1960s. Co-sponsored by congressional Democrats and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 replaced national origins quotas with a system favoring skills and family reunification. The landmark legislation facilitated the arrival of over half a million Indian emigrants within three decades of the law’s passage. Today, many naturalized Indian-Americans remain Democrats in appreciation of the party’s Hart-Celler immigration legacy. According to a 2012 Pew Poll, 65% of Indian-Americans identify with the Democratic Party compared to just 18% on the Republican side, making Indian-Americans more aligned with the Democratic Party than any East Asian group.
Indian-American loyalty to the Democratic Party, however, has come at a growing price. Through their academic achievement, success in small business, and heavy representation in industries such as healthcare, Indian-Americans have become the wealthiest minority group in the country. In 2010, Indian-Americans had a median household income of $88,000 compared to the national average of $49,800. These realities hardly make the Indian-American community a natural constituency for the Democracy Party.
A Price to Pay
Consider the consequences of ObamaCare. Indian-American small businessmen, who own nearly half of the country’s motels and convenience stores, are now contending with higher taxes and burdensome employer health insurance requirements. Indian-American physicians and surgeons—who comprise nearly 10% of the nation’s doctors—face rising malpractice insurance premiums, ever-increasing paperwork, and anticipated Medicare reimbursement cuts.
And ObamaCare is only one element of a broader Democratic agenda aimed at expanding the size of government. Redistributive federal entitlements benefit neither the 60% of Indian-Americans employed in top managerial positions, nor young Indian-American professionals just beginning their careers.
The Pressure of Affirmative Action
The Democratic Party’s economic agenda may concern only high-earners. But its approach to race relations harms Indian-Americans of all socio-economic backgrounds.
On the assumption that racial disparities can be addressed through greater access to higher education, the Democratic Party has championed affirmative action policies that prize certain types of diversity. Racial preferences have merits. But affirmative action undercuts returns on the substantial investments Indian-Americans make in academic achievement.
In competitions such as the Intel science fair or National Spelling Bee where Indian-Americans have excelled, contestants succeed or fail entirely on their individual abilities. In universities that practice affirmative action by contrast, applicants are judged by different standards depending on their race. Due to de facto racial quotas inherent in affirmative action policies, Indian-American must outperform competitors of different races with similar credentials. As a 2009 study by sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford determined, Asian-American students needed significantly higher SAT scores than their White, African-American, and Latino peers to gain admission at several elite colleges.
The Social Agenda
Some argue that it is not immigration, but rather, the G.O.P.’s social agenda that accounts for Indian-American voting patterns. It is true that the Republican Party’s lack of appeal among Indian-Americans is related to the party’s broader difficulties in winning highly-educated urban voters who feel alienated by the religious right. But this explanation only goes so far. Behind the often Christianized rhetoric of the Republican Party is a message consistent with the conservative social values of Indian-Americans.
The current debate on immigration reform could portend a shift in the Indian-American vote. In advocating on behalf of highly-skilled immigrants—the most pertinent aspect of the debate for Indian-Americans—the G.O.P. has actually been the more proactive party.
Democratic agitation against outsourcing to India—a staple of President Obama’s campaign rhetoric—has posed the greatest obstacle to reforms that would remove the 20,000-limit on U.S. advanced degree H-1B visas, and exempt foreign students who earn U.S. graduate degrees in science, technology, and mathematics (“STEM”) from the employment-based green card cap.
Despite representing a state with over 188,000 Asian-Indians, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois led the effort to impose punitive measures on companies that rely heavily on educated foreign workers.
A New Generation of Leaders
A new generation of Republican leaders has proven the strongest advocates of highly-skilled immigrants. It was Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, for example, who kept Durbin’s proposals out of the so-called Gang of Eight bill—now the most likely vehicle for bipartisan immigration reform. Rubio and his Republican allies made the sensible point that Durbin’s proposal would penalize American companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google for filling more than 30% of their workforces with H-1B visa holders.
The Republican case for merit-based reform is part of a broader shift in the G.O.P. Anti-immigrant sentiments of the past are being excised from the party. Even conservative hardliners on border security, like the Heritage Foundation, have endorsed proposals to ease restrictions on educated immigrants who will contribute to the country’s economic dynamism.
Republican reformers, in short, are rallying around the values of economic freedom and equal opportunity that the Indian-American community embodies. Should reformers prevail in the Republican civil war, immigration will no longer pull Indian-Americans away from a party that otherwise advances their interests.
An Indian-American shift toward the Republican Party will amplify the community’s political influence. By voting lockstep with the Democratic Party, Indian-Americans are often ignored or taken for granted due to their small absolute numbers relative to other minority groups. But if the community shows that it is open-minded to a Republican Party intent on broadening its appeal, the Indian-American vote, concentrated in presidential swing states, will become an enticing target in coming elections.
Keerthika M. Subramanian is a corporate and securities lawyer at Sullivan & Cromwell LLP currently on secondment at Barclays PLC.
A student at Yale Law School, Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in the George W. Bush Administration, where he worked on the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Agreement.
The authors welcome comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Despite representing a state with over 188,000 Asian-Indians, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois is leading the effort to impose punitive measures on companies dependent on educated foreign workers.