This essay is a review of:
Unruly Immigrants: Rights, Activism, and Transnational South Asian Politics in the United States
Injustice is practiced in various situations on different people—in this case it is immigrants— where retaliation varies. In the book Unruly Immigrants, Monisha Das Gupta studies the unjust treatment brought upon post-1965 South Asian immigrants in the United States. Upon doing so, Gupta comes across an ironic realization of the situation that “I live what I teach.”¹ She discovers that as an “F-1” international graduate student, she is treated with the same discrimination based on gender, race, and class when Gupta was stopped and questioned at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before arriving at the United States border. This event and many others that Gupta faces, sheds lights upon the fact that immigrants suffer prejudice when they enter the United States to seek a new life for themselves. Because of this, Gupta researches the causes of an immigrant to seek migration to the United States up to immigrants wanting to seek migration elsewhere. Her research goes to show that immigrants must have suffered a great injustice, which Gupta incorporates in Unruly Immigrants. Throughout the book, she expresses her disbelief at the growing injustice that—to this day—many struggle with on a daily basis. Because the book is written in the point of view of an Indian immigrant, giving her leverage to support her basis on immigrants’ sufferings, Gupta discusses discrimination through various situations.
Before 1946, South Asian immigrants were categorized to be neither white nor black due to a series of reasons such as a racial-based denial of rights. Due to this verdict, Gupta researches exactly under what measures can South Asian immigrants be categorized as white in order to obtain basic God-given human rights. The Association of Indians in America (AIA) had reinforced the fact that immigrants of Indian descent were not being treated as whites. This resulted to invoking the 1917 Asiatic barred zone that was renamed to be “asiatic,” leading to the addition of British Indian immigrants. However, it led to the deprivation of whites’ rights, yet did not specify the category of non-white that South Asian immigrants fell under. The Association of Indians in America (AIA) cited that factors such as illiteracy, language problems, isolation in inner cities, lack of census enumerators from the community, and immigration status did not affect the Indian immigrants. Instead, the AIA claimed that the problem lay in the group’s miscategorization. Yet the immigrants “accepted their liminal place in the racial order.”² It is as though they had realized that their situation had become inevitable and instead of fighting against it they decided to work with it. Nevertheless, the Indian immigrants worked harder to obtain rights even if it meant not being categorized as white. At first the AIA used historical precedent in insisting that immigrants of Indian descent were not white and would fit best as Asians. By trying to separate race and color, the AIA lost sight of the power relations that the color categories configure and shifted to presenting Indians having no race. In 1976, the Association of Indians in America —consisting of post-1965 immigrants and earlier—requested the addition of a separate category for immigrants of Indian ancestry. This was labeled as “instant ethnics” which led to availability of minority rights for the Indian immigrants.
As though immigrants did not face enough problems, they suffered various conflicts within their minority —marital abuse had become an immense problem. Due to the fact that being an immigrant was not an easy way to live, it led to husbands drinking. This resulted in immigrant women to becoming more vulnerable as they relied on their spouses who held them hostage. Unfortunately, immigration law that legislates immigrant women’s dependence on their abusers for legal status and economic support thus undercut the domestic violence laws that allow women to take action against their abusers. Both U.S. citizen and immigrant women should have the right to protect themselves from domestic violence. However, noncitizen immigrant women risk “losing their right to work, their public support, and their residency if they resist their mistreatment.”³ As the domestic violence against immigrant women continued, Gupta was keen in Unruly Immigrants to approach discrimination through another point of view —female immigrants. South Asian women’s organizations that address domestic violence confront in their day to day work the pressures that the evidentiary requirements for the waivers create for immigrant women. One organization that is numerously mentioned throughout the book is South Asian Women for Action (SAWA). It was created in Boston from 1992 to 2000 because women felt the need to identify with the struggle of colored women in the United States. However, they needed a more successful approach towards female immigrants, thus leading to the creation of Project Zamin. Project Zamin is a legal clinic that brings together attorneys, scholars, and activists who help file for residency. Zamin meaning land to which one has rightful claim, alluding to immigrant women’s residency right in the country and also the protection of their rights.
With demand of more labor leading to an upsurge of job availability, the early working-class labor organization emerged in the early 1990s. South Asian workers found their labor to be “privatized, informalized, and devalued.”⁴ As the Association of Indians in America (AIA) encouraged immigrants to “transfer their habits of democratic citizenship to the United States, they also expressed concern to various government agencies about job market discrimination.”⁵ The 1947 revision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) entitles domestic workers to minimum wage —which is scarcely enforced. Exploitation of similar entitlements result in retaliation by workers, however, the only effect was their documents to be found tampered or destroyed. “According to an Andolan organizer, ‘No South Asian domestic worker can expect to make more than $350 a month.’”⁶ As domestic workers and taxi drivers switch to other workplaces —only find that they are also low-paying, dead-end service jobs— just goes to show the importance of workers organizing themselves in these other sites. In terms of female immigrant workers, the entry of South Asian women as domestic workers in the United States was new despite the present Filipino, Caribbean, and Mexican women who already resided there. But employers used the threat of Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) intervention, arrest, and deportation to hold female workers captive in intolerable situations. Due to this, domestic worker advocates have reminded women that they have a right not to answer questions about their immigration status. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) penalized employers for hiring workers without proper documentation. This led to employers owning up to the responsibility for the security and checking the work authorization of their own employees. Regardless, even workers whose employers promise them legal residency can be locked into low-wage work for a long time because adjusting their immigration status takes about an average of eight to ten years. Given that South Asian workers are sponsored for permanent residency by their employers, they are binded to their sponsors for all those years. Yet South Asian domestic workers work in multiracial multiethnic coalitions, organize across borders, and build worker solidarity, through their work they show that the calls to action become necessary if workers are to live with dignity.
South Asian immigrants also began to create subdividing categories within themselves such as the rise of western sexual classification, who decided to name themselves in South Asian languages. Queer immigrants of color resist the exposure of mainstream calls to become politicized through “coming out” and becoming visible. For Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Queer (LGBTQ) immigrants, visibility is distressed precisely for political reasons. In 2002, Miranda Joseph was an anti-oppressive queer who argued that politics were only possible when critical of community. When evaluating the issue of gay marriage, the Queer Asian Pacific Alliance (QAPA) in Boston issued a “warning asking foreign lesbians and gays to not assume that same-sex marriage would allow them to adjust their immigration status.”⁷ However, it did not stop there. Supporters of lesbian and gay immigrants continued in search of ways to legalize sponsorship by same-sex partners. By then a bill was introduced in the House of Representatives by 2000 and reintroduced the next year, which allowed “gay and lesbian U.S. citizens and permanent residents to sponsor their partners for family-based reunification.”⁸
As an immigrant of India, Gupta approaches the topic from her own set of experiences as well. Gupta portrayed model minorities as successful “due to cultural values and their determination to work hard.”⁹ Many immigrants decided it would be better to be seen as a model minority rather than to be demonized. Specializing in migration, transnationalism, labor, race relations in the United States, and social movements, Gupta was a strong believer in migrant-led social justice movements. Receiving her PhD in Sociology at Brandeis University, undergraduate degree in Geology, and currently working as a professor at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, Gupta continues her research on the social injustice treatment of immigrants. As of now, her only written form of work is Unruly Immigrants. The fact that Gupta is an Indian immigrant plays a key role in her work. Her involvement with various types of social justice movements in the United States and her life as a migrant are central to her academic work. She studies cross-border migration and migrant-led social justice movements. Gupta also brings a critical and feminist transnational perspective to these areas of specialization. With this experience, Gupta brings a newfound perspective into her work, supporting her beliefs with a strong background and concrete evidence from her years of research. Around the time after Unruly Immigrants was published, a 2007 California Health Interview Survey questioned participants about which environment had the most occurrences of discrimination. As a result, school and work were the most cited. In the book, immigrants seemed to find the most confliction when it came to education and work.
Based on editorial reviews, many customers found Unruly Immigrants to be a “well-researched and well-analyzed study of South Asian community in the United States, and it should be read by all South Asians and used in courses on immigration.”¹⁰ Abraham said that readers can “gain much from her exposition for she discusses in fascinating detail the impact of successive Immigration Acts on the diverse nature and interests of immigrant populations. Another major strength of the book is that it delves into the issues, the details, and the difficulties and triumphs of organizing marginalized populations, making it very useful for activist-scholars thinking through comparable issues.”¹¹ It educated readers, in the simplest way possible, what there is to know about the social injustice that South Asian immigrants faced and what other immigrants face even today. As a first time reader of a written work that focused on causes and effects of discrimination brought upon immigrants, the book proved to be very insightful in that case. With Gupta as an immigrant herself, it only gave more insight to the book and helped prove her case even more so as she had applied herself to understand what she was writing about. Gupta had attended South Asian Women for Action meetings to “become involved in larger South Asian activist communities in New York, New Jersey and Boston.”¹²
During the 1980’s, illegal immigration had become “a constant source of political debate.”¹² The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act attempted to provide stronger and stricter immigration policies and create a wider range of possibilities to result in legal immigration. Gupta had approached the topic with many different views as discrimination applied to all immigrants based on race, gender, and class. The social injustice that post-1965 South Asian immigrants faced brought upon political conflicts. The Association of Indians in America’s discussion of color demonstrates the collision between the history of race in the United States and the understandings of race that the South Asian immigrants brought with them to the United States.
In Unruly Immigrants, Gupta strongly expresses her disbelief and discouragement of the discrimination that is set upon immigrants —more specifically, immigrants of South Asia. Throughout the book, Gupta brings up the long time discrimination that has settled within others and its inevitability.
1. Gupta, Monisha. Unruly Immigrants. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006. 3.
2. Gupta, Monisha. 30.
3. Gupta, Monisha. 84.
4. Gupta, Monisha. 219.
5. Gupta, Monisha. 37.
6. Gupta, Monisha. 221.
7. Gupta, Monisha. 97.
8. Gupta, Monisha. 87.
9. Gupta, Monisha. 52.
10. Chandhuri, Nupur. Pacific Historical Review.
11. Abraham, Sara. Canadian Journal of Sociology Online.
12. Gupta, Monisha. 20.