A tarnished dream

Print edition : June 06, 1998

OF the 25,000 workers who drive taxis in New York, almost half are from South Asia. This demographic anomaly is complex. Immigration from the subcontinent to North America began in the late 1780s (when a handful of lascars or sailors who moved to Salem, Massachusetts) and developed in earnest in the late 19th century (when mostly Punjabi men migrated to the Pacific coast to work on farms and factories as well as to form the Ghadar Party in 1913 with the guidance of Har Dayal). This migration stopped in the 1920s when the state prevented Asian migration. In 1965 (as a response to Sputnik), the U.S. encouraged highly qualified migrants to enter the U.S. and in the next 10 years, almost 400,000 South Asians entered the U.S. (of whom 83 per cent held advanced technical-professional degrees). With a gradual slow-down in these professions, an increase in anti-immigrant sentiment and with the opportunity for family members to join the earlier wave of professionals, a section of new workers entered the U.S.

Many South Asians came in the 1980s to pursue education and to make their living, but found the American dream to be more tarnished in reality than on television. There are few opportunities for people with degrees earned overseas to use those credentials in the U.S. labour market. Several single men came to make their fortune as sojourners but found that they did not make enough to return home and enjoy the fruits of their labour. After the Gulf war of 1991 rendered employment in that region less secure, migrants (especially from Pakistan) tried to make their way to the U.S. and to Europe. The taxi workers, for example, come from lower middle class families which are gradually being impoverished in South Asia. Their working class jobs in the U.S. enable the families back in their countries to enjoy a small modicum of foreign exchange to retain their class standing. Given the burden of holding up family status, few drivers return home. They continue to work in order to preserve the fragile family economy.

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