The American Historian

Out of These Transitions: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to the Sunbelt

Uzma Quraishi

In the 1950s, during the early years of the Cold War, an expanding stream of well-educated immigrants and college students from India and Pakistan joined an existing population of fewer than 2,500 Indians in the United States, mostly Punjabi and Bengali laborers on the country’s east and west coasts.[1] The mid-century migrants, unlike the previously settled Indian laborers, were mostly graduate students who neither farmed the land, toiled in factories, nor peddled goods from street carts. They began arriving in the United States either for employment via the McCarran-Walter Act (1952) or to pursue higher education at American universities. They foreshadowed the “new” Asian immigrant—idealized as hardworking, studious, family-oriented, and above all, a technological and economic boon to the nation.[2] Their presence bolstered the model minority myth and substantiated the American Dream.[3]

In my work, I use Houston as a case study to examine immigration from South Asia, placing this migrant stream within global, national, and local contextual frameworks. Indian and Pakistani immigration to the United States was the product of critical shifts in twentieth century immigration, diplomatic, and southern/western history.[4] Part of the twentieth century surge in U.S. immigration and commonly referred to as “post-’65 immigration,” South Asian immigration derived from four key moments of transition in recent American and South Asian history: the end of immigration exclusion, the geographic expansion of the Cold War, the dismantling of Jim Crow, and the internationalization of Sunbelt cities in the American South and West.

From Anti-Asian Exclusion to Selective Immigration

In the United States, the popular perception of Asian Indian immigrants as undesirable foreigners at the turn of the twentieth century was transformed into that of a purported model minority in the 1960s. This image reversal correlated first with the tightening and then eventual loosening of exclusionary, discriminatory immigration law, coupled with Cold War strategy. Having successfully curtailed Chinese and Japanese labor migrations in 1882 and 1907–1908 respectively, anti-Asian nativist groups in 1917 aimed their renewed animosity onto Asian Indians, whom they vilified as the “Hindoo invasion,” “tide of turbans,” and “horde of fanatics.”[5] They successfully pressured Congress to pass a wartime immigration act that created an “Asiatic barred zone…cover[ing] South Asia from Arabia to Indochina.”[6] It effectively barred Asians, especially Asian Indians, from entry into the United States. Soon thereafter, the U.S. v. Thind (1923) ruling retroactively stripped Indian Americans of their U.S. citizenship, once again legally reinforcing the status of Asians as “aliens ineligible for citizenship.”[7] The Johnson-Reed Act (1924) went a step further by removing the remaining entry categories for Asians—students, merchants, and teachers—on the basis of their ineligibility to naturalized citizenship.[8] The exclusion of all inhabitants from a wide expanse of what Congress designated as “Asia,” running from Afghanistan to the Pacific, ensured that Asians would remain perpetual foreigners in the United States for decades to come.

The civil rights movement and the Cold War provided the impetus for the repeal of immigration exclusion. Although specific pieces of legislation had overturned exclusion for a few Asian ethnic groups (e.g. Chinese, Indians, and Filipinos) in the mid-1940s, the principle of race-based immigration discrimination still remained in the early 1960s. Concerned that its immigration policy tarnished its global reputation, undermining the Cold War message of democratic superiority, Congress signed into law the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the Hart-Celler Act. The act removed national origins and racial quotas and expanded family reunification eligibility while preserving occupation-based categories, with an emphasis on the highly skilled and highly educated. After the Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik I in 1957, American perception of a technological gap motivated lawmakers to encourage selective immigration to enhance the nation’s scientific and technical expertise. Unlike the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the other major pieces of legislation supported by President Lyndon Johnson at the time, Congress intended that Hart-Celler be largely symbolic. As with the earlier Cold War immigration-related McCarran-Walter Act (1952), congressional leaders had no intention in 1965 of altering the nation’s ethnic composition.[9] The 1952 act established a new preference system for immigrants that prioritized the entry of the world’s skilled immigrants above others, while the 1965 act maintained this system. The idea of preferring occupational skills represented a significant departure from and a lasting transformation in immigration policy, one that would prove especially useful to immigrants from India and Pakistan.

By utilizing occupational and family reunification categories of entry, new Indian and Pakistani immigrants defied the congressional anticipation of low Asian immigration. Many South Asians applied under the act’s third preference, for those with exceptional ability or professionals, or the sixth, for skilled laborers in short supply.[10] The spouses and children of resident aliens entered the country under family reunification, the second preference of the act. Importantly however, most of the South Asian professionals who migrated in the 1960s entered with international student visas and, after graduation, regularized their visa status and remained in the country.[11]

The selective criteria of U.S. immigration policy heavily structured the profile of South Asian immigration. Through the 1960s and 1970s, it was composed largely of middle-class, urban-to-urban, professional, English-speaking, and highly educated immigrants. In the knowledge- and skills-based economy of the postwar United States, immigrants’ selectivity and advanced education were the most useful tool in achieving economic success and upward mobility. The profile of students and immigrants who visited, studied, or migrated to the United States during these decades conformed to Cold War priorities at the time.

Pitching the Cold War in the Third World

In a Cold War history anchored by the superpower rivalry of the United States and Soviet Union, the appearance of Pakistani and Indian immigrants is perhaps surprising. However, since the early Cold War years, the American and Soviet governments sought to broaden their influence and power around the world, beyond the traditional focus on Europe.[12] Concerned about the appeal of communism in the Third World, the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) used economic and military aid, exchange programs, and public diplomacy to strengthen the American image abroad. By his second term in office (1957–1961), President Dwight D. Eisenhower had largely shifted his focus from rebuilding Europe to establishing an American presence in the decolonizing nations of Asia and Africa.[13]

The United States viewed India and Pakistan strategically as a regional “South Asia”—a valuable frontline against “Asia,” with its dominant China and threat of Chinese communist overreach.[14] Public diplomacy operations in India and Pakistan were respectively the United States’ second and fourth largest in the world by the early 1960s.[15] Using various forms of media communication, these tools included but were not limited to the establishment of American libraries, a vast print catalog, traveling exhibits and films, a steady stream of American speakers and entertainers, the promotion of U.S. higher education, and the issuance of special U.S. visas. In addition to sending South Asians to the United States through passage of the Fulbright Act (1946) and Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the State Department and USIA exhausted every opportunity to send American lecturers, exchange professors, performers, and athletes to hundreds of schools, colleges, and universities throughout India and Pakistan. Exhibits frequently pulled in anywhere from several thousand to tens of thousands of viewers over time.[16]

During the era of anti-Asian exclusion that ended with the 1965 “liberalization” of immigration policy, public diplomacy initiatives in the 1950s inadvertently functioned as an immigration gateway. By promoting American culture, education, values, and capitalism, U.S. propaganda generated fresh interest among middle-class Indians and Pakistanis in visiting and studying in the United States. Public diplomacy programs served as the starting point for the migration process because the programs created an ideological foundation among the South Asian middle class for imagining a life in the United States. For Indians and Pakistanis, the origin of what is commonly termed “post-1965 immigration” was actually the creation of ideological linkages between the United States and South Asia during the early Cold War years. Although immigration from Asia remained mostly closed until 1965, thousands of South Asians pursued American higher education before this year, and many remained in the country long after completing their studies.

Navigating a Transitioning Jim Crow South

Although the entire structure of racial discrimination in the United States was erected to disempower African Americans, since the nineteenth century white Americans in the western states and territories targeted Asian immigrants and Asian Americans, eventually effecting federal-level anti-Asian legislation. A multitude of court rulings and laws pertaining to immigration, naturalization, marriage, property, employment, residence, and schooling systematically prohibited Asians from equal access to and inclusion in American society writ large.[17] Individuals of Asian descent in southern and western states faced the greatest number of barriers to inclusion, from alien land laws preventing the ownership and long-term rental of property to laws prohibiting their use of public and private facilities (e.g. schools and swimming pools).[18] In southern cities, such as New Orleans and Houston, South Asians were variously treated as black, white, or “foreign”—an ambiguous identity that sometimes permitted them to pass through normatively white spaces but often resulted in racial discrimination. Darker-skinned South Asians were routinely regarded as Black and therefore subject to laws governing Jim Crow racial segregation.[19] Such statutes were commonplace through the mid-twentieth century.

In the American South in the 1960s and 1970s, newly arriving Asian immigrants navigated the last vestiges of legalized black exclusion from private and public places during Jim Crow to a bounded inclusion after the end of Jim Crow. With the passage of civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s, African Americans, as well as old and new communities of Latino/as and Asian Americans negotiated new opportunities while still facing old barriers. Where white supremacist laws and court rulings could no longer bar people of color from intermarriage, public education, or employment, widespread social perceptions nevertheless continued to cast South Asians generally as outsiders and specifically as foreigners. Indian and Pakistani students learned the language of American race relations through their routine interactions. They quickly realized the price of Blackness and wages of whiteness while they calculated their place within. While South Asians (along with other racialized groups) had faced overt racism during the Jim Crow era, after passage of the Civil Rights Act this kind of discriminatory behavior became more coded.

Whether before or after 1964, legal victories could not fully shield Indian and Pakistani immigrants from racialization into nonwhite unbelonging.[20] They forged their own pathways within circumscribed social systems that imposed external stereotypes on them—both as unwanted outsiders and as a model minority. The model minority myth triangulated elite South Asians against outspoken African Americans and Mexican American laborers, deflecting attention from structural inequalities in the United States; in the post–civil rights era South and Southwest, Asian immigrants provided a foil for historically disadvantaged populations.[21] However, scholars have aptly noted that Asian Americans were “conditionally included”—that is, accepted for their economic value but socially Othered.[22] In transitional Jim Crow cities in the South, such as Houston, Indian and Pakistani immigrants faced race-based discrimination in housing, the workplace, university campuses, and restaurants after the 1960s. Thus, race continued to be a salient feature of southern life in the post–Jim Crow era, even for “model minorities” in rapidly modernizing metropolises.

Globalizing Cities as Immigration Destinations

Pakistani and Indian immigrants’ white-collar employment credentials meant that from the 1950s, they migrated mostly to large cities across the United States, notably New York City, New Jersey, and Chicago. Less recognized as prime destinations were southern and western cities that had prospered after World War II due to the influx of federal funding and private investment—sometimes referred to as “Sunbelt” cities.[23] During the second half of the twentieth century, Phoenix, Raleigh-Durham, and other such cities expanded at an accelerated pace. Some also became heavily globalized, especially Los Angeles, but also Atlanta and Houston. Indian and Pakistani immigrants were an integral part of this internationalization process.

Immigrants from China, India, Pakistan, and other Asian countries migrated to Houston because the city’s flourishing economy provided them with ample employment opportunities in the primary labor market, especially in oil services, engineering and construction, and health care.[24] Houston made real forays into the global market in the late 1960s and 1970s when Shell Oil relocated its headquarters there and major oil companies including Exxon and Texaco established major operations bases in the city. While an economic recession gripped the nation in the 1970s and almost all major metropolitan areas in the United States lost population (including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit), Houston’s rate of economic and population growth increased.[25] By 1970, it had emerged as the only southern city with a population of over one million. The heady pace of new construction in residential and commercial buildings, roads, and highways provided abundant job growth in the engineering sector, and since so many Indians and Pakistanis had trained as engineers, their labor skills meshed neatly with Houston’s labor needs. In addition, through word-of-mouth networks, globalization—both economic and demographic—engendered further internationalization, attracting even more South Asian immigrants to the Houston area. By the 1980s, through chain migration of extended family members, Houston’s Indian and Pakistani population became one of the largest in the nation.


Postwar immigration from South Asia emerged at the confluence of immigration policy, diplomacy, race relations, and globalization. Each of these factors fundamentally shaped the experiences of Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Driven by immigration policy originating in the Cold War, the comparatively elite profile of South Asian Americans—that is, highly educated and high earning—has largely endured through the decades (even as rates of poverty have increased, especially for Pakistani Americans). The benefits of the selective nature of immigration policy and South Asians’ entry as skilled professionals and university students from the 1950s both materialized quickly and accrued over time. However, the economic wages enjoyed by South Asian immigrants were complicated by immigrants’ own racialization in American society, producing the paradox of the model minority myth.


Uzma Quraishi is Associate Professor of history at Sam Houston State University. She is the author of Redefining the Immigrant South: Indian and Pakistani Immigration to Houston during the Cold War (2020) which was awarded the Theodore Saloutos Prize in immigration history.


1]Joan Jensen, Passage from India (1988); Karen Leonard, Making Ethnic Choices (1992); Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem (2013).

2]Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrant, (2015).

3]Although South Asians have consistently ranked among the most educated segments of American society since the 1960s, Pakistanis simultaneously experience high rates poverty similar to those of African Americans and Hispanics. For demographic data on Asian Americans, see Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), Community of Contrasts.

4]Primarily a political and academic label, the term “South Asia” was created as a U.S. Cold War designation. Today, South Asia typically includes Bangladesh, Burma, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. For the purposes of my work, I use South Asia to refer to India and Pakistan (both East Pakistan and West Pakistan before the Civil War of 1971), which sent high numbers of immigrants to the United States starting in the Cold War.

5]Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore (1989), p. 295–98.

6]Immigration Act of 1917, quoted in Bill Ong Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America (1993), p. 32.

7]Bill Ong Hing, Defining America (2003), p. 45.

8]Hing, Making and Remaking Asian America, p. 33. Though enrollment numbers declined by >about half in the decades following the National Origins Act, Asian international students nevertheless continued to attend U.S. universities with the aid of the Institute of International Education, founded in 1919, and missionary groups. See Paul A. Kramer, “Is the World Our Campus? International Students and U.S. Global Power in the Long Twentieth Century,” Diplomatic History, 33 (Nov. 2009), p. 788, 790–91.

9]David M. Reimers, “Unintended Reform: The 1965 Immigration Act and Third World Immigration to the United States,” Journal of American Ethnic History, 3 (Fall 1983) p. 10; Ngai, “Unlovely Residue of Outworn Prejudices: The Hart-Celler Act and the Politics of Immigration Reform, 1945–1965,” Americanism: New Perspectives on the History of an Ideal, eds. Michael Kazin and Joseph A. McCartin (2006).

10]Maxine Fisher, “Creating Ethnic Identity: Asian Indians in the New York City Area,” Urban Anthropology, 7 (Fall 1978), p. 271-85. Fisher writes, “Of the 14,939 Indians admitted as immigrants in 1975, 6,156 were classified by the U.S. Immigration Service as ‘professional/technical workers.’ An additional 7,763 were classified as ‘spouses and children of professional/technical workers.’ The combined figures account for 93% of the Indian immigrants admitted during that year.”; See also, Surinder M. Bhardwaj and N. Madhusudana Rao, “Asian Indians in the United States: A Geographic Appraisal,” in Clarke, Peach, and Vertovec, South Asians Overseas (1990), p. 200.

11]Alan Bayer, “Foreign Students in American Colleges: Time for Change in Policy and Practice,” Research in Higher Education, 1 (No 4., 1973); Tai Oh, “Estimating the Migration of U.S.-Educated Manpower from Asia to the United States,” Social and Economic Studies, 22 (Sept. 1973).

12]Robert McMahon, ed., Cold War in the Third World (2013); Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War (2007); Lorenz Luthi, Cold Wars (2020).

13]Jason Parker, Hearts, Minds, Voices (2016).

14]McMahon, Cold War on the Periphery, p. 36–79.

15]Kenneth Osgood, Total Cold War (2006) p. 93.

16]On U.S. public diplomacy, see Parker, Hearts, Minds, Voices; Laura Belmonte, Selling the American Way (2008).

17]On pre-1965 anti-Asian immigration laws and race relations, see Lon Kurashige, Two Faces of Exclusion (2016).

18]Bruce Glasrud, “Asians in Texas: An Overview, 1870-1990," East Texas Historical Journal, 39 (No. 2 , 2001); Ian Haney López, White by Law (2006).

19]Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America (2013).

20]Uzma Quraishi, “Racial Calculations: Indian and Pakistani Immigrants in Houston, 1960-1980,” Journal of American Ethnic History, 38, (Summer 2019), p. 55-76 

21]On the model minority myth, see Ellen Wu, The Color of Success (2014); Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin, The Myth of the Model Minority (2008).

22]Madeline Hsu and Ellen Wu, “‘Smoke and Mirrors’: Conditional Inclusion, Model Minorities, and the Pre-1965 Dismantling of Asian Exclusion,” Journal of American Ethnic

History, 34 (Summer 2015), p. 43-65.

23]Michelle Nickerson and Darren Dochuk, eds. Sunbelt Rising (2011).

24]Joe Feagin, Free Enterprise City (1988).

25]Feagin, Free Enterprise City; Bruce Schulman, From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt (1994).