A community voting against its interests
May 10, 2013
Indian Americans joined the Democratic Party nearly half a century ago, and show no signs of leaving. Their support has
remained steady even as the Democratic
Party of 1965 — whose immigration reform
efforts opened the door to Indian emigrants
— has evolved into a party, we believe, inimical to the values and interests of the Indian-American community.
The problematic consequences of the
Democratic Party’s agenda on issues ranging
from health care to taxes to education are not
entirely lost on Indian Americans. But they
are met with a reasonable retort: For all its
flaws, the Democratic Party remains the natural home of immigrants.
Influential Republican leaders are chal-
lenging this widely held notion in the current
immigration debate. With its emphasis on
merit-based immigration reform, economic
freedom and equal opportunity, the GOP is a
better guarantor of Indian-American interests than the
Indian Americans were an important part of the coalition
that re-elected President Obama in 2012. Eighty-four percent backed the President nationally, with nearly three in
four favoring him in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida,
Virginia, Colorado, and Wisconsin.
The President’s performance among Indian Americans is
consistent with the community’s traditional support for the
According to a 2012 Pew poll, 65 percent of Indian
Americans identify with the Democratic Party, compared to
just 18 percent on the Republican side, making Indian
Americans more aligned with the Democratic Party than any
East Asian group.
The Democratic Party won over Indian-American sympa-thies during the immigration debates of the 1960s. Co-spon-sored by Democrats Philip A Hart and Emanuel Celler,
championed by United States Senator Edward M Kennedy,
and signed into law by President Lyndon B Johnson, the
landmark Hart-Celler Act of 1965 replaced national origins
quotas with a system favoring skills and family reunification.
Hart-Celler 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.
Indian-American loyalty to the Democratic Party, however,
has come at a price, enabling initiatives that threaten industries with heavy Indian-American representation. Driven by
an entrepreneurial spirit unlike the President’s ‘you didn’t
build that’ mentality, Indian-American small businessmen
have come to own nearly half of the country’s motels and
convenience stores. Now, they are contending with higher
taxes on small businesses and burdensome employer health
insurance requirements under ObamaCare.
A similar anxiety is palpable among Indian-American
physicians and surgeons — who comprise nearly 10 percent
of the nation’s doctors — due to rising malpractice insurance
premiums, ever-increasing paperwork, and anticipated
Medicare reimbursement cuts from ObamaCare.
Democratic admonishments that the ‘rich’ aren’t paying
their ‘fair share’ of income taxes hardly speaks to the wealthiest minority group in the country — Indian Americans had
a median household income of $88,000 in 2010 compared
to the national average of $49,800. Wealth redistribution
and a ballooning entitlement state benefit neither the 60
percent of Indian Americans employed in top managerial
An India Day parade in New Jersey
positions, nor young Indian-American professionals beginning their careers and facing debt from nearly a decade of
Indian-American voting patterns are even more puzzling
considering that affirmative action policies advocated by the
Democratic Party harm Indian Americans of all socio-eco-nomic backgrounds.
Year after year, Indian-American achievement in academics is on full display in competitions such as the Intel
International Science and Engineering Fair and the national
Spelling and Geographic Bees, where contestants succeed or
fail entirely on their individual abilities.
The significance of academics in Indian-American culture
has made the community the most educated minority group
in American society, with nearly 70 percent holding a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to just 30 percent of the general population. But Indian Americans’ presence in higher
education has come in spite of admissions policies that prize
certain types of racial diversity and disadvantage over merit.
In a 2009 study of admissions practices at several elite private colleges, sociologists Thomas Espenshade and
Alexandria Radford determined that Asian-American students needed significantly higher SAT scores than their
White, African-American, and Latino peers to gain admission.
So why are Indian Americans seemingly voting against
their own interests?
To an extent, the GOP’s lack of appeal among Indian
Americans is symptomatic of 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.
Despite highlighting their conversions to
Christianity on the campaign trail, Republican
Governors Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Nikki
Haley of South Carolina — the only Indian
Americans ever elected to statewide office — were
able to rely on strong Indian-American support
in their respective electoral bids.
By one estimate, a third of Jindal’s early war
chest in his 2003 gubernatorial campaign came
from Indian-American donors. And behind the
often Christianized rhetoric of the Republican
Party is a message consistent with the conserva-
tive social views and wholesome family values of
A better explanation is that Indian Americans
perceive the Democratic Party to be more toler-
ant of immigrants — recent realities notwith-
standing. Democrats, it is true, do tend to be
more supportive on some issues, like creating
pathways to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
But in advocating for highly-skilled legal immi-
grants — the most pertinent aspect of the debate
for Indian-Americans — Republicans have been
at least equally if not more proactive than
Democrats. It was Republican President George
H W Bush who signed the Immigration Control
During the current immigration debate, Democratic agita-
tion against outsourcing to India — a staple of President
Obama’s campaign rhetoric — has posed the greatest obsta-
cle to legislative reforms that would benefit highly-skilled
Chief among these reforms are the removal of the 20,000-
limit on US advanced degree H-1B visas, and the exemption
of foreign students who earn US graduate degrees in science,
technology, and mathematics from the employment-based
Green Card cap.
Indeed, the so-called Gang of Eight bill, now the most likely vehicle for a bipartisan deal on immigration reform, was
stalled until recently due to disagreements over provisions
concerning highly-skilled immigrants.
Despite representing a state with over 188,000 Asian-Indians, Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a
member of the Gang of Eight, fought to impose punitive
measures on companies that rely heavily on highly-skilled
Ostensibly intended to crack down on outsourcing,
Durbin’s proposals would have penalized American companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google for filling more than
30 percent of their work forces with H-1B visa holders.
Ultimately, Durbin’s proposals were blocked by his
Republican colleague in the Gang of Eight, US Senator
Marco Rubio of Florida, a likely presidential nominee in
Demographic trends suggest that Indian Americans could
play a prominent political role — a reality that the community should consider as it rethinks its loyalty to the
Democratic Party. The perennially contested state of Florida
alone saw an over 80 percent increase in the Indian-American population since 2000.
Indian Americans face a choice. They can continue to vote
in lockstep with the Democratic Party. In this case, the community risks being ignored or taken for granted due to their
small absolute numbers relative to other minority groups.
Or, they can become more open-minded to a Republican
Party increasingly intent on broadening its appeal to minorities. The latter path would better ensure that Indian
Americans are represented in a politically divided country.
Keerthika M. Subramanian is a corporate and securities
lawyer. Pratik Chougule served at the State Department in
the George W Bush administration. The authors welcome
comments at firstname.lastname@example.org