Immigrants (We get the job done)

I recently visited the display at the Field Museum in Chicago titled “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation,” and it of course made me think of my own immigrant parents and the difficulties they must have faced in their efforts to make a better life for themselves by leaving their homes and families behind and seeking educational and work opportunities in the U.S. My father was from a part of India called Goa, and grew up in a small fishing village. Because of his great academic aptitude he was awarded a scholarship to the engineering college in Pune, India. He came to the U.S. on a student visa and went on to complete his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University in 1963. He then spent over 30 years as a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, shaping and guiding countless young people in their own careers. He also authored textbooks, was a coveted speaker and spent his free time consulting around the world in the field of robotics and aeronautics. His expertise was especially desired in Korea, where his knowledge of robotic arms helped companies there develop assembly lines and compete on the world stage in car production. In spite of not being a citizen at the time, he obtained security clearance from NASA in the 1960s and worked with the team of engineers who designed the landing gear for the Apollo lunar landing module.

Nowadays, you see so many people who were born in India as well as Indian-Americans in Chicago and around the U.S. that it is easy to forget that there was a time where they were denied citizenship opportunities that were granted to white Europeans solely based on the color of their skin. In United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261 U.S. 204 (1923), an Indian immigrant sued the U.S. government, which at the time only allowed “free white persons” to be granted U.S. citizenship along with “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” Bhagat Singh Thind’s argument was that since Indians are technically of the “Caucasian” race, they should be included in the group of individuals who were eligible for citizenship status. The U.S. Supreme Court concluded that, “If the applicant is a white person within the meaning of this section he is entitled to naturalization, otherwise not.” The Court relied heavily on the fact that because Indians have dark skin, they could not assimilate as easily into what was then a white America. The U.S. Supreme Court stated in its ruling:

It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other Europe parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin. On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court did not characterize Bhagat Singh Thind as a “free white person,” he was denied citizenship in the United States, despite the fact that he had enlisted in the U.S. military and fought for the United States in World War I. It was not until the Luce-Celler Act was passed by Congress in 1946 that Indians and Filipinos had the right to seek U.S. citizenship or to even own property.

While visiting the exhibit, I learned that before the 1960s there were only about 350 Indian born individuals living in the Chicagoland area, which is hard to believe considering the impact they have had on our modern day society, as well as the sheer number of Indian restaurants and businesses on Devon Avenue on the north side of Chicago. In the 1960s, when the U.S. was facing a growing threat from a nuclear Soviet Union, it began to open its doors to immigrants from India who were trained in engineering and who spoke English in order to aid the U.S. in its efforts to stay competitive in the global arms race. My father was one of the original Indian immigrants to begin his life here in the U.S. He went to graduate school in the Midwest in the late 1950s, and my parents can recall a time when they were first married in 1965 when they could not find any Indian food in Chicago. They would mail order for all of their Indian delicacies from New York.

Currently, individuals born in India and Indian-Americans proliferate our society, especially in the Chicagoland area, where a large percentage of our health care workers and engineers are of Indian origin. But was the Supreme Court wrong when they stated that the “Hindu” people would not be able to assimilate as easily as the white Europeans? I was born in Chicago to an Indian father and a Chilean mother (who also came to the U.S. for graduate school). Because of my dark skin, “Where are you really from?” was a common question I received from strangers growing up in a mostly Irish-American part of Chicago, or even when I travel abroad, and proudly state, “I am from Chicago.” We must strive for the type of society where you do not have to have white skin to be considered a “real American.” Diversity is what makes this country great, and it must include not just diversity of thought but also diversity of skin color.

We like to think that we have progressed from the days of yore where people could be legally and outright discriminated because of the color of their skin, but has that much really changed? With Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) seemingly repealed and the potential for having the children of illegal immigrants who are currently going to college, serving in our armed forces and contributing to our workforce expelled from our country, are we not excluding the future college professors and inventors and leaders? Does the fact that so many of the DACA individuals come from Latin American countries affect the decisions being made by the Washington politicos? The federal government continues to seek to impose travel bans on refugees from Muslim majority countries, which puts a barrier to entry into the U.S. based solely on the majority religion in their home country and is quite obviously a race based exclusion. It does not sound like we have progressed much from the days when Mr. Singh Thind was excluded from our country because he was dark-skinned.

Immigrants have given this country so much, and all they ask for in return is opportunity. Without immigrants we would not have ATM machines, Pentium chip processors or even handheld hairdryers, to name just a few examples. One survey found that immigrants own double the number of patents as those granted to native born Americans. Almost all of us have ancestors who initially hailed from a foreign land, and we as attorneys have taken full advantage of the educational and career opportunities that the U.S. offers. As members of the legal community we must let our voice be heard and make sure our country continues to be the land of opportunity and the melting pot that we cherish so dearly.

Associate Judge Geraldine D’Souza
Circuit Court of Cook County
Sixth Municipal District, Markham Courthouse

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February 2018Volume 28Number 1PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)