By Alexandra Holterman, Medill, Immigrant Connect
To Chandru Acharya, being a South Asian immigrant in the workplace isn’t quite the American ideal of a melting pot. As he puts it, it’s more like a “salad bowl.”
“On a day to day basis, when you’re [an immigrant] at work, you don’t feel part of the group, you don’t feel part of the team,” said Acharya. “And this isn’t because you want to do so. There is a social expectation that you will stay within your own group.”
Acharya is a member of South Asian American Voices for Impact, or SAAVI, a nonprofit community organization based in Michigan that aims to empower the South Asian community through education, advocacy, and outreach programs.
Of the issues they tackle, one of the most complicated is workplace discrimination against so-called “model minorities,” or minorities that are perceived to be of higher caliber than other minorities.
South Asian immigrants, particularly Indian immigrants, are one of these model minority groups. Indian immigrants are “better educated, more likely to have strong English language skills…arrive on employment based-visas, and are less likely to live below the federal poverty line,” according to a 2013 article by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit that evaluates and analyzes the development of migration and refugee policies at local, national, and international levels. MPI noted that there are nearly 1.9 million Indian immigrants living in the United States, constituting the third-largest immigrant group by country of origin, behind Mexico and China.
Though Indian immigrants are often held in high esteem because of their perceived high intelligence and work ethic, this can be a double-edged sword, as Indian immigrants are still often passed over or ignored for job promotions, according to Acharya.
“If you are an immigrant, and are new to the culture, it’s more likely that you might be discriminated against,” Acharya said. “In some areas it’s mild. In some areas you might even be celebrated. But in other areas, it’s clear they don’t like you. They just tolerate you.”
SAAVI board member Vijaya Srinivas referred to this discrimination as “favoritism” towards Caucasians, saying that he feels South Asian immigrants have to try twice as hard to secure job positions or promotions.
“I think it is not reported because of the belief that if one puts double the effort of others they can compete and win,” Srinivas said. “’Put double the effort’ approach is better than trying to prove some one is wrong.”
The perception of Indian and other South Asian immigrants as model minorities could in fact deter reporting of discrimination or racially-biased cases, according to immigration lawyer Anu Peshawaria.
“Nobody knows about it, nobody talks about it,” Peshawaria said. “You talk to [South Asian immigrants], and they’ll immediately say ‘oh no, we don’t see much discrimination,’ because they’re talking about something that isn’t even visible to the naked eye. But people come to me with horrifying stories of how they are treated, even after they’re U.S. citizens.”
Of these horrifying stories, Peshawaria said the most blatant acts of employment discrimination occur at a government policy level, such as when a South Asian immigrant is attempting to go through the EB-5 filing process.
Filing for an EB-5 visa allows an immigrant to be eligible to apply for a green card so long as they make a “necessary investment in a commercial enterprise in the United States and plan to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs for qualified U.S. workers,” according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
As of 2015, the USCIS received 14,373 EB-5 petitions, of which 8,756 were approved. Indian immigrants were the seventh highest investors as of 2014, with 55 EB-5 visas issued.
However, according to Peshawaria, the government does little to ensure that immigrants who invest actually receive a green card.
“[The government] takes the money and uses it over such a long period of time, but they never really make sure that the person gets the green card,” Peshawaria said.
Instead, the government issues conditional temporary green cards to immigrants, who are responsible for removing the conditions on the card within two years, according to Peshawaria.
“Invariably what happens is, those conditions are so tough to remove, that after the person invests all the money, he’s unable to remove those conditions,” she said. “And then all that’s left goes down the drain.”
Steve Blando, the public affairs officer of the USCIS, declined to comment on this allegation.
Peshawaria also cited the H-1B visa process as another area where she commonly sees discrimination against Indian immigrants in the workplace. The H-1B process allows U.S employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations, Peshawaria said.
Indians are by far the largest ethnic group to have approved H-1B petitions, with 69.7 percent approved as of 2014, according to the USCIS. However, according to Peshawaria, this does not protect Indian immigrants from discrimination.
In fact, India recently filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO), challenging an amendment to federal law that raises the fees employers must pay if they hire more than 50 people on H-1B visas. The fees increased by $4,000, according to the Wall Street Journal, if more than half of the company’s employees already hold H-1B visas. The law was intended to keep foreign outsourcing companies from displacing qualified American workers, according to Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the co-sponsors of the legislation.
“[Indians] are targeted [by the USCIS] the moment they see the last name being of Indian origin,” Peshawaria said. “The [USCIS] turn up at their workplaces, they go at night, in the middle of the night, morning, to the houses of employees, they ask all sorts of questions.”
Lakshmi Lakshmanan, an immigration and nationality law attorney, also said that Indian immigrants are likely to be the highest-audited group of H-1B visa filers, but unlike Peshawaria, said this was most likely the result of Indians being the largest ethnic groups to file such petitions.
“In terms of [South Asian immigrants] who are targeted more than others, it’s really hard to say,” she said. “Are there any published statistics the government gives? No…but I can say that, due to them being a larger percentage, when the government is doing audits, yes, you are going to have more Indians.”
Again, when asked if South Asian immigrants were harassed more than other workers, Blando said, “the USCIS will not be providing a response.”
Although Peshawaria often hears such cases of discrimination, she says very few of her clients actually file lawsuits, fearing that their companies will be targeted by even more stringent investigations after raising awareness. Peshawaria said that unless government policies change, this discrimination will not disappear.
“Don’t mistake me, America has a lot to offer immigrants,” Peshawaria said. “It is the only place in the world immigrants can reside very safely and freely and be able to do great business. However, the policies of the government ensure that discrimination remains, and immigrants continue to be used for the benefit of the system.”