Pioneer Asian Indian Immigration to the Pacific Coast

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A Continuous Journey

In the fall of 1996 the Sutter Community Museum presented an exhibit A Continuous Journey commemorating Punjabi settlement in California. The text which follows was originally part of that exhibit. We appreciate the Museum allowing us to present those texts here.

Early Immigration

Official records of arrivals from India were sketchy until the close of the 19th century. In 1899, a small but sustained immigration began when 17 Indians entered the United States.

Although several bills designed to restrict Indian immigration were introduced into Congress after 1908, no immediate action was taken. The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization found more subtle ways to reject would-be immigrants. By 1911 and 1915 more than half of the new arrivals from India were turned back at the U.S. port of entry. At first, health problems were cited as a major reason for their debarment. Later, applicants were rejected on the basis that they were "likely to become a public charge."

By 1917, legislation was enacted, over the veto of President Wilson, which established a quota for immigrants. The measures were designed to maintain the nationís ethnic balance. In addition, nearly all of Asia was designated a "barred zone ", which meant that immigration from the region would be prohibited. Japan was an exception to the rule, because procedures were bound by an agreement reached in 1908.

1906-1923

The majority of Punjabis arriving on the West Coast during this period, frequently referred to today as "old timers", were from agricultural or military backgrounds. Upon arrival they found jobs as laborers in the lumber mills and on the railroads in the Northwest. Many eventually traveled to the Sacramento Valley to find work on the Western-Pacific Railroad or on area sugar beet, fruit, and rice farms. Several settled in the area, where their descendants still live today. They were very few women among the early Punjabi immigrants. The few Indian women in the United States before the late 1940s arrived during this period of immigration. Perhaps half a dozen of these women lived in California.

" Most of the Americans, farmers, they always looked to us for irrigation...They knew that nobody could do a better job in irrigation than these Indians...I think we are ones who taught (them), in 1923, maybe, that if you water, water your land, it will not freeze, it will not destroy the crop. This is the biggest thing we have taught them. "
-- Ganga Singh Bhatti (Interview with author T.S. Sibia, March 15, 1991, Live Oak, California)

The Early Community

A majority of the early arrivals were young men who immigrated with the hopes of earning a better living or acquiring an education and then returning home. Some of these sojourners stayed on and tried to send for their wives and families. Although a few men in the Sacramento Valley were able to bring wives from India before 1923, restrictive laws blocked further immigration. Many men remained single until they were well into middle-age, while others married American women of Mexican descent.

Between 1923 and 1946, South Asian immigration to the United States was virtually halted. In 1923 a Supreme Court decision held that people of Indian origin were ineligible for American citizenship, and in 1924 an immigration act was passed which was designed to exclude Asians in general from entering the country. Over the next twenty-three years the only new arrivals to the Sacramento Valley were students on temporary visas and immigrants who entered the United States illegally through Mexico.


1946-1964

The Luce-Celler Bill of 1946 lifted restrictions on immigration from South Asia and opened a new phase of the communityís history. Strict quotas still limited entry, but nearly 6,000 immigrants from India and Pakistan arrived in the United States between 1947 and 1964. The numbers increased dramatically after further immigration legislation was passed in 1965.


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