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Fifty Years of the Immigration and Nationality Act: Guest Post by Nalini Iyer and Amy Bhatt

BHAROOThis year marks the 50th anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also referred to as the Hart-Cellar Act). This landmark legislation was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson and abolished country based quotas as the basis for immigration. It prioritized instead skills and family reunification, opening the doors to new waves of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world that had been previously restricted. In this guest post, Nalini Iyer and Amy Bhatt, authors of Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest reflect on that change and preview some of the celebrations and commemorations that will take place in the coming year.

Fifty years ago, the Immigration and Nationality Act was a major source of contention in Congress as many feared that too many foreigners would change the fabric of the American nation and create too much competition for jobs. As a way to assuage these fears, several prominent politicians of the day (including Robert Kennedy) predicted that there would be minimal impact on immigration from the Asia Pacific triangle and suggested that we might see about 5,000 immigrants from the region in the first year and not much after that.

However, the legislators of the time were way off the mark in their demographic predictions. After the bill was passed, the numbers of immigrations from South Asia rose immensely. Between 1961-1970, India only sent 31,200 immigrants to the United States and Pakistan sent 4,900, but through the 1970s, the numbers increased to 176,800 immigrants from India and 157,000 from Pakistan/Bangladesh. By the 2000s, 157,000 Pakistanis and 106,700 Bangladeshis arrived and between 2001 and 2010, 662,500 Indians acquired legal permanent resident status[1]. Without a doubt, the Immigration and Nationality Act and the waves of immigration from South Asia that followed, have transformed the racial, economic, social, and political fabric of this country….Read the full post here:

UW Libraries Book Launch

Photo credit: © 2013 Carina A. del Rosario

On March 1, 2013, Nalini and I had the pleasure of launching Roots and Reflections at a fabulous event hosted by the University of Washington Libraries and the University of Washington Press. We did a reading from the book and the Libraries honored each of the narrators who participated in the South Asian Oral History Project with a copy of the book. Over 100 people attended the event!


May Events: Aaina Festival


(R-L) Sonora Jha, Amy Bhatt, and Shahana Dattagupta at the Aaina South Asian Women’s Focus Book Reading, May 12, 2013. Photo credit: Dinesh Korde (StudioDisha)

In May, I had the chance to participate in a book reading with local authors Sonora Jha and Shahana Dattagupta as part of the Aaina: South Asian Women’s Focus sponsored by Tasveer and hosted at the Seattle Asian Art Museum. We had a great turn-out and the authors dialogued around the themes of story-telling, creative and material history, and the move between various mediums of authorship.

April Events: Association of Asian American Studies, University of Washington Presentations

Spring semester is over and the Baltimore summer is quickly heating up. It’s been a busy few months–in April, Nalini and I gave a talk on Roots and Reflections at the University of Washington South Asia Center. During the same trip to Seattle, I organized a panel for the Association of Asian American Studies entitled “Contestations and Collaborations: Creating Asian American Archives and the Challenges of Representation” with Samip Mallick from the South Asian American Digital Archive, Neena Makhija from the Sindhi Voices Project, and Theo Gonzalves, professor of American Studies at UMBC.  My paper, “From Observer to Insider to Observer: The Challenges and Possibilities of Community Based Research” explored the issues that arise when representing community histories and working with institutional and community partners who are invested in retaining historical narratives of South Asian success.

I also gave a workshop for the University of Washington Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Department titled: “What’s Next: Moving Beyond Graduate School with Your Feminist Studies PhD.”

Book Available & Upcoming Readings

Roots and Reflections is officially available through the University of Washington Press,, and many other retailers! Please order a copy today and encourage your colleagues and libraries to add it to their collections.

We have gotten some great press coverage about the book-check out the “Book” page for more details.

In March, we will kick off the publication of the book with book readings in Seattle. On Saturday, March 2nd, Nalini and I will do a reading at Elliott Bay Books in Capital Hill at 5:00pm and on Monday, March 4th, we will be at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park at 7:00pm. Hope to see you there!

Roots and Reflections: Ready for Pre-Order

Great news! My co-authored book with Nalini Iyer is ready for purchase through the University of Washington Press.

You can watch a trailer about the book here: Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest

Roots and Reflections: South Asians in the Pacific Northwest


Immigrants from South Asia first began settling in Washington and Oregon in the nineteenth century, but because of restrictions placed on Asian immigration to the United States in the early twentieth century, the vast majority have come to the region since World War II. Roots and Reflections uses oral history to show how South Asian immigrant experiences were shaped by the region and how they differed over time and across generations. It includes the stories of immigrants from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka who arrived from the end of World War II through the 1980s.

Personal stories combine with historical, media, and popular culture accounts to illuminate themes of departure and arrival, gender relations, education, work, marriage, parenting, ties with the home country, and community building. By exploring the local Pacific Northwest dimension of a global immigrant phenomena, this important study deconstructs stereotypes and cultural assumptions made by non-South Asians and South Asians alike.

Amy Bhatt is assistant professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. Nalini Iyer is professor of English at Seattle University.

Teaching and Representing Gender in Modern South Asia

This semester, I had the chance to teach a new course at UMBC on Gender in Modern South Asia focusing on India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. We began with discourses and representations of South Asian women from the colonial to the post-colonial period and then looked at contemporary case studies related to nationalism, labor and migration, media, the body and social movements in South Asia.

Most students didn’t have a real sense of the region before we started class (and it was a struggle all semester to get them to use “South Asia” instead of a multitude of directional derivatives). Of course, the idea of “South Asia” is debated among scholars as the term is a Cold War era relic used to group together regions for strategic information gathering purposes. Rather than focus on the histories of imperialism that both collapse and divide the region into contemporary nation-states, there has been an emphasis in certain fields to imagine the land stretching from Afghanistan to Bhutan as a unified whole.

Of course, there are real problems with this approach: Nepal, for instance, had a very different experience with the British Raj, than the Punjab region of India and Pakistan. The politics of language and religion continue to divide nations even as they are configured as sovereign entities, such as in the case of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka and India, or the fight over religious minority rights in Pakistan.The women’s experience with education in Sri Lanka, where the national literacy rate rivals western nations, is considerably different than what women in Bangladesh face, as non-elite women struggle to access regular and quality forms of schooling from an early age.

At the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in November 2012, I had the chance to attend an excellent panel about teaching “India” from a Gender and Women’s Studies perspectives. The panelists there discussed how these problems are even further complicated when you also bring an explicitly feminist lens to course material and must work even harder as instructors to keep students from falling back on easy assumptions about South Asian women as oppressed and victimized by their culture.

This conflation of culture with experience does not occur only in studies of South Asia, but also in popular press accounts of the region and individuals in the diaspora. In 2011, I was interviewed for an article in Open Magazine about the “rash” of crimes by Indian-Americans ranging from the insider trading conviction of Rajat Gupta, to the charges of bribery against Anjan Dutta-Gupta, to a strange and elaborately staged jewelry heist.

I attempted to complicate the narrative of the journalist by pointing out that culture alone cannot account for the increase in crime among Indian-Americans (not to mention that he clumps together cases involving individuals who were born abroad with those raised in the United States, or in the case of Raj Rajaratnam, with individuals who are not even Indian). However, the story that he tells emphasizes only the “South Asian” cultural aspects of each perpetrator, rather than the circumstances that led them to their fate, or that may have been residing in the United States for years before committing such crimes and were much more aligned with “American” values than “South Asian.” Rather than acknowledge that the crime committed by a multimillion dollar hedge fund trader may have little in common with a dentist living in domestic violence, “South Asian-ness” becomes code for non-American aberration, particularly when the actions of individuals don’t map onto the myth of “model minorities.”

Considering the real challenge of how to then accurately and sensitively represent the countries that make up South Asia or South Asian communities across the globe in the classroom, I was apprehensive about adequately offering a course that could do justice to the deep histories and nuances of the region. Instead of trying to highlight common elements of “culture” that bind South Asia together, we looked at the increasing porousness of borders, for instance, between India and Nepal that has led to the flow of political dissidents, armed revolutionaries, and increasingly, trafficked women and men. We considered the ways in which globalization and the push for liberalization in Sri Lanka and India have led to conflicting ideas about gender roles, especially as rising numbers of women enter the paid employment sector. Finally, we used the course materials to make links across locations, but to also carefully to consider context, history, and politics.

At the end of the term, students had the chance to present original research to the class and write a research brief detailing what they learned. Some of the stellar topics included:

-the history and current status of Section 377 in the Indian penal code barring same-sex relationships

-the rise of sex selection and son preference in India

-the impact of women’s entry into the labor force on children in Pakistan

-the legacies of the South Asian diaspora in South Africa

Still a work in progress, the course was a chance for me as an instructor to test out ways of teaching about a complex region divided by religion, race, caste, class, occupation and wealth. Overall, the students have been excellent participants in this journey and were energizing in their enthusiasm for learning more about South Asia. As we wind down the semester, I’m grateful for the chance to teach about a topic that I love (and in many ways, am always learning about), while also pushing myself to be a better teacher and scholar.

Now, here’s to end of semester samosas!

First Year at UMBC

It’s been a busy here at the end of my first year at UMBC! While getting used to the new students, faculty, campus culture, Baltimore, and life on the east coast in general, I’ve had the chance to teach some excellent students, work on my book, and attend several great conferences.

Some highlights:

I taught GWST 100: Introduction to Gender and Women’s Studies and GWST 340: Global Perspectives on Gender and Women in both the fall and spring this year. In GWST 100, we had a great time incorporating semi-structured debates to help students develop their analytical reasoning, argumentation, and presentation skills.

In GWST 340, we just finished the semester off with a Gender Research Symposium. Students created posters based on independent research they conducted on organizations aimed at addressing them global gender issues. The symposium was a great success with students presenting on topics ranging from HIV intervention programs in Nigeria to sex worker empowerment programs in Brazil.

In April 2012, I had the opportunity to present a draft of an article at the Yale Modern South Asia Workshop. The paper, “From NRI Zero to Indian Hero: The Indian IT Worker as Development Entrepreneur” examines how NRIs view their relationship to the Indian nation while living abroad. In it, I argue that rather than simply feeling dislocated or displaced from the nation, younger generations of NRIs are re-framing their ties to India through their volunteer work aimed at development and social uplift.

On campus at UMBC, in February 2012, I was invited to present at the Dresher Center for the Humanities Brownbag Series on the ethics of feminist ethnography. Earlier in the year, I guest lectured in Dr. Constantine Vaporis’ ASIA 100 class on my research in India.

In the fall semester, I had the chance to present at two national conferences. In October 2011, I had the chance to participate in the Feminist Pre-Conference at the 40th Annual Conference on South Asia in Madison WI. I gave a paper entitled: “From Facebook to Face-to Face Encounters: Feminist Ethnography in an Era of Globalization.” In November 2011, I presented a paper, “State-Led Feminisms, Community Responses: The Specter of Domestic Violence and Temporary Migration” at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference in Atlanta, GA.

I’m looking forward to what the summer and next year hold in store.