More than a decade ago, I dreamt of moving to the US. I was then an Indian Police Service officer posted in Tuensang, a district bordering Myanmar. I was sick of the rottenness of Indian government and wanted to work where merit mattered.
Fortuitously, I won a scholarship to Oxford and ended up in the UK but I still kept feeling the pull of America. Five years ago, I finally moved to America and, a month ago, the US government granted me permanent residence on the grounds that I am an extraordinary media leader in the field of foreign policy and international affairs.
The reality is that I live in my car mechanic’s garage, penniless and without health insurance. America is no country for the weak. It is brutal if you end up poor, old or sick, and, even worse, any combination of the three.
Too many immigrants who come to the US start off being poor. Often they end up getting sick too. In a ruthlessly competitive society, with no family to fall back on, precious few social ties and a practically non-existent social support structure, this can be disastrous.
As any immigrant will tell you, before achieving the “American Dream,” one has to survive the “American Nightmare.” America is a land of much promise but it is an unremitting and unforgiving land.
Immigrants undergo much travail and work inordinately hard to succeed and to give their kids a decent shot at life. The rosy image of America most immigrants have omits the thorns. Unsurprisingly, most immigrants get a rude shock when they move to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Immigrants have long come to the US in search of opportunity. Despite the weak economy, people elsewhere still look upon the US as a country where they can lead better lives.
The British and Europeans have now been replaced by the Mexicans, the Chinese and the Indians, the top three sources of immigrants to the US. Mexican immigration comprises mainly of workers streaming across the border in search of jobs.
Chinese and Indian immigration is similar with one big difference. A number of those immigrating tend to highly skilled individuals who have come through a ferociously competitive education system.
Thanks to the British Empire, Indians tend to be more fluent in English than the Chinese, and tend to assimilate better. About 1.0% of the US population is now of Indian descent.
Three kinds of Indians come to the US. The first are students. Although numbers have been dropping for the last couple of years, India annually sends nearly 100,000 students to the US. Most return but quite a few stay on.
The second are professionals. The huge waves of immigration of doctors and software engineers are now over. Still, many of the finest Indian brains in science, technology and medicine find the US an irresistible draw.
Obviously, Indian professionals work very hard. They suffer dislocation, isolation and numerous cultural challenges but they have the skills, the mindset and the work-ethic to succeed.
The untold story, however, is of the less skilled Indian immigrants, the third kind of immigrant.
The recent brouhaha involving Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat arrested in New York, forgets the story of her maid, Sangeeta Richard.
‘Escaping the lucky sperm club’
India is a deeply divided country where the elite matters. India does not care about its soldiers being beheaded, millions suffering malnutrition and a culture of rape. People like Sangeeta want to flee a country where if you are not a part of the lucky sperm club or achieve great success, daily life is an uphill struggle.
Chronic unemployment plagues India. Even those who are ostensibly employed are often wiling away their time and earning a pittance. Apart from economic hardship, many individuals are deeply unhappy in a highly repressive society.
There is a great desire to escape and a large number of people are looking for opportunities. America with its glow of professional success, rags to riches stories and seductive movies, is the Promised Land just as it was in the past for Europeans who were escaping poverty and repression.
Coming over to the US for poorer Indians is not easy. They do not get into universities to study physics or genetics.
They put together all their savings to get to the US and then go missing. They are undocumented and illegal immigrants who run the risk of being deported if they are caught. This fails to deter many intrepid souls.
Dance troupes go underground when they are visiting the US. Many people come in on tourist visas and then never go back. Some even come to Mexico and jump the border. Illegal Indian immigrants take up odd jobs in farms, restaurants or factories just like their Mexican counterparts.
Of course, not all of the less skilled immigrants come to the US illegally. A large number of Indians have always applied for asylum. I know a poor lawyer who was so desperate to move to the US that he applied for asylum and now works in a prison.
Another person I met at a sandwich shop in New York had come to the US on a school trip and made a similar claim. Regardless of whether the less skilled immigrants have used legal or illegal means to move to the US, they end up doing jobs that Americans shun.
Their lives are hard and their stores rarely documented.
Forging a new future
Britain has a class system and is the most stratified society of the West. India has a caste system overlaid with a class system that makes it the most stratified society of the world.
Affluent Indians and, in particular, India’s power drunk officials import their servants from the mother country and frequently treat them as slaves. They make them work interminably, pay them an egregiously low wage and threaten to cause trouble for their families if the servants protest.
Under the veneer of democracy, India is still a semi-feudal society where the administrative elite like Devyani Khobragade draws its power from 19th century imperial laws drafted by Balliol men from Oxford.
In the words of Herbert Henry Asquith, a noted British prime minister and a Balliol man, people from this college possessed “the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.” The same words can be described for Indian bureaucrats today who, additionally, tend to be lazy, corrupt and ignorant.
When maids like Sangeeta come to the US, they start realizing that they have rights under the law. When they are taking the children of their employers to the park or buying vegetables or even taking a bus, they talk.
They learn that they have rights and that they can get better wages for less work. Sometimes, they disappear to become undocumented and illegal immigrants because their situation is so desperate that the risk is worth it.
We will never know whether this might be the case with Sangeeta. She might have been willing to work as a cleaner or a worker in a chicken factory to avoid the daily indignities of working for an imperious Indian diplomat.
She might have got a better employment offer or she might have just cracked and fled.The point is that Sangeeta’s story is part of a common American narrative of immigrants starting out to forge a new future.
America may be no country for the weak but it still offers intrepid immigrants a shot to be free.
Follow Atul on Twitter: @atulabhas