WMU News

Helweg book reveals surprises about Indian immigrants

March 17, 2004

KALAMAZOO--Stroll on any university campus or down a crowded city sidewalk, and you probably won't have much trouble finding people of Indian descent. What might surprise many people is how important a role this demographic group has played both in American progress and strides being made in the group's homeland.

Though many of India's most promising professionals have immigrated to the United States, the trend has yielded many benefits for India as well. That is just one of the surprises detailed in "Strangers in a Not-So-Strange Land: Indian American Immigrants in the Global Age" written by Dr. Arthur Helweg, a Western Michigan University professor of anthropology. The book was published in January by Thomson-Wadsworth Publishers.

"People talk about brain drain," Helweg says, "but this group has sent a lot of money and technology back home, so it's not as much of a drain as people might think."

One example is Gurmale Singh Grewal, who immigrated to the United States when he was 13. Today, he is chief executive officer of a large, family-owned real estate development company in Detroit, but he and his brothers have not forgotten their native country. He set up a computer center in his home village of Sahouli, extending Internet access to thousands of residents in the area. He also has invested in land there and remains involved in the internal and external affairs of the village.

Grewal's contributions to his adopted country also are significant. Through the family's company, the Grewals have created 2,448 permanent jobs, generated $80 million in wages and $4 million in tax revenues.

Attracting aspiring Indian immigrants to the United States has certainly benefited America, Helweg says. His research shows 5 percent of physicians in the United States obtained their primary degree in India. In addition to health care, Indian immigrants have excelled in the high-tech industry and have established a significant presence in Silicon Valley and other high-tech hotspots.

As a demographic group, Indian immigrants surpass the general public in many important categories. Fifty-seven percent have college degrees, compared to 20 percent of the American public; 30 percent hold professional jobs, as opposed to 13 percent of Americans at large; and their average annual household income is $88,000, far more than the $51,000 American average.

"The people we're taking are the cream of the crop," Helweg says. "Our system is selective, not just for Indians, but immigrants from all over the world. We're getting the best talent in the world coming here. Some countries are trying to lure them back now."

Helweg, who has written a series of books on immigrant populations in Michigan, says other ethnic groups also have done well, but Indian immigrants appear to be doing the best. Indians have demonstrated a real strength in computer science and research, while their role in health care has been essential to the U.S. health care system.

"Their contributions have been phenomenal," Helweg says. "Our medical services in rural and urban areas would have collapsed without them coming in, because other doctors don't want to work there."

Though one would think life in America would be a huge adjustment for people from such a vastly different part of the world, Indian immigrants are well prepared start their new lives here, Helweg adds, thanks in part to a good educational system in India

"They know all about the United States before they come here," he says. "They speak English well, so they're not coming to a strange planet, so to speak."

For more information or to order the book, visit the Web site <www.wadsworth.com>.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 269 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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