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Section 8: Indians in America: Looking to the future after Sep 11th (Professional Life in the US for Immigrants) >> Book >> Section 8

Indians in America: Looking to the future after Sep 11th

The World Trade Center bombing on September 11th left an indelible mark on everyone in the America and the rumblings are still being felt around the world. Remarkably however, months after that sordid incident, the theme of Israel Zangwill’s play written during the beginning of twentieth century titled "The Melting Pot" still holds tremendous power on the American imagination. The promise that all immigrants can be transformed into Americans, and enjoy liberty and freedom to pursue ones dreams, still sways millions who come here.  Americans are generally tolerant of foreigners, and historically have welcomed them with open arms. Most Americans, other than Native Indians, trace their roots back to Europe, Asia, Africa or other parts of the globe, making it a unique melting pot. The bombings in September did little to change this mindset. After recovering from the initial shock, Americans have rallied around in their characteristic manner, displaying overt patriotism, flying the star spangled banner, watching their heroes – firemen and policemen trying to rescue victims and clear the debris, an image that still haunts many. 

As a regular columnist for Express Computers, I regularly receive mails from people asking my opinion on life and issues in the US. A few weeks after the bombing one particular Email stood out. A concerned dad wrote to me, expressing fears of backlash against Indians. He said, “My daughter has got admission into an undergraduate course for the Fall semester. Under the present disturbed circumstances in USA is it advisable to let her continue or bring her back home?” Being a technocrat, having lived in the US for over five years, and having had a glimpse of the ethnically diverse melting pot that makes America, I was initially surprised by his query. However, after thinking about this question for a while, I was able to empathize with a father who was concerned about his daughter’s safety and well-being. Even sporadic incidents have a way of blowing up in magnitude, especially when one hears and read about them sitting thousands of miles away. It is not hard to imagine the reaction of ones loved ones sitting thousands of miles away, watching the gruesome scenes of the carnage in New York unfolding, thanks to sattelite dishes and up-to-the-minute cable news channels. Adding fuel to the concerns about safety of loved ones were sporadic reports of backlash on Indians and other Asians.

Most Americans, until recently, have been shielded from violence in their homeland. Images of shootings and killings abroad didn’t seem to faze them. However, this carnage at home shocked most of them, leaving some traumatized. Added to this is the fact that many, if not most Americans are ignorant of foreigners and foreign cultures, and are unable to make out the difference between a turbaned Sikh and a turbaned Islamic militant being shown on TV. This left some Indians, vulnerable to “hate crimes”. However the government and media moved swiftly to isolate these incidents proving the resolve of Americans to remain levelheaded during tragic times. 

I was pleasantly surprised to note the reaction of the American Government and media that acted in an extremely responsible manner, ensuring that the “hate crimes” did not get any undue publicity which would motivate copycats; At the same time, they sent out a stern message to the public threatening dire action against perpetrators of any racist attacks and crimes. They were working overtime, trying to uphold the values upon which this country was founded — liberty and equal rights to its citizens (should be read as residents, since most of us in the US, even those with Green Cards and H1 visas enjoy the same civil liberty rights). 

Even SAJA (the South Asian Journalists Association) has done a wonderful job of providing news and links to the latest happenings in the Indian and South Asian community, especially after Sep 11. The fact is,  Indian and Asian journalists work for some of the most high-profile publications and mainstream media in the US; they also manage a number of Indian journals and publications in the US, acting as a voice of the community. Many of them have come together under the umbrella organization called SAJA, and were instrumental in collecting and publishing stories on a whole range of topics including “Ground Zero”, the backlash and `The War’. The organization represents more than 800 journalists (including 70+ students) spread across the United States and Canada and works to provide networking and mentoring opportunities to journalists of Indian and Asian origin. They are also working unobtrusive public relations campaign that will immensely benefit Indians in the years to come. A link to SAJA’s website can be found at

The power of Internet and its ability to provide instantaneous communication, linking people across the globe is well known. Immediately after the Sep 11th tragedy, individuals and companies trying to provide a sense of comfort and succor to thousands who were traumatized harnessed the medium. Internet was especially useful since there were reports of a number of Indians trapped in the debris, and people from all over the globe were trying to find if any of their loved ones were involved in the tragedy. Lists of people presumed involved in the tragedy started circulating immediately afterwards. Of course most of us Indians in the US who were not directly involved in the tragedy were able to instantly send reassuring emails to our relatives back home. 

 Has the American perception of Indians changed after September 11th?

The change in direction of the economy and its impact on professionals, especially on those from India (here on H1-B visas) and those here to study, seems to be generating a lot of interest among the business community in the US. The buzz surrounding Indians in the US has not gone unnoticed by the media and people in the US. Interestingly, even the mainstream media in the US seems to be taking note of the views of Indians in the US. I had an interesting conversation with a writer from Computerworld, one of the premier IT journals in the US towards the end of 2001, the gist of which was published in an interview in the magazine. (“Staying Focused on a Dream” section attached). 

The writer called me and wanted to interview me about my experiences as a ‘foreign worker’ in the US. She was especially interested in my reactions on how Indians felt about the current business environment. Indians technologists, at least those still with jobs, have been immune to the effects of the aftermath. Most of us still maintain a status quo and continue with our jobs and lives the best as we can. During the interview, the writer was impressed by the success of the Indian community in the US and was particularly awed by the daring shown by youngsters who took the plunge, coming to live in a foreign country. The influx of Indians H1s to the US was extremely beneficial not only to Indians but also to the US economy. People who came here were trained technologists who imported their valuable skills along with them. 

The fact that many mainstream magazines and journals are considering articles on H1s and immigrants, and want to feature Indians and their saga in the US, goes to prove that we are a sizeable force in the new economic and social equation. Americans have loved immigrant success stories and are starting to recognize the positive impact of the Indian Diaspora. 

Many people in India, especially those in the tech sector are concerned about the downturn and the impact it will have on H1 visas. The fact of the matter is that technocrats, academics and thinkers are still going to be in demand. Indians have been traveling to the US even after the downturn and have faced very little hurdles. The paperwork scrutiny, especially the security may be a bit more stringent, but at most airports and immigration centers, and American embassies around the globe, it is business as usual. Visas are still being issued to foreigners who have legitimate business in the US, although the immigration department is picky about who gets those visas. At the port of entry, in most airports and land entry points, there are already stricter controls and vigilance to ensure that only authorized people enter. 

Students planning to come to the US for higher education may find the going a bit tougher. However, it will not be impossible to get a student visa, especially if one is bright and can afford the cost of an American education. A vast number of American universities still covet foreign students as a source of valuable revenue, and even a tightening of visa laws is unlikely to change that. They will lobby to ensure that students who can afford to pay the full fees and are academically inclined are welcome. Universities and academic institutions generally go out of the way to welcome scholars who can add to the overall academic experience. They facilitate foreign scholars by providing all the documentation, letters of reference etc and will continue to do so. However, the scrutiny at the embassies that issue visas to foreign students will get tougher. Paperwork and documentation will go through a number of levels of scrutiny. The visa rules may become more stringent, but those needed in the US for legitimate research and academic pursuits will always be welcome. 

If Indians can ride the downturn with the same élan as they did during the boom period, we are going to come ahead resilient and stronger. The Indian success story is similar to that of the successful Jewish community in the US. Like Jews, even Indians are brilliant people, respected and looked up by Americans. Even after a spending few generations in the US, Jews still take great pride in their heritage and maintain a strong sense of community. Similarly, Indians are used to chaos in our lives and we try to compartmentalize the different aspects of our life — family, socialising, religion, faith, career etc. Even after spending many years abroad, Indians derive strength from our values, culture and traditions, which is going to help us ride this downturn. If we can ride the downturn and come blazing back, American perception of Indians as a hard working, resilient community will be strengthened. 

Direction of American Economy

 One of the most talked-about topics in the US is the state of the economy. The unintended, and perhaps the most momentous consequence of the New York City bombing was the impact on the US economy, that was already tethering in the brink of a recession. After growing at an astronomical pace during the past decade, the economy was already starting to show signs of a slow-down and was pushed over the edge by the September 11th incidents. 

 Experts are already predicting that the affects of this incident on the US economy are going to be incredible. Wall Street Journal, the revered American business journal, in its October 9 edition said, “the estimated hit to the U.S economy so far: at least $100 billion this year, on top of tens of billions in property damage and the staggering loss of human life”. The article went on to add that America’s $10 trillion economy is expected to shrink by nearly 1%. Just to put these numbers in perspective, a billion dollars is almost equivalent to 4,700 crore rupees. 

Towards the end of 2001 it became official that the economy was in recession. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a panel of economists considered to be the arbiters of the nation’s boom and bust cycles, the US economy had been in recession since early March. The day this was announced, November 26, the stock market, instead of going down, reacted buoyantly by moving up in the hope that the worst may be behind us. 

One of the pressing questions in everyone’s mind is with respect to the end of  the current recession. Although the NBER won’t forecast a bottom of the current downturn, until the end is really confirmed, economists say the recession could likely last into 2002. How deep and how far is anyone’s guess, but people are bracing themselves for the worst. The news of layoff’s and joblessness is already tapering off. There is indeed some indication that there is light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a fuzzy and bleak light. There are still unanswered questions of what, when and how we will see the trend reverse. One thing is certain: we are seeing the economic climate thaw. Most corporate executives are already taking the current economic woes in their stride. Companies, reconciled to the current economic conditions, have already started budgeting for the years ahead, and although the budgets are extremely conservative, they are giving an indication that the worst may be behind us. 

The reverberations of Enron’s fall are still being felt and I don’t think they will subside anytime soon. Thousands of American companies declare bankruptcy every year. Last year the bankruptcy saga was glamorized by the crash of dot.coms and Internet startups. Why then all the brouhaha over Enron, Kmart and Global Crossing? The downfall of American icons, Enron and Kmart, is sending shivers down the corporate boardrooms across the country. The main reason is the attachment most people have to large corporations. Dot.coms and Internet startups didn’t evoke the same passion in the hearts and minds of people, as do conventional giants. Most people are wondering, if a large energy trading giant – till two years ago the seventh largest American company – can file for Chapter 11 (a kind of legal bankruptcy filing) – and a hundred year old retailer can flip like a pack of cards, what is to prevent others from sinking? A bankruptcy filing by a large company is not just closure of a company, but loosing of faith in the business, idea and market, not to mention loss of thousands jobs, careers and dreams. Crash of large companies affects all the divisions and even techies are not immune. Scores of Indians working for Enron and Kmart are already out looking for next jobs and assignments, a tough spot to be, especially in the current job market.  

It is a fact that most non-essential business spending has come to a halt. Along with business spending, IT systems and projects have been put on hold. Most companies across the US are only spending on projects that are ‘critical’ to the operations, shelving non-essential projects. The nice-to-have systems and technical upgrades are out of the door. Interestingly, some smaller companies, especially those with cash reserves, are bargain hunting, using the down economy as an excuse to hire DBA’s, systems analysts and web-programmers cheaply. They are rebuilding their antiquated systems and streamlining the operations. Needless to say, there is a pent-up demand, especially in companies with large IT houses, for new system and software upgrades and projects that can enhance and add-value. However, that pent-up demand is being controlled and will find an outlet the moment the economy turns north. One or two quarters of profits and growth will see a renewed focus on business spending. 

Will things get back to normal?

Hardly anyone in the US has been immune to the current downturn that we are experiencing. Even Indians in the US have not been spared. Some lost jobs and had to return back to India because their employers cancelled their H1 visas. (See the topic: “Why laid-off Indians refuse to return home?” Needless to say, for most of us, it has been a learning experience.  One aspect of American life that Indians find hard to adjust to is the drastic swings in the economic cycles. We are used to a slower economic cycle and sometimes find it hard to accept that an economy, which was super-hot, towards the end of nineties got under recession in 2001. Layoffs are a still a taboo in India and we attach a strong stigma to layoffs. However, many Indians, who have lived through a few economic cycles here in the US do not seem to think much of layoffs, or even economic cycles, focusing instead, on the big picture. 

The growth we saw in the late nineties had a number of things going for it. It was the period when the fear of Y2K reached hysterical levels, prompting governments (state and federal) and Fortune 500 companies to spend enormous amounts of money towards Y2K readiness. This was also a period that saw the and Internet mania sweep across the country (and the world). Instead of trying to understand the real value that these technologies afforded, companies perpetuated a gold rush by spending billions of dollars in trying to compete with their Internet cousins. Without these two factors, it is hard to envisage a return back to the glorious days of 1990s. However, this does not undermine the need for IT systems and solutions that can add true business value and solve the needs of business users. There will be a renewed demand for world-class systems and software that can solve and show business leaders a real Return on Investment (ROI) 

For Indians and Indian companies, this latent demand translates to opportunities waiting to happen. A number of large Indian software houses are already starting to consolidate their operations, focusing on building on their strengths. Perhaps now is the time for Indian companies to invest in some world-class PR (public relations) and marketing. If we get the message out that India is still a top-notch supplier of software and services, we will kill two birds — get the word out on the street (in the US) and position ourselves for a rebound. Companies with cash reserves should start building goodwill with their down-and-out clients in the US by reducing margins and even working on a cost-basis. Their clients and customers will remember this gesture, especially as the economic growth and the latent projects become a reality. 

America’s economic strength is based on the globalization of its businesses and commercial enterprises, and it is hard to envisage the nation isolating itself from the global marketplace. Even though Americans are still reeling under the aftermath of the attack, and the economy in recession, people, government and the corporate world is  rallying around to help rebuild the nation. America is a melting pot of ethnicities and this incident, although it has shaken us all, will go down as a small blimp that tested the resilience and tolerance of its people. What makes America great is the tremendous amount of economic and business activity taking place here. In order to man and manage and operate the affairs of business, including technologies that keep businesses humming, America is going to need talented people, even if it means getting talented foreigners.

Why laid-off Indians refuse to return home?

 It has been over forty years since the US pulled out of Vietnam, but some American soldiers who were there still wake hallucinating about their experiences, grappling with the uncertainty and ever-changing environment. Indian software professionals came to the US looking for opportunities but as many are finding out, it is a mixed bag.

Most of us have heard of the far-reaching consequences of the current economic downturn manifesting in a spate of layoffs. Even I have been hearing and reading stories of people having to pack their bags and leave because their project unexpectedly came to an end. The magnitude of it (layoffs) struck me recently while talking to an ex-colleague of mine. He got married in November of 2000 and came back with his bride, and unfortunately got laid off in March of 2001. He has been looking for a job since then, but the prospects seem to be bleak. 

Reasons abound, but during the hiring frenzy of Y2K projects and the dot com boom, hundreds of thousands of Indians, most of them on H1’s, came to the US. As the projects started to come to an end many were laid off during the first and second quarter of 2001, returned back and started looking for projects and jobs in Hyderabad, Bangalore and Madras. The ‘US Returned’ tag and the first mover advantage probably helped them land a job. 

However, a number of Indians decided to stay back, taking a chance that sooner, rather than later, the market would open up and they would get their jobs back. However, all indications point to the fact that the situation doesn’t seem to be abating and it could be a while before we see any real positive signs of economic growth. The financial hardship one undergoes, being out of a job in a foreign country is hard to describe. Rent, insurance, food and transportation are de rigueur and the expenses can add up very quickly. What then makes a person stay back in a foreign country with the slim hope that he will land a job and recoup his expenses? 

Perhaps one of the strongest reasons (for a person to stay back in the US after being laid-off) is family. Many of us still vividly remember the pride and joy with which our families came to see us off at the airport when we first moved to the US. Families take great pride in the fact that the son (or daughter) is working in the US. Layoff is a still a stigma, more so because it is relatively unheard of in white-collar jobs in India. Hence, it is extremely hard to come to terms with the fact that one has been laid off. It is almost as if one would be “letting the family down” if one were to return back after being laid off. Many still think of it like having the “family honor” at stake and they decided to stay back and look for jobs here in the US as long as it takes, rather than go back to India.

Back to my friend, he hasn’t told his parents or in-laws back home about his predicament since he wants to save ‘face’. How long is he willing to wait? Hard to say. I’m sure he is resilient enough to bounce back and will land on his feet when things get better; but until then, he is living off his savings. So are thousands of Indians in the US. 

Now that I have spoken about the gloom and disparity shrouding the predicament being faced by some Indians in the US, it’s time to look at the other side of the coin. 

For employers, especially to the Software Moguls who run Indian companies, having access to thousands of capable and highly skilled professionals should spell opportunity. Access to thousands of world-class professionals with valid visas in the US, available to start work immediately, unthinkable even a few months ago is a reality. Executives with some foresight and the ability to look at the forest from the trees will immediately see an opportunity, since this situation (downturn in economy) in not going to last long. Added to this is the fact that media and the stock market has a tendency to overreact to news good and bad and many executives, even at large companies tend to rely on the media and the market more than they should. Indian companies and software giants do not have this baggage. Many of them are flush with funds that they generated during the boom time and can afford to build, maintain and motivate a pool of software professionals.

Added to this fact is the global nature of Indian software. Most large Indian software houses have projects around the world and can market professionals in other parts of the world too. If they (the Indian companies) can see an opportunity in this economic climate, they will come ahead when things eventually start looking up. They will not only have a pool of talented workers but will also win the loyalty of the workforce that has seen worst times.

 There is an army of experienced professionals waiting for the right break. Any takers?

Computerworld Interview with the Author:  Staying Focused on a Dream,1199,NAV47_STO66186,00.html 

BY MELISSA SOLOMON; (December 03, 2001)

 For Mohan Babu, the dream of permanent U.S. residency is still alive. But his illusion of America as the land where opportunities abound is vanishing before his eyes. 

Within the past year, Babu, an H-1B visa holder from Bangalore, India, has seen friend after friend lose his job and pack his bags to return home. "They had a couple of weeks' notice," and they had to sell their cars and furniture and go, says Babu, a Colorado Springs-based consultant for Compuware Corp. 

Like many technology firms, Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Compuware has been affected by the stalled economy. But much to the surprise of its employees, the company has kept many of its consultants on staff until the next project comes along, says Babu.

"I'm definitely worried . . . because they haven't made a statement that they will continue their policy indefinitely," says Babu. Since his benefits and salary are tied to the job market, he's already felt the pinch. "That has taken a big hit," he says. "A lot of us were not counting on this." 

Still, Babu knows he's one of the lucky ones. He's pretty far along in the green-card application process, so he can remain in the country even if he loses his job. But for most foreigners, the prospects are grim, he says, adding, "If you lose a job, you don't just lose a job. You lose visa status." 

The situation has affected every aspect of life for the foreign workers still in the U.S. "When times were good, we had a strong network," says Babu. Indians from around the U.S. connected with one another on a social and professional level. But even that network is hard to tap now, "because everyone is in the same boat," he says.




Mohan Babu: All Rights Reserved 2002- 2013

All rights are reserved. Mohan Babu ("Author") hereby grants permission to use, copy and distribute this document for any NON-PROFIT purpose, provided that the article is used in its complete, UNMODIFIED form including both the above Copyright notice and this permission notice. Reproducing this article by any means, including (but not limited to) printing, copying existing prints, or publishing by electronic or other means, implies full agreement to the above non-profit-use clause. Exceptions to the above, such as including the article in a compendium to be sold for profit, are permitted only by EXPLICIT PRIOR WRITTEN CONSENT of Mohan Babu. 

Disclaimer: This document represents the personal opinions of the Author, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of the Author's employer, nor anyone other than the Author. Any mentions of commercial products, company names, or universities are solely for information purposes and do not imply any endorsement by the Author or any other entity. The Author provides this article "as is." The Author disclaims any express or implied warranties including, but not limited to, any implied warranties of commercial value, accuracy, or fitness for any particular purpose. If you use the information in this document in any way, you do so entirely at your own risk.

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Book Index

  • Intro
  • Section 1: Visas and Immigration
  • Section 2 Finances
  • Section 3 Law and legal system
  • Section 4 Consumerism
  • Section 5 Life and weekends in the US
  • Section 6 Health and lifestyle
  • Section 7 Demographics
  • Section 8 Indians in America: Looking to the future after Sep 11th
  • Section 9 Preparing for the next wave
  • Appendix

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