The immigration experience

The United States ranks as the fifth most popular destination for immigration for Pakistanis

The immigration experience

The Pakistani community in the United States is a dynamic immigrant group that has been growing since the end of the twentieth century. The latest figure estimating the number of Pakistani immigrants in the US was 453,000. It is expected to have substantially grown. Call it the magnetic pull of the American dream or simply a selection by chance, the United States ranks as the fifth most popular destination for immigration for Pakistanis according to the PEW Research Centre.

Remarkably, in addition to building a life in the host country, Pakistani-Americans have sustained strong trans-national ties. In 2017 alone, according to American Pakistan Foundation, Pakistan received over $1.3 billion in remittances from the United States. The reason the Pakistani community is the second-largest growing one can also be because of the prosperity many previously settled families are experiencing. As reported by the Migration Policy Institute, 18 percent of Pakistani households have claimed space in the top 10 percentof the US household income distribution. Though many would attribute this upward economic mobility to hard work, education and perseverance, the immigrant experience is seldom simple.

The largest number of Pakistani-Americans live in Texas, California and New York. They have created distinct Pakistani landscapes in some places. In Midwood, Brooklyn near the Newkirk Plaza is an area often called Little Pakistan right in the heart of the spirited New York City. This is a place where many Pakistanis flocked in the early days of their immigration, hoping to find a home in a foreign land. Men and women adorn their Pakistani national dress with comfort and speak Urdu and Punjabi without any inhibition, as reported by journalists like Nushmiya Sukhera. The streets are marked with shops with names that pay homage to Pakistani descent such as the Punjab Grocery or Lahore Chilli restaurant.

This information supports the claim The New York Times made a few years ago: Pakistanis in the United States are economically stronger and more culturally assimilated than Pakistanis in Britain. In an in-depth research, many Pakistani-Americans explained how the United States is not as rigid when it comes to hybridity in cultures. “[One] can keep the flavour of [their] ethnicity” however, the expectation of becoming an ‘American’ is nonetheless dominating. A 52-year-old Pakistani-American doctor noted that in the United States, one is more likely to “lead departments at hospitals or universities” unlike in Britain. Thus, the US plays into the tropes of the immigrant experience: it is a tough place but there are opportunities for growth, hard work is the key.

However, there are many immigrants for whom the experience of the United States ended at “it is a tough place”. The terrorizing 9/11 attacks in the US offset a barrage of laws and investigations in which most South Asians, including Pakistanis, were wrongfully targetted. The Diplomat reports that post 9/11, 254 Pakistanis were uprooted from their homes in NYC and deported while many others fled the States for Canada. As a result, the demographics of the Pakistani diaspora in the US also radically changed. The aforementioned Little Pakistan started emptying out as immigrants feared hostile treatment.

In 2017 alone, according to American Pakistan Foundation, Pakistan received over $1.3 billion in remittances from the United States. 

Many Pakistani-Americans face economic struggles, a tug-of-war with values and discriminatory behaviour. The miniature Lahore may evoke nostalgia and nationalism, but it is not without its undesirable implications. It is practically a ghettoisation of the Pakistani community where Americans are rarely found and which Pakistani-Americans can rarely leave. Most Pakistanis residing here are those with little to no knowledge of English, leaving them entirely dependent on the confines of Little Pakistan.

To get an insight into a Pakistani-American’s firsthand experience, TNS spoke to Saleha Rauf, a machine learning engineer at Apple. Rauf is based in Seattle and moved there for her graduate studies. After getting a flavour of professional life in the States, she knew her future prospects would be bright. However, the proverbial ‘all that glitters is not gold’ couldn’t be more apt for Rauf’s experience, like many others. She has also been an occasional victim of discriminatory behaviour. “Contrary to popular belief, I feel more comfortable in professional spaces. It’s in places like grocery stores and restaurants that situations can become extremely tense and intolerant.”

Hassan Ahmad is also a Pakistani living in the United States who moved to Berkeley, California, for his undergraduate degree. Having spent two years in the Bay Area, Hasan firmly believes that the US provides a panoramic exposure at a young age and offers freedom not only professionally but also creatively. Despite living in “one of the more diverse areas in the US”, Hassan has faced the occasional problem with how he looks and speaks. However, what particularly stands out is Hassan’s conceptualisation of home as a diverse idea. “Home in Pakistan is more communal, tied to your family” whereas in the US his idea of home is more individualised; “home is the apartment I get to set up myself”.

The experience, thus, can be summarised as the journey of one moving from being a Pakistani living in the US to a Pakistani-American. At the heart of this journey lies constant negotiation over the extent of cultural hybridity both communities wish to achieve. While the immigrants often harbour hostility towards American values, their pursuit of American capital ultimately helps them assimilate, sometimes on their own terms.

Ultimately, the experience of the Pakistani diaspora in the United States cannot be confined to stereotypes. The United States has long posited itself as a melting-pot meritocracy. Events like 9/11 and presidencies like Trump’s have added more to the bargain. However, the love for a home, regardless of its location, is an invincible force. The United States is home to many Pakistanis. Thus, on the 4th of July, amidst crowds championing red, blue and white are many Pakistani-Americans with a fierce patriotism nestled deep inside their hearts.

The writer is an English literature student at LUMS and can be reached at

The immigration experience