Gov. Greg Abbott courts Indian immigrants, a group gaining visibility, clout in North Texas

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Gov. Greg Abbott courts Indian immigrants, a group gaining visibility, clout in North Texas

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Staff Photographer

There is a rising demographic force in North Texas — Indians, as in people from South Asia’s largest country.

It soon will be the earth’s most populous nation, home to one of about every six people.

In Dallas-Fort Worth as well as in the rest of Texas, political bloodhound Greg Abbott has the scent.

The Republican governor senses something big is happening and admits his nine-day jaunt to India that began Thursday is about far more than commerce.

The mostly well-educated, affluent Indians who have flocked in big numbers to upscale and in some cases downright ritzy suburbs of Dallas are breaking barriers, running for office and embracing assimilation into their adopted country.

Their participation in Texas communities is building a potential bloc of votes and political contributions that Abbott hopes to someday harvest.

"The Indian community in Texas is more Republican than the Republican Party in Texas," Abbott said as he flew into Mumbai on a nine-day trade mission Friday.

"They are genuine economic conservatives. They strongly believe in the free enterprise system and a governmental structure that supports that. And they are very strongly pro-family and pro-military. They’re just very patriotic."

Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said Abbott is eager to broaden his base of support.

"Most Texans, including Gov. Abbott, know and follow the injunction to ‘hunt where the ducks are,’ " he said. "More and more of these ducks are South Asian, with professional educations and incomes, able to make political contributions and increasingly willing to step out as voters and candidates."

Shopping for good schools

In North Texas, there are large populations of Indians in Highland Park, West Plano, Frisco, Richardson and Valley Ranch in Irving. Many are software engineers, scientists and physicians. A second generation of Dallas residents whose parents came from India have entered a much wider range of occupations, such as professions and business investments.

Nowhere, though, has the community become more visible than in Cypress Waters near D-FW International Airport.

Visitors frequently can see grandmothers decked out in saris walking down sidewalks.

"The community’s huge," Lucy Crow Billingsley, who with husband Henry launched the planned community about six years ago, said of the Indian immigrants.

At the LEED-certified building and campus that are home to a relocated Richard J. Lee Elementary, well more than half the children are from families of Indian heritage, said Sid Grant, associate superintendent of the Coppell school district.

The recently relocated Richard J. Lee Elementary in Coppell, which affords a window on a startling demographic shift in the Dallas area: Slightly more than half of the students are from families of Indian heritage, and 79 percent can trace their ethnic origin to South Asia and the Far East, according to district officials. (Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer)

(Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer)

As Lee ended classes on a recent weekday, the 800 students who dispersed to carpools and buses in very orderly fashion were hugely multiethnic. Seventy-nine percent are recorded as being of Asian ethnicity. "We believe [them] to be of South Asia or Far East origin," with many born in the U.S., said district spokeswoman Amanda Simpson.

"What I hear these Indian parents say over and over is, ‘We picked the best school district in North Texas that we could afford,’" she said. "That emphasis on academic excellence is definitely a cultural trait that is shared."

Getting into politics

Enthusiastic embrace of America — and Texas — is another.

Two long-time Dallas area residents who emigrated from India as young adults, Manish Sethi and Balkishore "Balki" Chamkura, are running against one another in the May Coppell school board election. The winner would be the first Indian American to be a school trustee in Coppell.

Biju Mathew, who arrived in Texas more recently but has spent longer in the U.S., is a candidate for Coppell City Council. If he wins, that too would be a first.

The Coppell school board soon will have its first Indian American trustee — either Balkishore "Balki" Chamkura, left, or Manish Sethi. On Monday, they posed in the library of Richard J. Lee Elementary near DFW Airport.

All are computer professionals. Each has amassed a glittering résumé of civic involvement — clubs, school foundations, YMCA board, park board, neighborhood associations, Leadership Coppell.

"We’re all legally here and we’re here to contribute," said Chamkura, who said Texas is a great place to start a family. "We have become a noticeable minority."

Sethi said he splits his socializing 50-50 between fellow Indians and North Texans of other racial and ethnic backgrounds.

"We come in with the right [academic] degrees, with the right knowledge, where we know we are positive contributors," he said.

Mathew, who emigrated to Cambridge, Mass., when he was in high school, said he and his wife, a physician assistant, are eager to help U.S. military veterans. It’s a way of showing their pride in being U.S. citizens, and their growing sense of belonging, he explained.

All said they were pulled toward the Dallas area by Texans’ Southern hospitality, their traditional views of family, the state’s warm climate and good job opportunities.

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Manish Sethi, 43, who grew up in Mumbai, India, is an IT consultant. He moved his family from Chicago to North Texas in 2001. "The value system matches ours," he said, referring to the American South. (Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer)

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"To be honest, I was tired of shoveling the snow," Mathew recalled.

Trump a turn off?

As Abbott and other Texas politicians court the Indians, though, they must overcome anxieties raised by President Donald Trump and his hard-line immigration policies. Though India was not among the eight countries Trump singled out for his travel ban, the president’s disparaging talk of immigrants has not gone unnoticed in the Dallas Indian community, said longtime resident Rajiv Shah.

Shah, a management professor at the University of Texas at Dallas who has spent 43 of the past 45 years in academic, corporate and engineering management pursuits in Dallas and Houston, said there has been no panic.

"The anxiety is not about what has happened so far, but about what could happen if you extrapolate from things right now and the likes of [former Trump adviser and Breitbart.com executive] Stephen Bannon and Trump and what could happen," he said.

SMU’s Jillson said Trump’s approach could be a stumbling block for GOP outreach efforts.

Balki Chamkura, 53, also an IT consultant, moved with his family from Pittsburgh, Pa., to the Dallas area in the late 1990s. "This is our new home," he said. "We want to be a part of the mainstream." (Nathan Hunsinger/Staff Photographer)

"Abbott wants to build a relationship with this rising community, but the Republican Party’s ambivalence about immigrants will always be a back-of-mind concern to them," he said.

For now, though, Indians are pouring into North Texas, said Kamal Kaushal, a New York Life Insurance marketing executive who heads the India Association of North Texas.

Guesses about the size of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s Indian population are just that.

"It’s all a guesstimate, right," Kaushal said.

Across the Texas landscape

The nonprofit India House in Houston estimates that more than 140,000 Indians live in Harris, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties.

While Houston has a "Gandhi District" southwest of downtown, which boasts a profusion of Indian and Pakistani shops and restaurants, UT-Dallas’ Shah said the Dallas area has seen a more scattered pattern of settlement — mostly in affluent areas.

Business people with Dallas operations report that as many as 200,000 to 300,000 Indians live in North Texas, Shah said. He has no reason to doubt them, he said.

Kaushal, who like Shah formerly worked for Texas Instruments in Richardson, was bolder.

"Dallas right now has equal if not more than Houston," he said. "My God, people are moving from California to Dallas, from Houston to Dallas. Dallas is the destination."

Abbott, who has cultivated relationships with Indian-American entrepreneurs and civic leaders statewide, said he has been told Odessa has a very high concentration of Indians per capita.

Shah said there are significant numbers in Lubbock and Midland as well.

Asrav Anand, 4, swings on the swingset with his mother, Sumit Kumari, at Thomas Jefferson Park in Irving, Texas, on March 19, 2018.

In North Texas, beyond the friendly confines of tech firms, medical installations and universities, there may be some resentment of Indians and their affluence, he said.

"I did hear a couple of stories like that in the ’80s," Shah said. Indians once "were a curiosity" in Texas, he said.

"Today, you are taken for granted, there are so many of you."

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