It’s very difficult to pinpoint the first Nepali immigrant to the U.S. During the majority of U.S. history, Nepali immigrants were classified simply as “other Asian.” Between 1881 and 1890, 1,910 people classified as “other Asians” immigrated to the U.S. Though perhaps some of these “other Asians” were Nepalis, it’s impossible to say.
However, what we can say is that it is very unlikely that any of these “other Asians” were Nepalese because the Anglo-Nepal Treaty of 1816 closed Nepal to all foreigners except the British, and forbade Nepalese from legally emigrating anywhere except India. During this period, there was also some Nepali migration to Britain and its colonies, as Nepali troops were supplied to the British army and police forces as part of this treaty. This led to many Nepali men — called Gurkha soldiers — ending up in Britain and its colonies.
Above: Gurkha soldiers during World War II.
Additionally, the lack of a diplomatic relationship between Nepal and the U.S. until 1947 and the country’s limited access to Western material culture and languages also make it very unlikely that Nepalis were included in this first group of “other Asians” who immigrated to the United States.
In order to understand Nepali immigration to the U.S., it is important to realize that Nepal’s social, political, and economic ties with the outside world only began in the early 1950s. In 1951, the autocratic Rana regime was overthrown, increasing Nepal’s contact with the outside world and allowing more Nepalis to immigrate to different countries across the world, including the United States.
However, after the royal coup of 1960, parliamentary democracy collapsed, making Nepali immigration very difficult once again. When democracy was finally restored to Nepal in 1990, the number of Nepali immigrants to the U.S. increased significantly. It also helped that in the 1990s, the U.S. government implemented a new immigration lottery system that greatly benefited Nepali immigrants, a system that we will explain in depth later.
Though we cannot know precisely when the first Nepali immigrated to the United States, what we do know is that the first Nepalese person obtained permanent residency in the United States in 1952. We also know that in 1975, Nepalis were classified as a separate group of immigrants for the first time in U.S. history. That year, 56 Nepalese people immigrated to the United States. Post-1975, the number of Nepali immigrants to the U.S. remained below 100 per year until 1996, when the implementation of the Diversity Visa Program caused Nepalis immigration to the U.S. to skyrocket.
Above: Nepalis in Kathmandu at the passport office. The passport office has seen a record amount of people after the U.S. announced in 2019 that a passport was required to enter the Diversity Visa Lottery.
Another reason why there was such an increase in the number of Nepali immigrants to the U.S. in the late 90s and early 2000s was because of the Nepalese Civil War. Lasting from 1996 to 2006, this violent conflict drove many people from their homes, especially in the west of Nepal. Thus, because of this conflict, more Nepalis started to view immigrating to the U.S. as an option.
The United States and its so-called “War on Drugs” is also partially responsible for the increase in Nepali immigrants in the latter half of the twentieth century. As a part of its international war on drugs, the United States targeted Nepal, which was known as a place where hippies went and smoked marijuana. In 1972, U.S. vice president Spiro Agnew visited Nepal and just months later Nepal enacted its first anti-drug laws. These laws were harmful to many in the western mountainous region of Nepal, who relied on cultivating and selling marijuana for their livelihoods. Thus, many in this region were suddenly impoverished and these laws led to a collapse of the local economy, leaving many wondering if they could seek a better life for themselves in the U.S.
Though Nepali immigration to the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon, Nepalis are one of the fastest-growing immigrant communities in major U.S. cities.