Enumerating the number of Sikhs in America has been one of the more vexing issues for the Sikh American community. Because the US Census survey does not ask questions around religious affiliation, we have seen a wide range in estimates, as summarized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:
For example, the 2012 Statistical Abstract of the United States cites an estimate of about 78,000 Sikh adults in 2008, based on the American Religious Identification Survey. The World Religion Database at Boston University estimates there are about 280,000 Sikhs in the U.S., based on estimates of the number of Punjabi immigrants from India and Pakistan and an assumption about the proportion of them who are Sikh. The 2010 Religious Congregations & Membership Study does not include a count of individual Sikhs but finds there are 246 Sikh congregations (gurdwaras). The Sikh Coalition, an advocacy group, says there are more than 500,000 Sikh Americans but does not cite a source for that figure.
Even recently, estimates of 700,000 Sikh Americans have been cited in the news. The Pew Forum goes on to extrapolate from its own telephone survey of Asian Americans, and estimates a much smaller number:
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s 2012 survey of Asian Americans, which was conducted in several Asian languages as well as in English and involved interviews with more than 3,500 Asian Americans, found that about 1% of Asian American adults identify themselves as Sikhs. In addition, U.S. census figures indicate that Asian Americans make up about 5.5% of the total U.S. adult population. Combining the Asian American survey data (on Sikhs as a percentage of the U.S. Asian population) with the census data (on Asian Americans as a percentage of U.S. adults) yields an estimate that there are about 140,000 Sikh adults in the U.S. With the addition of children (based on the ratio of adults to children among Asian Americans as a whole), the estimate would rise to approximately 200,000 American Sikhs of all ages. This estimate is based on the assumption that the vast majority of Sikhs in the U.S. are of Asian origin – an assumption supported by various studies, including Princeton University’s New Immigrant Survey. However, given the difficulty of surveying both small religious groups and new immigrants, the 200,000 figure should be considered a rough estimate and more likely a floor than a ceiling.
The Pew Forum study on Asian Americans is based on a sample size of 580 Indian Americans, and from this small sample size, we are to estimate that there are 200,000 American Sikhs. Further, the Pew Forum estimate does not factor the number of Sikh Americans who are not of Asian descent. An extrapolation of another Pew Forum study on religious migration also suggests that the number of Sikhs in the United States might be underestimated (or that Sikh migration from India to the United States is overestimated).
And, when a Sikh festival in northern California can draw well over 50,000 spectators, most of whom are Sikhs, one might reasonably agree that 200,000 number is certainly a lower limit.
When we are discussing issues such as civil rights and community resources in relation to Sikh Americans, we are missing a very fundamental piece of data, and this impairs our advocacy. We simply do not have a census study on Sikh Americans dedicated to establishing just how many of us there are.