To brand, or not to brand? — Addressing the MTA’s “turban-branding” policy

Four years ago, Sikh transit workers in New York City decided that enough was enough. In response to a “turban-branding” policy that required workers, both Sikh and Muslim, to brand their turbans with the Metroplitan Transit Authority (MTA) logo, Sikh transit workers called on the MTA to end this policy, deeming it an act of religious discrimination.

Furthermore, in 2005, the Department of Justice found that, over the course of three days, there had been two hundred cases of MTA employees wearing some form of headdress without the logo, including Yankees hats, yaarmulkes, and a number of winter hats in fact issued by the MTA. The Department of Justice consequently filed a discrimination suit against the MTA. Yet for years, this issue has been placed on the back burner by city officials.

On Tuesday of last week, a majority of the New York City Council finally spoke out against the “turban-branding” policy. Council Member Tony Avella said, “It’s time for the City Council to take action on this matter, and it’s long overdue that the MTA end religious discrimination.  Enough is enough.”

While this issue is being addressed for a small number of Sikhs in New York, it still speaks to a greater issue that many South Asian and Arab individuals in the US face on a day-to-day basis. Even today, the concept of religious wear is quite foreign to American culture. Many do not realize that a turban, hijab, or any type of religious wear is representative of an individual’s spiritual life, and is therefore a very personal and private entity. Like any article of faith, it is not something that can just be set aside for appearance’s sake, never mind branded with a corporate logo.

The lawsuit against the MTA has yet to be resolved, and we are hoping for an end to this discriminatory policy. In the meantime, it is important to keep this in a wider context and recognize that if this lawsuit goes through, it is a small step in a long journey to addressing discrimination against Sikhs and Muslims in the United States.

Facts and quotes from: New York City Council Majority Demands End to MTA’s “Turban-branding” Policy from the The Sikh Coalition (June 18, 2009)

One Community United Kickoff Town Hall in Atlanta

From Niralee, one of our amazing summer interns:

On Tuesday, June 16th, SAALT’s Executive Director Deepa Iyer, along with NCSO partner Raksha, Indus Bar, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, and Khabar, launched the One Community United campaign with an inaugural town hall in Atlanta. The event was the first in a series of community forums to be held throughout the country as part of the campaign.

The town hall took place at the Global Mall in Atlanta on Tuesday evening, and about forty people attended the event. The group was very diverse, including representatives of South Asian organizations, local students and community members, and members of local places of worship.

The heart of the discussion was immigration and human rights. From the very beginning, participants eagerly engaged in the discussion, addressing issues ranging from the rights of immigrant workers, to detention and deportation, to the reunification of families. Participants also discussed how the human rights of immigrants are often violated in this country. The event closed with a call to action, encouraging participants to contact their representatives in Congress, stay in touch with organizations working with the South Asian community, and stay up to date on immigration issues.

Many who attended walked away feeling inspired to take action on immigration reform in their communities. Vandana said, “The town hall was extremely eye-opening and thought provoking… I am going to chalk-out a plan of action… and definitely contact some people that I know will share the same enthusiasm for the [Be the Change] project.” Noshin, a representative of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta, said he would “keep up with bills introduced and contact [his] representatives “ and “share [his] immigration story with SAALT.” Many others expressed a strong desire to go back to their communities and address the issues discussed at the town hall.

SAALT left the event looking forward to future town halls, to be hosted in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New Jersey, and Washington DC. It was great to see so many Atlanta community members coming together to express their support for immigration reform. Overall, the event was a very exciting kick-off for SAALT’s One Community United campaign.

For more information about the One Community United campaign for Civil and Immigrant Rights, visit here <http://www.saalt.org/pages/One-Community-United-Campaign.html>.

More Reflections from Atlanta Town Hall for Civil and Immigrant Rights

Here are more reflection on the kick-off town hall in Atlanta, GA of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations’ One Community United campaign for civil and immigrant rights. This time we’re hearing from Nureen Gulamali, intern at ACLU-Georgia  (one of the cosponsors of the town hall):

I’m lucky to be interning at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia this summer and was grateful to be a part of the SAALT/ACLU forum.  After attending the Immigration Forum, my perspective has been enlightened and truly widened.  Immigration is a hot topic in today’s world – tell me something I don’t know.  But how it affects the actual immigrants is truly the issue at hand.  I’ve heard accounts of the trials and tribulations that so many people have had to go through in order to get a better start in this world, and my heart goes out to them.  The forum itself not only provided more information to the uninformed, but allowed for a healthy and knowledgeable discussion for both the informed and uninformed.  It’s so important to stand up for what is right and immigration rights are, in essence, human rights.  What knowing individual wouldn’t stand up for human rights?

So, I suppose the more important question is, what can we do about it?  Well, really, everyone who was able to make it to the forum has already taken the first step – stay informed.  It’s as simple as that.  You can make a difference by staying informed, whether that’s catching up on the current issues on Google News, or joining a human rights advocacy group (GA Detention Watch, Human Rights Atlanta, Raksha, SAALT, etc.).  The more allies we have, the bigger the impact we can have – not to mention strategic pull.  So, take ten minutes a day to read what’s going on in the human rights/immigration front and from there, I swear, it will be plenty easy to get involved!

For more information about the One Community United campaign for Civil and Immigrant Rights, visit here <http://www.saalt.org/pages/One-Community-United-Campaign.html>.

The Importance of Family

Family has been on my mind lately. This week is the midway point between the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations. My sister just had a birthday. And I prepared for the mad rush of in-laws coming into town over Memorial Day weekend. Despite my secret (and some not-so-secret) grumblings about all the phone calls that had to be made, gifts that had to be bought, and accommodations that had to be prepared, I feel extremely lucky. I’ve been fortunate to know that loved ones in my family are here with me in this country and I can simply hop on a short flight to see them.

Sadly, many South Asian immigrants in the United States do not have the luxury of living in the same country as their spouse, parents, or siblings. South Asians heavily rely upon loved ones in the United States sponsoring their admission into the country. Yet, due to numerical limitations on visas and bureacratic delays, many have to wait years to have their immigration applications approved to be reunited with family members. Here are a few dates and numbers as food for thought:

  • 5.8 million: Number of immigrant applicants waiting for a family visa
  • 211,574: Number of Indian, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani applicants waiting for a family visa – in fact, these three countries rank among the top ten countries with the highest number of applicants on the waiting list
  • 1998: The year a sibling in India of a U.S. citizen must have filed an application to be processed today – that’s eleven years!
Often, even spouses and permanent partners are separated from one another. Take, for instance, the story of Vivek Jayanand, an engineer and green card holder in Silicon Valley. He has to wait almost five years before his wife, Neethu, can get her own green card. Even if he becomes a citizen, which could speed up the sponsorship process, he would still have to wait three years. And it is almost impossible for her to get a tourist visa to even visit him in the U.S. So, that means they spend years living separate lives all because of an outdated and inefficient immigration bureacracy.

Fortunately, pending legislation such as Congressman Honda‘s and Senator Menendez‘s versions of the Reuniting Families Act will alleviate the visa backlog to help those like Vivek and Neethu. As momentum around immigration reform builds, it is important for South Asian community members to weigh in with members of Congress about the creating a just and humane immigration system that keeps families together.

The Reuniting Families Act

Today, Deepa (SAALT’s Executive Director), Priya  (SAALT’s Policy Director), and I attended a press conference on Capitol Hill where Congressman Michael Honda introduced  the Reuniting Families Act, a bill that advocates hope will become a key component of broader immigration reform in Congress. Leaders from a diverse array of various immigrant and civil rights organizations and faith communities attended the conference to express their support for the bill, including Hilary Shelton from the NAACP, Karen Narasaki from the Asian  American Justice Center (AAJC), Rachel Tiven from Immigration Equality, Lizette Olmos from the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) , and many others. Many members of Congress also appeared and spoke in support of this bill.

Personally, as an intern observing the briefing, it was exciting to see the sheer number of people who appeared at the event (the room was packed, and the crowd of people standing in the back led all the way out the door). But more importantly, it was inspiring to see the breadth of support for the bill, from congressmen, to representatives of numerous organizations, to individuals who have had personal experiences with current family-based immigration policies. Seeing such a wide community of individuals come together for a single cause was really exciting.

So,  what exactly does the bill do?  Speaking on a telephonic briefing with  Congressman Honda after the press conference, Deepa broke down the bill into its major components. The bill will recapture unused visas previously allocated by Congress for currently backlogged applicants.  It also  reclassifies the spouses and children of  green card holders  as “immediate relatives,” allowing them to immediately qualify for a visa  rather than wait for years . Another key component of the bill is its expansion of per – country limits on family and employment-based visas from 7% to 10%.

The speakers at the press conference presented various viewpoints on the importance of the bill.  Congressman Neil Abercrombie  from Hawaii  pointed out that the strength and development of a community starts at the family level. Congressman Honda also noted that the family serves as a critical support system for permanent residents; allowing immigrants to reunite with their families would invariably lead to healthier communities and a stronger local economy, reducing the need for government-based economic assistance programs. Karen Narasaki from AAJC also noted that prolonged separation from loved ones slows down the ability of permanent residents to integrate into American society, in addition to inhibiting their ability to work at their full potential.

A major topic today was the portion of the bill regarding  binational same-sex  couples. The bill includes a comprehensive definition of “families,” including  gay and lesbian couples and their children so that U.S. citizens and green card holders can sponsor their permanent partners living abroad.  Members of Congress and organizational representatives present strongly  supported this aspect of the bill,  emphasizing  that no one should get left behind in the upcoming reform of immigration laws.

So, why does this bill matter for South Asians? Approximately 75% of  the over 2.7 million South Asians in the US were born abroad. Most importantly, individuals from South Asia  are among the top ten countries that rely upon the family-based immigration system  and wait years for green cards. Currently, family members abroad  have two choices: stay within the legal process and wait an unreasonable length of time to be with their loved ones; or enter and remain in the US  through unauthorized channels and keep a low profile. The choice to follow the law should never be a difficult one. When the choice is between waiting to get immigration status and being with the one you love, a change in policies is clearly in order.

Links to Organizations:

  • NAACP: http://www.naacp.org/
  • LULAC: http://www.lulac.org/
  • AAJC: http://www.advancingequality.org/
  • Immigration Equality: http://www.immigrationequality.org/

Daily Buzz 6.3.2009

1.) The last surviving member of the pre-Independence Gadar Party dies at age 102.

2.) YouthOutlook.org Editor-In-Chief Neelanjana Banerjee talks about YO!’s work with young people and her role facilitating their voices on CNN’s Young People Who Rock blog.

3.) Jhumpa Lahiri Discusses Her Struggle to Feel American on NPR

4.) Amar Chitra Katha now available on iPhone, iPods