Due Process: What it Means for South Asian Immigrants

This post was previously published at the Asian Pacific Americans for Progress blog as part of the Asian Pacific American Week of Action on immigration reform.

Before I started law school, I had definitely heard the term “due process.” I have to confess, though, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. All I knew is that it sounded good, seemed to be a core American value, and was rooted in fairness. It was something that this country prided itself on as a hallmark principle that came down from our Founding Fathers.

When we talk about immigration, there is often talk about due process violations affecting the lives of immigrants, but what does that really mean? Of course, we could always turn to our trusted friend, the Webster’s Dictionary for some guidance: “legal proceedings that are carried out following established rules and laws that result in unfair or arbitrary treatment of individuals.” (The legal eagles among us can rely upon the definitive Black’s Law Dictionary for some fancier and technical language, too.) But these lofty and abstract definitions did not hold much traction for me. It wasn’t until I encountered the real life experiences of immigrants whose due process rights were violated that I understood why this value is so dear and needs to be protected in our country’s immigration system.

Below are just a few examples spotlighting South Asians seeking asylum that made clear to what due process (or the lack thereof) truly means.

Due process means access to legal representation and legal information: Monisha, originally from Pakistan, was an honors graduate from UC Berkeley who came from Mumbai to Texas to seek asylum with her parents and brother when she was ten years old. While in India, her father was very involved in the local Muslim community – as a result of his activities, thier family became the target of Hindu fundamentalist groups. They were denied asylum because their attorneys failed to meet necessary filing deadlines. Immigration authorites later arrested her parents and brother and placed them in deportation proceedings. Navigation the complex world of immigration law is often worse for those who do not have lawyers and have to represent themselves because immigrants facing deportation are not guaranteed an attorney. Does it seem fair that accurate legal information and competent representation is often unattainable particularly when the immigration system is so complicated?

Due process means ensuring that immigrants are not criminalized and placed in detention: Harpal, a Sikh man, chose to be deported back to India where he had been tortured, rather than languish in limbo in immigration detention. When he arrived in the U.S., he settled in the Bay Area, began working as a truck driver, and applied for asylum. He was later arrested by U.S. government and immigration officials. After being detained for more than eight years in California, much of it in solitary confinement, and tired of waiting for Convention Against Torture claim to be resolved in the courts, he decided to return to a country where officials had previously mistreated him severely. Does it seem fair to lock up individuals for years who have committed no crime and are waiting excessive period of time for their immigration cases to be resolved?

Due process means guaranteeing fairness of immigration court proceedings and case review on appeal: A Sri Lankan woman fleeing persecution in Sri Lanka was denied asylum by an immigration judge who did not believe her case simply because she was “looking up at the ceiling” during testimony. The judge ignored detailed evidence of her fear of return and based denial on this minor point about her demeanor. Even worse, the appellate body, the Board of Immigration Appeals, did not disagree with the judge’s ruling. It was not until a federal court reviewed her case that the initial judge was ordered to consider her case more thoroughly. Does it seem fair that the safety and lives of immigrants depend upon often arbitrary and unfair decisions that can occur in Immigration Courts and are given limited review?

These are just a few stories that you find replicating themselves within the South Asian community that convey in real terms what the lack of due process looks like. As immigration reform moves forward, it is crucial that due process and fundamental fairness be restored to policies and procedures that affect the lives of so many immigrants in this country.

Dispatch from New Jersey: Town Hall and Legislative Visits!

In an effort to get the local South Asian community engaged around immigration reform, SAALT-NJ, along with community partners, held a  ‘Town Hall for South Asians on Immigration & Civil Rights’ in Jersey City on July 27th at the Five Corners Library.   The event, part of the One Community United campaign, was the second in a series of community forums that will be held nationwide as a part of the campaign.

The town hall brought together not only a diverse group of folks within the community, but also a diverse coalition of local community partners, including: American Friends Service Committee, Andolan, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ), Govinda Sanskar Temple, Manavi, New Jersey Immigrant Policy Network, and the Sikh Coalition.

Although the focus of the discussion at large was around immigration reform, the conversation covered a variety of issues, such as the effects of visa limitations and backlogs on low-income workers and women facing violence in the home; and detention centers and the growing number of detained immigrants. The conversation was at once challenging and emotional, as participants shared personal stories illustrating how immigration laws have negatively impacted their lives and the lives of their loved ones.   Nevertheless, the conversation ended on a positive note with ways to stay involved with the campaign, and to get more civically engaged around the immigration reform conversation.

In fact, on August 19th, SAALT members, along with coalition members from NJIPN and New Labor, conducted an in-district meeting with Representative Donald Payne’s office in Newark, New Jersey.  Participants met with a senior staff member at the Representative’s office to discuss issues around immigration and healthcare reform.

The delegation highlighted key concerns to both the South Asian community and the immigrant community at large, such as (1) the increase in detention and deportations post 9-11 and its impact on immigrant families in the US; (2) family- and employment-based visa backlogs and the need for just and humane immigration reform to prevent families from being torn apart in the process; and  (3) more concrete measures in place for immigrant integration to address issues such as linguistic and cultural barriers in accessing services, and, as a result, becoming active and participating members of the community.

The meeting was a great experience – it illustrated to the members present the significance of civic engagement, and how important it is to reach out to our respective representatives about issues concerning us. In a political and economic climate that seems so anti-immigrant, it was certainly refreshing to be able to sit down with the Representative’s office to actively advocate for issues that deeply impact the immigrant community.  I look forward to meeting with other local offices in the coming month and encourage others to try to schedule meetings with your respective Representatives while they are home for August recess.

To learn more about SAALT-NJ’s work, please email qudsia@saalt.org

Looking for ways to get involved? Here are some ideas:

• Call your member of Congress to express your support for immigration reform and strong civil rights policies. Find out who your member of Congress is by visiting www.house.gov and www.senate.gov.

• The Campaign to Reform Immigration for America has launched a text messaging campaign that sends alerts to participants when a call to action, such as calling your Congressman/woman, is urgently needed. To receive text message alerts, simply text ‘justice’ to 69866.

• Stay in touch with local and national organizations that work with the South Asian community.

• Share your immigration or civil rights story with SAALT by filling out this form or sending an email to saalt@saalt.org.

Sci-Fi Age of E-Verify

I recently attended a session at the Migrant Policy Institute that focused on E-Verify, the system that would require employees to verify their identities and legal status through an electronic program. The Migrant Policy Institute discussion focused on possible ways to expand this system and perhaps better it for everyone involved. The only people who don’t seem to benefit from the expansion of E-Verify are the employees. They would have to jump through additional hoops to maintain or obtain employment.

I was more than a little surprised by the types of solutions offered by MPI to improve E-Verify, as they seemed very invasive and expensive, not to mention Big Brotherish. Possible solutions included biometric cards and registering for a personalized PIN that would be provided to employers who could then access a database that verified identities.

While MPI said it was trying to address issues of identity fraud in order to protect employees, I really don’t think that the workers’ interests are at the heart of these proposals or the E-Verify system. Another concern is how E-Verify might be used to check the statuses of current established employees as well as new-hires, which would require people settled in their employment to go over the same hurdles as a new-hire. There must be a better way to regulate employment practices than to strike fear in the hearts of immigrant employees who just want to create a new life for themselves and their families.

Shah Rukh Khan – Bollywood Border Stop

This piece by Deepa Iyer (SAALT) has also been posted at Race Wire (www.racewire.org)

The Shah Rukh Khan incident at Newark International Airport over the weekend has elicited a range of viewpoints and opinions. Shah Rukh Khan, a famous Bollywood actor, was detained for over an hour, and interrogated by U.S. Customs and Borders Protection (CBP) authorities at Newark International Airport where he had landed. Mr. Khan believes that he was detained and interrogated because of his last name and his religious affiliation. The CBP (a part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security) claims that officials were following standard protocol.

Mr. Khan’s incident might be gaining international attention because he is a celebrity, but the truth is that ordinary American citizens and immigrants here in the United States grapple with racial and religious profiling routinely at airports. Especially since September 11th, 2001, South Asian, Arab American, Muslim and Sikh travelers have been subjected to arbitrary secondary inspections, detentions, and interrogations while traveling.

Recently, the Asian Law Caucus and the Stanford Law School Immigrant Rights’ Clinic published a report that details incidents of intrusive questioning that many US citizens and legal permanent residents have faced when returning to the United States from trips abroad. The report provides information about the abuse of watchlists and first-hand accounts of profiling, as well as recommendations to safeguard civil rights.

Racial and religious profiling must be eliminated whether it happens on the streets, on our highways, at borders, or at airports. Profiling people based on their last name, skin color, accent, or religious affiliation is an ineffective enforcement technique that violates civil rights protections. In fact, the use of profiling tactics has not been an effective law enforcement strategy in either the War on Drugs or the War on Terror.

The Obama Administration and Congress have an opportunity to review and strengthen current administrative anti-profiling policies, and to pass federal legislation that bans profiling [the End Racial Profiling Act is set to be introduced in Congress again this year]. These are important steps in ensuring that the civil rights of everyone – whether a celebrity or ordinary American – are preserved.

Deepa Iyer is Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national, non-profit organization that addresses civil and immigrant rights issues. Learn more at www.saalt.org.

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.7)

Final session of Netroots (for me with my flight home this afternoon, everyone else looks to be getting down with the official part-ay tonight by DailyKos), and its about a core issue, immigration reform. It’s great that we have a session about this topic, which is so important to the South Asian community, but I’m a little bummed to see that, while it has a pretty good turnout, its not bursting at the seams. This is the only session I could find that dealt explicitly with immigration reform (there have definitely been others that touched upon it) and I had really hoped that more of the Nation would come out about this.

Anyways, the panel has representatives from Breakthrough, America’s Voice, FIRM and SEIU. Thus far, its been mostly context-setting and talking about what each organization is doing in the area. Nicola from fIRM shared that what got their organization into online organizing was actually storytelling. After the New Bedford raids, they needed a way to get the stories out to people since the media wasn’t paying any attention. Now they’re working to build social networking tools that are more responsive and are able to “go offline.” Joaquin from SEIU showed advocacy efforts SEIU has undertaken to highlight the plight of DREAM Act students facing deportation.

Since this is my final post from Netroots, I’ll bring together some of my observations and thoughts from the weekend. Being here at Netroots and seeing the groundswell of support and resources that exist in the progressive movement is definitely an amazing thing. It can feel, sometimes, that we’re the little guy and we’re outgunned and out-resourced by “the other side” which obviously shifts debate to debate and issue to issue. Its not that Netroots has shown me that we’re drowning in easy, accessible resources. Instead, it showed me how progressives have and continue to fight against entrenched elites using whatever’s available and changing the rules of the game. Its that spirit of “never say die” that I will take back with me. A lot of the people here aren’t necessarily involved and active in the same issues, there is definitely interest and will to work together to make things happen in each others’ areas. Ultimately, we have to use whatever tools are out there to make things like immigration or healthcare reform, strengthening civil rights, fighting racial profiling happen. People all over America are suffering right now and it’s up to us to bring these issues up and bring about progress.

Getting in Touch with the Netroots (pt.6)

Hey y’all, after a great session with Valerie Jarrett (you can check out all the action at Netroots here), I’m at “Articulating a Theory of Change.” In this session (with New Organizing Institute and Progressive Change Campaign Committee), we’ve been talking about how articulating a theory of change plays a role in online organizing. Most people’s exposure to online organizing is getting emails that say, “do this now.” Well, how does articulating a theory of change that is compelling and accessible help make that ask more effective? Something I am always fascinated by, especially in the context of the work that SAALT does, is to find unifying theories-of-change that go beyond “do this to let so-and-so know that people care about whatever issue” to really show how doing these actions come together to create a better society and world. Because the ask changes, but the theory of change, in a macro sense, should stay the same. We come together around certain values and online organizing is all about bringing people together to take actions towards a world that is closer to those values.

Economic townhall with Corzine next, then the immigration reform session, more to come!

Celebrating 5 Years!

It’s been five years since SAALT opened its first staffed office. We wanted to take this opportunity to reflect back on the past five years and look forward to many more. I’ll be putting up entries from SAALT staff and Board as well as past interns and staff.

From Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of SAALT:

“Has it been five years already? When we opened our first office in New York City, just a few blocks from Penn Station, in a rented space at Citizens NYC, I was hopeful but unsure about what the first five years would hold.  Thanks to the hard work and dedication of a number of people, including staff (current and former), Board members, interns, volunteers, and donors, we have been able to build a strong foundation for a national organization.  When I started at SAALT five years ago, I was very sensitive to the model that we would create – how could we develop a national organization that would be informed by the experiences of people who were facing inequity on a daily basis? It took years of trust-building, conversations, a bit of struggle, flexibility, and faith for the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations to emerge, and for SAALT to have a meaningful presence at policy tables.

In many ways, I think of another anniversary that is coming up – the ten year anniversary of September 11th. I remember in the days and months after 9/11, wondering how our community would be able to weather the unprecedented backlash, immigration enforcement tactics, and profiling that we faced.  At that point in time, there was no formal network, no real ties that organizations had to one another. As we approach the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, the community feels stronger, more connected, a bit more cohesive. If SAALT has had a part in that, I think we have achieved quite a lot! Here’s to the next five years!”

Celebrating 5 Years! Take One!

From Aparna Kothary, our former Development and Fundraising VISTA (2007-2009):

“I started working at SAALT right after college and it served as my introduction to both the South Asian community and the broader social justice movement. Along the way I met passionate individuals who continue to inspire me to remain engaged in this community, the non-profit sector, and the movement. I see SAALT continuing to serve as a hub for the Souh Asian community through the NCSO, local capacity-building, and policy work. It is also my hope that support from the community increases over the next five years through membership and involvement.”

From Priya Murthy, our Policy Director:

“I first got involved with SAALT almost four years ago as part of the Be the Change national day of service. Handing out know your rights brochures to taxi cab drivers at Union Station in Washington, DC, I knew that this was a progressive South Asian organization that I wanted to be a part of. Over the past few years, SAALT has made a tremendous impact on my life. It has meant connecting with a diverse and strong South Asian community as we advocate for policy change. It has meant being inspired by the tireless work that local organizations and community leaders do everyday. It has meant working with fierce allies from other communities as we strive for immigrant and civil rights. As our community grows in the next five years (as I’m sure it will!), I am excited to see where SAALT will go in working with the community and fostering a space for South Asian empowerment.”

Celebrating 5 Years! Take Two!

Continuing our series commemorating the fifth anniversary of the opening of SAALT’s first staffed office, let’s hear from two SAALT Board members, Lavanya Sithanandam and Anouska Cheddie (respectively).

“Five years ago SAALT opened its first office and hired staff in New York City.  In that short time, SAALT has grown tremendously.  My involvement with SAALT began during those same five years, and what this organization has given me is invaluable.   SAALT has provided me with the inspiration and the tools to speak up as a physician activist, advocating on behalf of immigrants both inside and outside of my medical practice.   I continue to be inspired and motivated by the hard work of the staff, the dedication of the NCSO members, and the vision of the organization.  I feel confident that SAALT will continue its wonderful work over the next five years and will become an even stronger voice both within and outside our South Asian community.”

“SAALT is community. It’s about collaboration.  SAALT is trust. It’s about participation.  SAALT is empowerment. It’s about representation. SAALT is inclusive. It’s about including the diaspora.

With SAALT, I know that local grassroots groups have a national organization that they can work with to ensure our community has a strong progressive voice that is heard in DC and around the country.

This is just the beginning.”

Celebrating 5 Years! Take Three!

We have more to come from our series commemorating five years since SAALT opened its first staffed office, but I wanted to put in my two cents:

To me, SAALT is where we come together as a community and fight for the change we want, both for ourselves but also in solidarity with other communities-of-struggle. SAALT is an open and inclusive hub that invites the South Asian community, allies and partners to envision a world that is truly free and equitable. Moreover, SAALT is vehicle to help individuals make these lofty aspirations a reality. In five years, I see us doing this with ever more empowered, engaged people. This is only the beginning!