Senate Discusses Protections for Minority Voters in Voting Rights Amendment Act Hearing

Last Wednesday, the Senate held a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which could be instrumental to the rights of voters in upcoming elections.  Notably, this hearing was held on the one-year anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, a Supreme Court decision which dramatically diminished voter protections for South Asian Americans as well as other minority communities. This court decision ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, a section that articulated a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to have changes to their voting laws pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court (under Section 5). The purpose of this section was to ensure that minority voters were able to vote in areas with historical evidence of discriminatory voting practices, issues with language minority groups, and low minority voter turnout. As the Shelby decision rendered the Voting Rights Act of 1965 inadequate to protect minority communities from discriminatory election laws, this week’s Senate hearing was a welcome conversation to improve our laws and enhance protections for minority voters.

At the hearing, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stressed the importance of keeping voting rights a nonpartisan issue, noting that recent state restrictions in high minority states continue to be a challenge. According to Senator Leahy, there is no doubt that voting discrimination still exists, and it is clear one year after Shelby that more protections are needed. Echoing these concerns, State Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) remarked that as there are state laws that restrict voting, what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is not enough to protect minority voters, noting that Texas, in particular, outpaces other states in discriminatory policies. With over 300,000 South Asian Americans in Texas, further restrictions on the right to vote, such as requiring specific forms of photo identification be shown at polling sites and changing geographical districts, have serious impact on South Asian voters as well as electoral candidates.

Nationwide, the number of eligible South Asian voters in the U.S. has increased between 99% and 471% since 2000. A poll of approximately 9,000 Asian American voters interviewed after the 2012 elections reported a total of 1,360 voting problems. These problems included being required to prove citizenship, having their names missing or included with errors at the polling location, being required to vote by provisional ballot, experiencing hostility from poll workers, not having an interpreter or translation available when needed, and being directed to the wrong polling site or voting machine. These issues greatly impact the ability of minority voters to exercise their right to vote. For example, when a person’s name is misspelled or missing from the voter roll at the pollingvoting site—or if a person does not have the required identification, perhaps because of a new and confusing state voter ID law—the voter must vote by provisional ballot. In some jurisdictions, if a voter shows up to the wrong polling location, even due to a change or reduction in the number of polling locations, the voter will be required to vote by provisional ballot. Voting by provisional ballot is risky—poll workers are not always trained on how to properly handle provisional ballots, these ballots are only counted after the election, and it is nearly impossible to find out if your vote was actually counted. In 2010, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that only 66.2% of provisional ballots were counted in full, and according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the highest rates of provisional ballot voting occur in communities with a high percentage of minority voters.  Still, this occurrence is only one of the many possible repercussions of problematic or discriminatory voting laws.

Even the slightest change in election laws can cause people to miss the opportunity to cast their vote or have it be counted, making it all the more important that states with a bad track record of voting violations be required to pre-clear new voting changes, such as laws restricting early voting and reducing the number of polling locations. Failure to protect voters from discriminatory laws prior to an election deprives a large number of Americans from their Constitutional right not only to vote for a candidate to represent their needs and values, but to vote for a candidate that will not continue to disenfranchise them.  The impact of these laws is much more severe on minority voters, particularly as many of these discriminatory laws are geared towards communities or polling sites with high numbers of minority voters.

The proposed VRAA seeks to protect voters by expanding the type of violations covered by the Act to not only violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but also violations of the VRAA and federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. States would also be required to pre-clear changes affecting elections if they accumulated five or more violations in the last fifteen years—including one violation by the state. SAALT looks forward to the development and implementation of legislation that enhances protections for minority voters, particularly as so many meaningful remedies that would further protect the right to vote were lost as a result of the Shelby decision.

To read the text of the proposed bill click here.
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Christina Modi
Policy Intern
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT

Celebrating Deepa Iyer and SAALT

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Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Composer, MacArthur Fellow, and Harvard Professor

The biographical language about me contains some highfalutin signifiers: MacArthur, Harvard, jazz. But to be honest I feel dwarfed by the presence of all of you here today, the real activists and organizers who bring your unique strengths to the trenches, changing America for the better.  I’m thrilled to be invited to your party.

Back in 2001 I released my third album, titled Panoptic Modes. The CD began with an original composition called “Invocation,” dedicated to Rishi Maharaj, a young Indo-Caribbean man who had been the victim of a hate crime in Queens in the late 90s. He had been beaten nearly to death by a group of white men with baseball bats chanting racist and xenophobic insults.

My intent with this piece of music was to suggest to our own community, in case anyone was listening, that this young man was one of us; that we, as South Asian Americans, should embrace all of our massive diaspora, regardless of national identity or historical circumstance.  Because community isn’t just about common roots; it is about parallel experiences, a shared predicament, a common cause. It is about the fact that what happens to this young brown man could, and indeed often does, happen to any or all of us.

Still I didn’t have any idea that this little piece of instrumental music might do any more than highlight the fact that “stuff happens” in America. So I was floored when some months later I received an email from a young lawyer named Deepa Iyer, Esquire (no relation), who had connected with Rishi.

She put me in touch with Rishi, who sent me a heartfelt, frank and devastating message about his life’s journey after the attack. He had moved to Alaska, to put as much distance as possible between himself and the experience. He thanked me for remembering him and for shining a light on his experience through music, and he confessed that he didn’t know what he was going to do next. The hate crime had thoroughly disrupted the delicate sense of rootedness and belonging that he and his family, like all of our families, had begun to cultivate in this country. But Deepa’s work helped rekindle a sense of connectedness for him and his family.

What is a community?  A friend of mine, political scientist Cara Wong, in her book Boundaries of Obligation, defines community as “an image in the mind of an individual, of a group toward whose members she feels a sense of similarity, belonging, or fellowship.”

Community, in other words, is very much the work of our imaginations. And exactly because of this, it has important real-world repercussions. As Professor Wong demonstrates in her book, “self-defined membership can lead to an interest in, and a commitment to, the well-being of all community members… regardless of one’s own interests, values, and ideology.”

In the years since 9/11, our community has been challenged repeatedly, and common causes with others have led us to imagine ourselves bigger.  As the African-American writer Greg Tate told me shortly in fall 2001, “Welcome to racial profiling.”  We have had to embrace our own religious and cultural diversity — Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains; Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, Indians, Afghans, Bhutanese — as well as other communities of color — Arabs, Middle Easterners, north and east Africans, east and southeast Asians, all of their diasporas, and yes, African Americans and Latinos — because of a common predicament, a common cause, a common atmosphere of fear, surveillance, suspicion, and paranoia, and the persistence of inequality.

Also, as we have become one of the most affluent and nominally “successful” demographics in post-1960s America, we have had to develop new empathies to understand our place in the world. We have had to remind ourselves that Dr. Martin Luther King adopted the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, that our freedoms are spiritually yoked to the struggles for justice for the African Americans and other minorities who built this country.

Last weekend I was in Atlanta with my family, and we visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site. There is a beautiful statue of Gandhi at this site. There is also a trenchant quote from Dr. King on display. It says, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, what are you doing for others?”

I want you to know that, all titles aside, I am first and foremost an artist. As an artist I ask myself Dr. King’s question every day. What am I doing for others?  To this end I have pursued three main goals. First, I have strived to generate a consistent, un-ignorable, complicating presence in the landscape of culture.  As African American innovators like Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix found, in the face of a culture that would deny them, it becomes necessary for an artist of color in the west to defiantly announce to the world: I am a fact.

That kind of defiant presence — the same kind you get from M.I.A., or Himanshu Suri of Das Racist, the kind that coolly roars from the margins — that kind of defiant presence has the power to disrupt and transform culture, to hearken and inaugurate a new America.  That kind of defiant presence also has the power to activate and mobilize the imaginations of others like ourselves: young desis in our global diaspora finally seeing themselves represented positively in culture, finally empowered to dream a little bigger.

My second main goal has been to initiate and sustain alliances with other artists of color, from Amiri Baraka and Haile Gerima to Teju Cole and Mike Ladd, so that we can imagine, build, and enact a concept of community that transcends heritage, nation, and creed — so that we can really become an undeniable force: a disruptive multitude, imagining and bringing forth a new reality.

The third goal is to articulate and demonstrate a commitment to social justice.  As Yo-Yo Ma has said, and as I always remind my students, a life in the arts is a life of service.  I invite all of you who are political activists and community organizers to collaborate with the artists in your midst, so that our missions can serve your missions — so that we can activate radical imaginations in order to bring about necessary action.

On that note, today we’re here to celebrate the work of SAALT, and to thank Deepa Iyer for all that she has done for others– strengthening our communities; speaking truth to power; advocating and initiating political change; empowering us to dream big.

Thank you, Deepa, for all that you’ve done, and for inviting me to the party. It is an honor and a privilege to celebrate with you.

Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Composer, MacArthur Fellow, and Harvard Professor
NYC, December 3, 2013

For more information on Vijay Iyer visit his website or follow him on Twitter @vijayiyer.

 

A Compelling Day for Immigrants in New Jersey

“One day I just couldn’t take it any more and decided to end it all and called the suicide helpline,” said Meghna, a community member and advocate who shared her personal story at SAALT’s recent New Jersey Immigration Townhall.  Meghna arrived in the U.S. on her dependent spouse visa (H-4 status) which did not allow her to work, despite having a Masters degree and extensive professional work experience in India.  Meghna was deprived of a career and forced to stay home for years due to her immigration status.  As a result, she experienced loneliness, depression, and a loss of identity, which led to her feeling suicidal.  Despite hitting rock bottom, her struggles inspired her to be a pioneer and advocate for others like her.  A few years ago, she produced her first film, “Hearts Suspended,” a short documentary that reveals the untold story of South Asian immigrant women, who struggle to survive having been denied the basic right to work.

In addition to Meghna, the New Jersey Townhall highlighted the experiences of two other community members who shared their immigration struggles.  Hina, an undocumented youth, faced many barriers growing up without immigration status in America.  She had to hide her status and was unable to share in adolescent American rights of passage like obtaining a driver’s license and dreaming of college life and career opportunities.  With limited access to higher education, she was unable to plan for her future beyond two years even as a DACAmented youth.  She relayed her frustrations, asking the audience, “Can you imagine what it’s like for any young person wanting to plan their future, but knowing full well that they can’t think past two years or plan too far ahead due to their undocumented status — even though they have only known U.S. as their home?”  Finally, Mahfujur, an undocumented restaurant worker and an active member of the advocacy group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), spoke about his experience putting in long hours, getting paid far less than the minimum wage, and often, being mistreated.  He expressed his fears and those of his friends and family in similar situations and their reluctance to complain, fearing retaliation from their employers or deportation.

After hearing these courageous and compelling stories, a panel of advocates provided detailed expert analysis on the impact of immigration reform for South Asians in the U.S. and addressed numerous questions posed by over 75 engaged community members in attendance.  One of the final comments raised highlighted perhaps the most important and often overlooked issue in the immigration reform debate: challenges faced by immigrants in America are more than “immigration issues” – they are fundamental civil rights issues.  Eleven million undocumented persons are in the United States today, forced to live in the shadows and often denied their basic rights to participate in society.  Over 550,000 South Asians are waiting to be reunited with their siblings or adult married children.  Workers are repeatedly denied fair wages and job mobility, and are often exploited.  Individuals are frequently profiled and placed in deportation proceedings.  Immigrant women are denied the opportunity to work, to have status independent of their spouses, and to be afforded immigration opportunities like those of men.

SAALT’s New Jersey Immigration Townhall was one of six community dialogues designed to spark debate, coalition-building, and advocacy around immigration reform this year. In California, Maryland, Michigan, Texas, and this weekend, in Illinois, the South Asian community is increasingly engaged on these issues. And, we are confident that the conversation will not end there.  These forums are simply the beginning of a dialogue about how we as a community can raise our voices around immigration policies as they impact us.  From all these community events, one message remains clear: the South Asian community will be heard today, tomorrow, and for many days to come.

Navneet Bhalla
New Jersey Policy and Outreach Coordinator
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT

Engage in the immigration conversation, by sharing your story, learning how to engage with your Member of Congress, and starting a dialogue in your local community. For more information on these actions or to learn more about upcoming townhalls, please contact info@saalt.org.

Supreme Court Watch: Fisher v. UT Austin and the South Asian Community

On June 24, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of Abigail Noel Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, involving the university’s use of race in its admissions policy. Here at SAALT, we eagerly awaited the Supreme Court’s ruling, as we had joined an amicus brief filed by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice in the Fisher case last year in support of the UT-Austin admissions policy.

In its decision, the Court upheld the broader principles from existing precedent from Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed for race to be used as one of various factors given the compelling state interest in promoting diversity within education. However, rather than ruling on the constitutionality of the University of Texas’ policy itself, the Court returned the case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court asked the lower court to review whether the consideration of race in the admissions policy in question was narrowly tailored and necessary in order to achieve educational diversity.

Despite common misperceptions to the contrary, South Asians support and benefit from holistic race-conscious admission policies like the one implemented by the University of Texas. South Asian students, along with all other students, enjoy a richer learning environment when they are immersed in a diverse educational setting.  The ability to learn from students and peers various backgrounds helps better prepare them for the workforce and the real world. In fact, in light of ongoing discrimination that South Asians encounter in this country, it is vital that students from other racial backgrounds learn about our experiences and we, in turn, learn about theirs. It is also important for us to remember that it was not too long ago in our own recent history that our community has been denied equal opportunity in this country and race-conscious admissions policies bring us closer to equality. In fact, Asian Americans, including South Asians, strongly support affirmative action and race-conscious policies in educational settings, as shown by recent polling from the National Asian American Survey.

We are heartened by the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold precedent regarding holistic race-conscious policies and are confident that the lower court will uphold the policy upon its review of the case.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assistance in providing analysis and writing.

Supreme Court Watch: United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry and the South Asian Community

On June 26, 2013, the Supreme Court issued its opinions in two critical cases involving the issue of marriage equality. In a landmark decision, United States v. Windsor, the Court invalidated Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defined marriage as between “one man and one woman” and only recognized opposite-sex marriages for purposes of federal law. Following the enactment of DOMA in 1996, same-sex partners were denied federal benefits, including those under federal tax, housing, Social Security, and immigration laws, and exclusively granted them heterosexual married couples. Prior to the decision in Windsor, denial of such benefits was allowed, even if couples lived in individual states that recognized their marriage. In its decision, the Court found that DOMA violated principles of “equal liberty of persons” enshrined in the 5th Amendment. (It is important to note that the Court did not rule on Section 2 of DOMA, which permits individual states to enact legislation that refuses to recognize marriages between same-sex partners.) In a separate case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal to reinstate Proposition 8, a ballot initiative passed by California voters in 2008 that prohibited marriage between same-sex partners and was subsequently barred from being enforced by lower courts, on the grounds that those seeking appeal did not have the legal standing to do so. As a result, the lower court ruling preventing the enforcement of Proposition 8 remains intact.

As an organization that has long supported marriage equality, SAALT applauds the rulings by the Supreme Court in these two cases. In particular, the Windsor decision will positively transform the lives of South Asian Americans involved in committed relationships by ensuring that they can no longer be denied vital federal benefits simply based upon whom they love or marry. This decision also paves the way for the South Asians in same-sex binational marriages (recognized by the state or country where they were married) to avail themselves of federal immigration benefits, including the ability to sponsor their spouse under the family immigration system and petition for loved ones living abroad. For too long, couples in this situation have lived in a perilous legal limbo, as we discussed in a recent oped. Such uncertainty often results in individuals overstaying their visas to remain together or living abroad in exile. SAALT commends the Court’s decisions to reaffirm the principles of equality and fairness and looks forward to working with federal agencies to ensure that community members will be able to access the federal benefits provided to them as a result of this ruling.

For further information on the Court’s decision on DOMA will affect eligibility for various federal benefits, check out the ACLU’s website here.

For further information on how the Court’s decision on DOMA will affect immigrant families and couples, check out Immigration Equality’s FAQ.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assistance in providing analysis and writing.

The Community Safety Act: Accountability for the NYPD and Its Importance to the South Asian Community

On June 27, 2013, the New York City Council passed two bills of the Community Safety Act, introduced last year, which curbs discriminatory policing practices and establishes accountability mechanisms for the New York City Police Department (NYPD). One of the bills, the End Discriminatory Profiling Act (Intro. 1080), would establish an enforceable ban against profiling and discrimination by the NYPD; expand the bases for prohibited profiling and discrimination (currently, race, ethnicity, religion, and national origin) to include age, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability or housing status; establish a private right of action allowing profiling victims to file lawsuits against the NYPD; and allow individuals to file claims based on intentional discrimination and/or disparate impact. The second bill, the NYPD Oversight Act (Intro. 1079), would grant independent oversight authority over the NYPD to the Commissioner of the Department of Investigation through reviews of the police department and require public reports regarding its findings. SAALT applauds the passage of the Community Safety Act as well as the efforts of local organizations in New York City, such as DRUM – Desis Rising Up and Moving, to ensure these bills become law.

The passage of the Community Safety Act is vital for all residents of New York City – including African American and Latino individuals who have been subjected to an exorbitant and disproportionate percentage of stop-and-frisk encounters. Most notably, since September 11th, South Asian community members have been similarly subjected to arrests, questioning, and harassment simply based upon race, religion, and appearance.  In a joint report released in March 2012, In Our Own Words: Narratives of South Asian New Yorkers Affected by Racial and Religious Profiling, by DRUM, The Sikh Coalition, UNITED SIKHS, South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!), Coney Island Avenue Project, Council of Peoples Organization, and SAALT, community members’ personal experiences revealed the toll that such discrimination has taken on their lives. Interactions with NYPD included that of a young Bangladeshi man, while simply waiting for his friends, being subjected to warrantless searches by police; a police officer asking a South Asian student about his religion; and an Indian Hindu individual being asked about his ethnicity and whether he had drugs. Community members have also been asked whether they are Muslim, where they pray, and even been pressured to spy on their own communities and report on “terrorist activity.” Indeed, reports from the Associated Press in 2011 revealed the widespread spying and surveillance by the NYPD on Muslim communities and student associations, both within and beyond New York City. (In fact, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the CLEAR Project at the City University of New York, recently filed a lawsuit challenging the discriminatory surveillance practices of the police department.) As a result, individuals reported that such interactions harmed their relationships with friends and family and, also, made them more hesitant to reach out to police in times of need.

SAALT has joined our partner organizations in New York City in calling for the enactment of robust and expansive anti-profiling policies and strengthening government and civilian oversight of law enforcement agencies in the city. We commend the City Council’s passage of the legislation, which would go into effect in January 2014, if enacted, and urge the Mayor to sign the bills into law.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assistance in providing analysis and writing.

 

Supreme Court Watch: Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder and the South Asian Community

On June 25, 2013, in the case of Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 4 of the Voting Rights of 1965 ruling it unconstitutional. SAALT strongly condemns the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which has been pivotal in protecting minority voters’ ability to participate in the American democracy. In January 2013, SAALT joined an amicus brief in the case, along with 27 other Asian American organizations, arguing in favor of the Voting Rights Act, particularly given its importance related to language access and political representation.

With the backdrop of egregious racial discrimination against minority voters, Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act articulates a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to have any changes in their voting laws pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court (under Section 5 of the legislation) to ensure that minority voters’ ability to vote is not diminished. The trigger formula used to designate such jurisdictions, as outlined in Section 4, is based on various factors, including historical evidence of racially discriminatory voting practices, impact on language minority groups, and low minority voter turnout. While the Court recognized that racial discrimination continues to plague the ability for many to vote, it stated that the coverage formula used in Section 4 was “outdated” in light of recent increased minority voter turnout, disapproved of states being treated differently under the law, and suggested that Congress update the formula in order to pass constitutional muster. This counterintuitive reasoning ignores that Sections 4 and 5 have been pivotal in promoting enfranchisement, considerable evidence proves racial discrimination at the polls continues, and federal legislators have recognized the importance of keeping the Voting Rights Act in effect. In fact, the Voting Rights Act, including Section 4, has increasingly enjoyed significant bipartisan support within Congress over the years and was most recently reauthorized almost unanimously in 2006.

The right to vote has been a long-fought battle for communities of color in the United States. The Voting Rights Act is an historic and crucial piece of legislation that was borne out of our country’s Civil Rights Movement and the pioneering struggles of the African American community in the 1960s. Indeed, the South Asian community’s own path to attain naturalization, conferring the right to vote, has been a rocky one. In 1923, the Supreme Court then ruled that South Asians were not considered white by the common person and thus could not be considered citizens; this remained in effect until legislation was enacted decades later. In more recent years, as documented by election monitoring and exit polling efforts, South Asian and other voters of color continue to encounter barriers at the polls because of race, religion, and language ability and restrictive voter identification proposals continue to threaten the right to vote. South Asians will not be immune from today’s disappointing ruling, particularly given our community’s overall size and growth in jurisdictions previously covered under the Section 4 formula, including Arizona, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia.

This ruling is a grave setback for voting rights and equality in the country that ignores both the historical and contemporary evidence of discrimination that minority voters face. Community members are encouraged to join a petition calling for an amendment to protect the rights of all voters. Looking forward, SAALT will continue to work with allies when Congress develops a new coverage formula in light of today’s ruling and ensure that it addresses discrimination against racial, ethnic, and language minorities.

SAALT thanks Priya Murthy for her assistance in providing analysis and writing.

Everything is Bigger in Texas: Sonia Kotecha

SAALT Executive Director, Deepa Iyer, traveled to Austin, Texas in January to engage with the local Asian American community. She participated in events such as a Brown Bag discussion at the University of Texas at Austin, a Republic Day event sponsored by the Indian American Coalition of Texas, and a community roundtable discussion.

Below is a blog post by Sonia Kotecha, SAALT member and Austin-based community leader, reflecting on the community roundtable.

We like to say everything is bigger in Texas including the growing Asian American population. In Austin, the capital of Texas, the Asian American community makes up around 6% of the general population with South Asians making up one the largest Asian subgroups. City of Austin demographer, Ryan Robinson, predicts that by 2015, the Asian population in Austin will surpass the African American population becoming the second largest minority group after Hispanics. In the spring of 2013, the City of Austin will open the first ever Asian American Resource Center. As our community grows and diversifies so does our need to mobilize, unite and build solidarity. So last weekend we called upon SAALT (South Asian Americans Leading Together) to facilitate an initial conversation through a community roundtable on how best to utilize our existing resources and the resources of SAALT to elevate our voices and empower us to more effectively engage in our local community.

Although many of us in the community see each other on a regular basis and collaborate on programming from time to time, the roundtable was an opportunity for us to step back and reflect on the strengths and needs of our community. It was helpful to have SAALT’s Executive Director, Deepa Iyer, serve as our facilitator – as an outsider looking in. Over 25 people representing various segments and sectors of the Austin community attended the roundtable.

Through the process of identifying our community assets, issues and gaps, I was impressed at how far advanced we were in having established networks and an infrastructure of strong cultural, social and political organizations. The list of community assets in the room far exceeded the list of issues and gaps that were addressed. Needless to say, we all agreed that there are many in our community who are disenfranchised and their voices often go unheard.

We identified several opportunities to improve our outreach and engage those we defined as ‘invisible’ segments of our Asian community (i.e. seniors, refugees, low-income gas station/convenient store clerks). Several strategies included conducting a workshop using existing SAALT material on “Knowing Your Rights & Responsibilities” for new immigrants and refugees in places of worship, hosting “Asian Community 101” information sessions for city/county government agencies including law enforcement, and developing a political leadership education program to encourage more civic participation of Asian Americans in city/county government.

The ideas that came out of our roundtable were concrete and attainable. SAALT has the resources and training materials and the individuals and organizations represented at the roundtable have the connections and capacity to execute. It is my hope that we continue to build on the synergy from the roundtable and continue to meet quarterly. My biggest take away from the event was pride in Austin’s Asian American community. Given our existing foundation, we can only go bigger – Texas size – in our pursuit to cultivate a more inclusive and just society.

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.

New Jersey SAALT Circle volunteers with Habitat for Humanity

I’ll admit: I almost regretted it. You would, too, if you had to be up at 7AM on a Saturday morning for work.  What was I thinking to schedule a service project so early in the AM?

It wasn’t long before my spirit rose – I was greeted by three car fulls of smiling ready-to-work-hard volunteers.  And what a diverse group it was! South Asian, African American, Muslim, Hindu, Christian – all coming together for the common cause of helping those in need.  This was definitely worth the early rising.

Every month, the New Jersey SAALT Circle conducts a community service project – last month, we helped pack lunches and grocery bags for a local food pantry.  This month, we worked in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity of Hudson County to assist in the building of two homes in Jersey City.  When we first showed up at the build, the site coordinator was so overwhelmed by how many of us came, he almost turned us away!  But he soon had a change of heart and we were all put to work.

We sanded down walls. We painted ceilings. We primed walls.  We swept away piles of dust and debris (If you’re looking to tone those arms, forget the gym – sign up for a habitat build and you’ll be in shape in no time!).  There’s something so satisfying about working with your hands and actually being able to see the impact of your hard work.  It was a great experience – and although it was most certainly a physically challenging activity, I’m pretty sure that we all came away with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Thanks to all that dedicated their Saturday to service – we truly appreciated your hard work, and look forward to having you help out in upcoming service projects!

If you’d like to get involved with the New Jersey SAALT Circle, email me at qudsia@saalt.org or call (201) 850-3333.