DJ Rekha @ the Black Cat

On Friday night, myself and other SAALT staff members attended DJ Rekha’s show at the Black Cat.  First off, I have to say: What an amazing show!! I have always been a fan of DJ Rekha’s beats, but seeing her live was fantastic.  I also want to thank Rekha and the Black Cat for letting SAALT table at the show.  It was refreshing to see many familiar faces and to know that so many Desis in D.C. already know about SAALT’s work.  I am a fan of Rekha, not only because she is a talented artist, but because she uses her music as a tool for social change.  While it is inspiring to see artists like Rekha getting involved in the South Asian movement, you don’t have to be a DJ to work for change for your community.  Volunteer for Be the Change, organize an event in your local community, or if you haven’t already, become a member of SAALT.  Thanks again to DJ Rekha for her continued support of SAALT and involvement in our work!

Anjali Chaudhry is the Maryland Outreach Coordinator for SAALT.  To learn more about SAALT’s Maryland Community Empowerment Project and ways you can get involved, email anjali@saalt.org.

Aaditi Dubale, SAALT Fellow (left) and myself (right) tabling at the Black Cat.

287(g) and Morristown, New Jersey

A dispatch from SAALT’s New Jersey Outreach Coordinator, Qudsia Raja, on state and local enforcement of immigration laws and what it means in NJ.

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As advocates and communities nationwide mobilize to campaign for more just and humane immigration laws in the US, New Jersey residents prepare to cope with the actualization of tentatively discriminatory mandates that will, if put into place, adversely affect the immigrant community in the state. 287(g), a federal immigration program initiated by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), allows for local law enforcement agencies to go beyond their call of duty of enforcing local and state laws by additionally allowing them the liberty to enforce federal immigration laws.

Earlier this year, several counties in New Jersey, including Morris, Hudson, and Monmouth Counties, applied to become a part of the 287(g) program. Morristown was approved for the program last month, and Mayor David Cresitello has every intention of signing onto the program, which would be in effect for 3 years.

The idea of deputizing local law enforcement agencies has long been controversial, with strong advocates on both ends of the debate holding firm to their beliefs on whether the program should or should not be put into place. SAALT, like many other immigrant advocates locally and nationwide, believes that 287(g) does in fact negatively impact the immigrant community at large. By deputizing law enforcement, we would essentially be creating a barrier between law enforcement and the communities they are sworn in to serve – an irony so obvious that I can’t seem to understand why some public officials are so adamant about putting the mandate into place.

Consider this. New Jersey is not only home to a large, diverse, and emerging immigrant community, but also thrives economically because of the contributions of this very community, according to a report published earlier this year by Rutgers University. As an emerging community, however, coming from numerous cultural, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, it’s important for us as public officials, advocates, service providers and community members to be mindful of the needs of our fellow community members. These needs could range from being aware of cultural and linguistic needs in accessing basic government and public services; navigation the school, medical, and legal systems; and addressing racial and religious discrimination targeted towards immigrant communities, often more vulnerable when they are unable to communicate because they are limited-English proficient (LEP), or because they are unaware of the proper channels available to them to report incidences and crimes of the sort. Additionally, many immigrants migrate from countries where the rule of law is often corrupt, making them fearful of approaching (or being approached by) law enforcement.

287(g) has been criticized by immigrant advocates for many justified reasons, one of the most disconcerting being that the mandate would allow for local law enforcement to essentially profile immigrant constituents in the process of making arrests based on ‘suspicion’. It will detract from their job of keeping the peace in local communities and protecting constituents by creating a sense of fear amongst the immigrant community of being rounded up by the police based on the color or their skin, or the accents in speech.

Recently, New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram issued a strongly worded letter to Hudson, Morris, and Monmouth County officials warning them to not use 287(g) as a mechanism to racially profile constituents. Additionally, she made clear that the mandate does not allow for sweeps or ‘on-the-street-encounters’, where law enforcement uses round ups as a means to conduct immigration checks, and that any incidences of violating NJ laws will be dealt with by the AG’s office.

All that aside, though, what does it really mean to be an immigrant in New Jersey, where 287(g) may tentatively be put into place?

Imagine this. You are an immigrant mother of two. You speak limited English, and rely on your husband to deal with the intricacies of life outside of your home. You have been in this country for many years, and your children are enrolled in the local school system. Your husband sponsored you to migrate to this country when you first married. You find yourself in an abusive relationship, and consider reaching out to the police to intervene. However, your husband tells you that reporting him to the police will result in your deportation, that they’ll take away her children and she’ll never see them again. So, you weigh out the pros and cons, and somehow justify staying in a violent marriage for the sake of your children, and for the fear of being deported back to your country of origin, where you may face even more violence for leaving your husband. Somehow, the thought of daily violence isn’t as bad as the thought of approaching the police, the threat of deportation and separation from your children looming overhead.

Imagine this. You are a second-generation immigrant. You are Muslim, with a very common first and last name. You are driving late at night on your way home, and you are pulled over because you are speeding. Along with your license and your registration, you are asked for your immigration papers – something you don’t carry around with you, because you are a legal resident and you tell them this much. You are asked to come to the station. You grudgingly comply, thinking of it as an inconvenience, but that you will be out as soon as they run your name through the system. Your name, a common one, shows up with some alarming news attached to it. You tell them it’s a mistake, and that you are in fact not that individual. You are detained for several hours, perhaps days, as they sort out the situation and realize that you are in fact not who they think you are. In the meantime, you are not allowed to make a call to family members or a lawyer, and no one knows of your whereabouts. You are told that this is normal procedure – a criminal until proven innocent. You are let out eventually, but with a bitter taste in your mouth in regards to local law enforcement. You know you will think twice about approaching them should a problem arise in the future, if only to avoid the painful and humiliating process they have just subject you to.

Imagine hundreds of other scenarios that immigrant constituents will face should 287(g) go into affect. Imagine being racially profiled and being treated like a criminal. Imagine being fearful of the police when you need them most, when you are placed in a dangerous situation, but the fear (be it real or imagined) of being deported holds you back from calling for help.

Is this the sort of community you want to be a part of?

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.

Intro to ISNA

This past July 4th weekend, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) hosted its 46th Annual Convention in DC, fittingly named “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” It was my first ISNA experience, and I was in awe of the huge crowd. Thousands of people were in attendance as various speakers and panelists discussed topics relevant to the modern American Muslim. Many of those informative sessions were geared towards young people, as part of the MSA National and MYNA portions of the convention. While there was definitely a strong interest in the ISNA Matrimonials event, many attendees were drawn to the DC Convention Center by the dynamic speakers and the variety of goods and art available at the Bazaar.

It was exciting to see the number of Muslims who came to DC for the event, and I was particularly impressed by the number of South Asians I observed attending the convention. Throngs of desis could be found in Chinatown restaurants, out on DC streets, and strolling the National Mall. My own cousins came to DC for the first time from California and Oklahoma specifically for ISNA weekend, and they were surprised by the number of South Asians in DC. So was I! While there are many South Asians living and working in and near the District, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in one place before. ISNA had a strong pull for our community, with sessions geared specifically towards South Asian Muslims, featuring South Asian speakers or moderated by South Asians, as well as many, many bazaar stalls that were put up by South Asian small business owners and artists.

I liked that there were networking events, such as the Muslim Lawyers networking social that I attended Friday night, and info sessions, such as the one about getting jobs at federal agencies, that involved Muslims helping other Muslims. Not surprisingly, many of the faces at both those events were South Asian. It’s great to see people in the community taking interest in mentoring others!

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.

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>.

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/

2009 Asian American Health Initiative Conference “A Time for Change”

Last week, I got the chance to attend the Asian American Health Conference, sponsored by Asian American Health Initiative. It was a great experience meeting public health advocates and experts (as well as allies, community members and more) and hearing about the relevant issues in the Asian American community. Asian American Health Initiative does great work in Montgomery County ensuring that Asian Americans enjoy equity and access to quality healthcare and the conference gave me the opportunity to learn more about their work, but also the work of other health-related organizations around the country.

AAHI conducted a needs assessment survey of Asian Americans in Montgomery County and one of the presentations at the conference was devoted to their process and findings. Montgomery County has the highest percentage of Asian Americans in Maryland making up nearly 14% of the population. The AAHI needs assessment utilized focus groups with major ethnic/national origin groups as well as a few of the smaller ethnic/national origin groups. Focus groups were made up of community members from all walks of life from professionals to retirees and seniors. Moreover, they also conducted a young adults focus group made up of mixed ethnic/national origin youths. Participants identified a number of stressors from struggling to fit in (young adults) to isolation and loneliness (seniors). In terms of obstacles to health care acces, the study identified financial, physical, communication and cultural barriers. Persistent gaps that I picked up during this presentation, and really, all the plenaries and breakout groups were the need for linguistic and cultural proficiency, the lack of disaggregated data about Asian American health outcomes and the lack of access to affordable health insurance. To read the whole report, visit AAHI <http://www.aahiinfo.org/english/programs/needsAssesment.php>

Arthur Chen, Chief Medical Officer-Alameda Alliance for Health

Arthur Chen, Chief Medical Officer-Alameda Alliance for Health

Another highlight from the event was the keynote speech from Arthur Chen, Chief Medical Officer of the Alameda Alliance for Health. Chen’s remarks gave a very contextual and complicated view of the factors contributing to the unequal access to quality healthcare for Asian Americans and other minorities. From civic engagement to holding legislators accountable to fiscal and monetary management, access to healthcare is deeply intertwined with the other issues we are experiencing as a nation. Moreover, to address gaps in healthcare adequately we must be ready to tackle other persistent inequalities in our country and around the world.

The theme of the whole conference was “A Time for Change: Transforming Opportunities into Action” and I think everyone was excited to see what we as a community can do to make a real, positive change for healthcare acess for all.

Join the Summer of Service!

On Wednesday, May 20th Michelle Obama will roll out “the vision of service for the Administration for the summer” in Washington DC. SAALT’s Executive Director, Deepa Iyer, will be in the audience to hear about the summer of service and learn how organizations like SAALT and the South Asian community as a whole can get involved. Are you inspired by Michelle’s message of service? How are you getting involved and engaged this summer?

May Day Rally for Immigration Reform in Washington DC

On May 1st, people from communities all over the country commemorated International Workers’ Day to call for fair and equitable reform to the immigration system. There were rallies in many major cities, including Washington DC. I went down to the rally with Poonam, our intern. Being at the march was an amazing experience. Walking down 14th Street, where mounted police shut down one direction of traffic to accommodate the crowd, surrounded by community members and advocates, was a singular experience. I didn’t participate in the immigration reform rallies in 2006 and 2007 so this was my first time getting the May Day experience. The mood was overwhelmingly positive with the speakers at Lafayette Park acknowledging the difficulties that community members encounter as part of the broken immigration system but ultimately focusing on how communities-of-color can work together to push for reform. I used one of our nifty new Flips to capture some of the sights and sounds of the rally, below you can check out a quick video featuring some inspiring words from Rev. Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ: