Advocacy Day in Trenton, NJ–South Asian Style!

Poonam Patel, an intern at SAALT was in attendance for South Asian Advocacy Day in Trenton, NJ on March 16th. She shares her experience below. If you want to read more about the South Asian Advocacy Day, check out this great blog post by Sonny Singh at the Sikh Coalition blog!

On Monday, March 16th, I had the opportunity to attend the first South Asian Advocacy Day in Trenton, New Jersey–an inspiring experience, to say the least. Growing up in a traditional Indian family with the stigma that speaking to elected officials at any level is fruitless, it was reassuring to see legislators not only responsive to the issues discussed but also willing to take action—research new means of solving fundamental problems whether that involved supporting existing legislation or introducing new ideas.

One of the advocates talked about a project their organization had developed—grading public schools in a report card format based on their cultural competency. The legislator that was presented with this idea not only agreed that it was a very effective way of creating awareness, but also asked for specific details so that the program could potentially be implemented in her district. While I was listening to this exchange take place, it became clear that innovative projects developed by experts in their own fields combined with the government resources can truly have an affect on the community at large.

Furthermore, to see so many community members, advocates, and students collectively discuss the issues most relevant to the South Asian community shed light to the fact that they cross boundaries of all sorts–gender, age, and national origin to name a few.  Even though the South Asian community is so diverse in a number of ways, there are several issues we can all relate to such as developing comprehensive immigration reform or creating cultural competent resources for community members. This is what was at the heart of Trenton Advocacy Day. It wasn’t about each individual advocating something unique, but a strong, collective voice that caught the ears of state legislators.

“Failing Families” op-ed in Baltimore Sun

Montgomery County, MD, where the SAALT offices are located, is a vibrant community with immigrants from around the world. This op-ed from Dr. Lavanya Sithanandam, a pediatrician and travel doctor based in Takoma Park, shows how immigration raids have negatively impact this community, particularly its most vulnerable members: children. Read the excellent piece here:

Failing Families

Immigration enforcement policies unfairly hurt many children who are citizens

by Lavanya Sithanandam

When I walked into the exam room, I knew something was wrong. My 8-year old patient, usually an extroverted, charming boy, was angry. He sat with his arms crossed and refused to look at me. His exhausted mother recounted how one week ago, her husband, after arriving home from a 12-hour shift at work, had been arrested in front of his children and taken away in handcuffs. He was now sitting in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention center in Frederick. The mother asked me to evaluate her son for a one-week history of poor appetite, difficulty with sleeping, and wheezing.

As a pediatrician working in Montgomery County, home to the largest immigrant community in Maryland, I have seen firsthand the devastating effects that aggressive immigration enforcement policies can have on families. Many of these children are citizens, born in the United States to at least one undocumented parent. Yet these children often experience what no U.S. citizen (or any child, for that matter) should. They live in constant fear of abandonment because they have seen and heard of neighbors and family members being picked up and deported within days.

My patient, a “citizen child” himself, was exhibiting symptoms of depression, and like other children who have lost a parent to detention centers, he perceives his father’s arrest as somehow being his fault. His mother, who must now take over her husband’s 15-year role as the family’s breadwinner, is struggling to pay the bills, to make the lengthy drive to see her husband, and to take her son to the doctor. These parents are good people: hardworking and honest immigrants from West Africa who pay their taxes and take good care of their children. They struggle to make a decent life for their family, despite a grueling, 70-hour workweek.

Unfortunately, their story is not unique. There are more than 5 million citizen children in this country – and sadly, the likelihood that one or both of their parents will be deported is increasing. In order to meet arrest quotas, ICE agents are increasingly going after “soft targets”: immigrants such as my patient’s father, with no criminal record and for whom ICE had not issued a deportation order. Some of these people are picked up by chance, at work or at home. Some are victims of “residential raids” where immigration authorities knock on door after door with no evidence that the inhabitants are undocumented until they can get someone to admit that he or she is here illegally.

Sometimes, racial profiling is an issue – as in the case, recently revealed, of a January 2007 raid on a 7-Eleven in Baltimore. Officers detained 24 Latino men, few of them with criminal records, in an apparent effort to meet a quota for arrests.

The future for families like my 8-year-old patient’s looks grim. My patient’s suffering will probably have no influence on his father’s deportation proceedings, given the high legal standards of “extreme hardship” that must be met in order for his father to stay with his family. The boy will most likely be forced to start a new life in a country he has never even visited.

Immigration policy is complicated and emotionally charged, but punishing citizen children should be at the bottom of ICE’s priorities. It is time to once again consider a fair and comprehensive approach to immigration reform. One promising proposal is the “Child Citizenship Protection Act” (introduced this year by Rep. Jose Serrano of New York), which would authorize an immigration judge to prevent deportation of an immigrant when it is in the best interest of his or her citizen children.

It is essential to enact laws that will promote family reunification, fairness and dignity over current enforcement tactics that tear families apart.

Dr. Lavanya Sithanandam, a pediatrician in Takoma Park, immigrated to this country from India at the age of 4. She is a member of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a social justice and advocacy group. Her e-mail is drsithanandam@gmail.com.

DC Muslim Film Festival – “Art Under Fire”

On Wednesday, I had the chance to check out Sounds of Silence, one of the films being shown as part of the DC Muslim Film Festival that is SAALT is co-sponsoring. The film festival is being coordinated by the American Islamic Congress and Project Nur to showcase different aspects of the Muslim world through film. Sounds of Silence is an exceptional and eye-opening film that profiles artists in Iran who are fighting to find a way to express themselves through music under the guidelines of the Ministry Of Islamic Guidance or Ershad. The film highlights the underground music scene in Tehran and plays out an in depth interview with the journalist who is heavily involved in this movement. For me, the film allowed me to realize the intense need for a creative outlet during difficult times and the importance of music as it fills this role. I encourage you to check out this film and the artists featured in it.

The DC Muslim Film Festival will be airing The Warrior next week:

Thursday, March 12th at 8:30pm in Grand Ballroom at George Washington University

**Special Performances by: Capoeira Malês DC (Doing Capoeira–a Brazilian Martial Art) & MOKSHA (Presenting a Classical Indian Bharatanatyam Dance) AND Free Henna Painting**

For SAALT-ines in the Washington, DC Area

Home to the fifth largest South Asian population in the country according to the 2000 Census, the Washington, DC area is a hotbed of desi culture. We’ve got gurudwaras, mosques, temples and desi groceries galore. SAALT is collaborating with the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC) to learn more about South Asians who live and work in the District through the South Asian Community Empowerment Project and we are looking for volunteers!

So what do volunteers do, you ask?

It’s simple, volunteers conduct street-side surveys of South Asians in Washington, DC. You’ll be collecting information that simply isn’t out there right now about the community here in DC and learning about your fellow District natives. All volunteers will be trained in surveying and community work. Want to volunteer? email Maha Khan at maha@saalt.org and we hope to see you out there!

Also, we’re going to be writing more about this as it gets closer but the National South Asian Summit is happening, right here in DC, from April 24-26. This is an exciting opportunity for students, professionals, activists (really, everyone!) to make connections and strategize around empowering the South Asian community. More details to come, but we’re looking at a lot of exciting speakers and guests, so register today!

SAALT and Community Partners Issue Statement Regarding Recent Bias Crimes Targeting South Asians in New Jersey

You may be surprised to learn that nearly 200,000 South Asians reside in the state of New Jersey.  SAALT’s New Jersey Community Empowerment Project developed from a series of meetings in 2004 with South Asian organizations in New Jersey, allies, and concerned South Asian individuals.  Through these dialogues, it became clear that South Asian communities in New Jersey are underserved and largely voiceless in policy debates. To learn more about the New Jersey Community Empowerment Project, or to read our report highlighting key issues affecting the South Asian community in New Jersey, “A Community of Contrasts: South Asians in New Jersey,” please check out SAALT’s local initiatives page.

In response to recent bias-crimes targeted towards the South Asian community in New Jersey, SAALT, along with several South Asian community partners – Manavi; South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey (SAMHAJ); the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ); UNITED SIKHS; and the Sikh Coalition issued a joint statement condemning all bias crimes.  Read the statement below:

“We come together, as organizations serving South Asian communities here in New Jersey, to denounce the recent hate crimes and bias incidents that have taken place in our state.  The South Asian community in New Jersey, with a growing population of 200,000, has long confronted bias and discrimination, beginning in the 1980’s with the attacks perpetrated by the ‘Dotbusters’ and the post-9/11 backlash.  In addition, our organizations – Manavi; the Sikh Coalition; the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-NJ); South Asian Mental Health Awareness in Jersey (SAMHAJ); and UNITED SIKHS – have observed a rise in New Jersey, which we believe has fostered an environment where bias incidents and hate crimes can occur.

Today, we stand in solidarity not only with the Grewal family – victims of a cross-burning outside their home; Mr. Ajit Singh Chima – an elderly Sikh man who, on October 30th, in Wayne, New Jersey, was violently punched and kicked in the face several times by an unidentified man, and as a result suffered several fractures around his eyes and jaw; Gangadeep Singh – a fifth grade student who, on October 8th, was attacked in Carteret, New Jersey while walking home from school by an unidentified masked assailant that threw him on the ground and cut off his hair – but with all survivors of bias and hate crimes.

We stand together now because we must say no to any act of bias and intolerance when it happens.  We stand together to ask our elected officials and law enforcement agencies to protect survivors of hate crimes and to join us in condemning them.  As a vibrant segment of New Jersey’s neighborhoods, schools, businesses, and non-profit sectors, South Asians raise our voices to call for justice and equality for all.”

Please join us for a march and rally in support of the Grewal family on Saturday, November 15th at 3PM in Hardwick, New Jersey.  The ‘Unity for the Community’ March will start at the Municipal Building and end at the Grewal residence with a rally. 

Saturday, November 5th, 3PM
Hardwick Municipal Building
40 Spring Valley Road
Hardwick, NJ 07825
If you’d like to attend but do not have a ride, please contact Qudsia:
(qudsia@saalt.org) or call (201) 850-3333.

Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about bias and hate crimes, check out a new resource by SAALT:  “Know Your Rights Resource Addressing Hate Crimes”

SAALT briefing on South Asians in New Jersey covered in the New Jersey Star-Ledger

Check out a great article from the New Jersey Star Ledger about the October 1st briefing on the South Asian community in New Jersey. The briefing included Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula and Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, Kris Kolluri. The panel featured speakers from the Sikh Coalition, Manavi and CAIR-NJ and was moderated by SAALT Policy Director, Priya Murthy. You can read the articles here <http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2008/10/njs_growing_south_asian_commun.html>

To read SAALT resources about the South Asian community in New Jersey, click here <http://www.saalt.org/pages/Local-Initiatives%3A-New-Jersey.html>

Watch a clip of Assemblyman Chivukula (the first South Asian to be elected to the New Jersey state Assembly) speaking about the New Jersey South Asian community. To his left is Kris Kolluri, the Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Transportation and to his right is Mark Murphy from the Fund for New Jersey. Moderating the discussion is Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of SAALT.

SAALT Oct. briefing in Trenton, NJ