Helping ICE Doesn’t Mean They Won’t Turn Around and Deport You Anyway

Thanks to RaceWire, where I found the following story: A Pakistani man had overstayed his visa when he was contacted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who enlisted his help in gathering evidence against a paralegal filing false immigration claims. In exchange, they promised to help him stay in the country and possibly get a green card. The paralegal was eventually indicted, I’m sure in no small part due to his efforts. He then went on to help ICE agents gather information about terrorism-related activities at a local mosque. How does ICE repay him? Giving him false information about his deportation order and, now, readying itself to deport the man who had helped them.

Taken with recent revelations about law enforcement initiatives to place informants at American mosques, and the resulting betrayal of trust for the American Muslim community, this story shows the complicated relationships between national security, immigration and the American Muslim community. American Muslim organizations have repeatedly stated that it is important for law enforcement agencies to build relationships with the community in an open and honest manner. Moreover, the community is committed, like all other communities, to contributing to a strong and vibrant American society that affirms principles like religious freedom and equality before the law. To see someone who went out of their way to help ICE agents, no matter how questionable the activities, abandoned by the agency and facing deportation puts a human face to how this truly complicated system is failing people.

Read the whole story here.

Read the Islamic Circle of North America’s statement opposing FBI informants (you have to scroll down past the first statement).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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:
  • LULAC:
  • AAJC:
  • Immigration Equality:

Undocumented Immigrants, Children and CCPA

Check out this piece from Lavanya Sithanandam, pediatrician and travel doctor in Takoma Park and SAALT Board member about undocumented immigrants, citizen children and the Child Citizen Protection Act:

The non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center released a report yesterday entitled ‘A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States’ .  The report reveals that 4 million American children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent, which is up dramatically from 2.7 million children in 2003.   Children of unauthorized immigrants now account for about one in 15 elementary and secondary school students nationwide.  One third of these children live in poverty and close to half (45%) of these children are without health insurance.

As a practicing pediatrician in Takoma Park, MD, these statistics are more than numbers to me.   Some of my patients that I treat in my own office are included in this data.  What these percentages and statistics do not convey is how deeply entrenched these children and their families have become in this country.  Despite this, I have noticed a disturbing trend over the past two years, with a growing number of my patients having to deal with the detention and possible deportation of a parent, friend, or neighbor.  This is a nightmare scenario for anyone to have to cope with, let alone a young child.

In response to this situation, I have been working with SAALT and several other non-profit organizations such as Families For Freedom to shed light on the plight of such children and to help them stay united with their families.   This week is a ‘Week of Action’ in support of HR 182 or the Child Citizen Protection Act, which will give immigration judges discretion in deportation cases involving the separation of families with children who are U.S. citizens.    Currently, judges have their hands tied and are forced to deport many parents unless they meet an ‘extreme hardship’ standard-  a difficult standard for most to meet.  I ask that you call your local congressmen and ask them to sign on to this bill.  Also please try to document any experiences that you may be facing with the detention and/or deportation of a loved one.  In my own practice I am asking my patients to draw pictures of broken hearts (like the one above) to represent the pain and suffering these families endure when one or both parents are deported.   I hope to show these drawings and letters that I collect to my local representatives as part of SAALT’s annual advocacy day next week.

Takoma Park Pediatrics Patient, Age 7

Also, check out Dr. Sithanandam’s excellent Op-Ed published in the Baltimore Sun.

Another Immigrant Death in Detention–New York Times

I was sent this article from the front page of the New York Times about another death in immigration detention, this time in New Jersey. The heartbreaking story, which highlights the difficulties in even finding an accurate accounting of the deaths that have taken place in immigration detention. Ahmed Tanveer’s death was recorded in a handwritten note of a fellow detainee and it took the persistent efforts of civil rights and civil liberties groups and acitivists to get details about the case or to even get confirmation that the man had been imprisoned and died while in custody from the Department of Homeland Security. Read the whole story at <>

“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

Model Minority? No Thanks!

Asian Americans broadly and South Asians have long confronted mainstream labeling as model minorities. Here at SAALT, we have a few problems with that. The latest example is a commentary posted on by Jason Richwine. Check out SAALT’s written response below (it’s also been posted on RaceWire):

Model Minority? No, Thanks!

A Response to February 24th Commentary on Indian Americans: The New Model Minority

Deepa Iyer

In his February 24th commentary, Jason Richwine presents the “revelation” that Indian American immigrants are the “new model minority” (see “Indian Americans: The New Model Minority”).  Using this flawed frame, he then proposes unworkable and divisive immigration policy changes.  As a national non-profit organization that works to foster the full civic and political participation of the South Asian community, we find these characterizations to be quite troubling.

Richwine points to the educational and income levels of many Indian Americans (as well as their flair for winning spelling bees) as signs that this ethnic group has reached the highest echelons of success.  Such benchmarks belie the truth about the challenges that many Indian Americans face, and create a wedge between Indian Americans and minority communities.

In reality, Indian Americans, much like other immigrants, have diverse experiences and backgrounds. Indian Americans are doctors, engineers and lawyers, as well as small business owners, domestic workers, taxi drivers and convenience store employees. Community members hold a range of immigration statuses and include naturalized citizens and H-1B visaholders, guestworkers and students, undocumented workers and green card holders.  Some have access to higher education while others struggle to learn English in a new country.  As with all communities, Indian Americans do not come in the same shape and form, and cannot be treated as a monolith.

Another danger with the model minority label is that it creates divisions between Indian Americans and other immigrant communities.  Beneath the seemingly positive use of the “model minority” label is a pernicious racist undertone: the purpose, after all, is to compare one set of people with another, and the result is to pit minorities against one another.

Comparing Indian Americans with Mexican Americans, as Richwine does (“In sharp contrast to Indian Americans, most U.S. immigrants, especially Mexican, are much less wealthy and educated than U.S. natives, even after many years in the country) is an example of the sort of constructed division between immigrant communities that creates cultural and ethnic hierarchies.   The use of the model minority label results in placing Indian Americans “above” other communities based on certain factors such as educational aptitude or work ethic – which are clearly shared across ethnic and cultural lines.  It further isolates Indian Americans and makes it challenging to build solidarity that naturally arises among communities that share common experiences as immigrants and people of color in America.

Using the model minority myth to inform immigration policy can lead to unworkable solutions.  Richwine writes that “A new immigration policy that prioritizes skills over family reunification could bring more successful immigrants to the U.S.  By emphasizing education, work experience and IQ in our immigration policy, immigrant groups from other national backgrounds could join the list of model minorities” – one that seems to be headed up by Indian Americans.

But even for this so-called model minority, immigration policy reform must include family reunification (in fact, family members of green card holders from India have to wait up to 11 years to be reunited with family members); legalization (Indians ranked among the top ten undocumented populations in the country in 2008); and programs that enable workers – skilled and unskilled – to carry out their livelihoods with respect and dignity.   Viewing immigrants as commodities to be used purely for their economic value as a basis for immigration policy change denies immigrants the opportunities to establish roots, build meaningful futures, and contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of our country.

We reject attempts to create divisions, whether they be within our own community, or with other communities who share similar experiences, struggles, histories, and values.  We recognize that our success and our futures are tied closely with that of all immigrants and people of color.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national non-profit organization located in the Washington DC area. Ms. Iyer is an immigrant who moved to the United States from India when she was twelve years old.

Poverty in the Asian American Community in New York Featuring SAYA!

NewsAs the recession deepens and more and more people around the country find themselves jobless or stretched thin economically, its important to highlight how different communities are being affected in different ways. This excellent piece from My9 News (New York) reporter Ti Hua Chang. Chang profiles Asian Americans and South Asians living at or near the poverty level in New York. Many work for long hours for low wages and have little cushion as the economy worsens. Moreover, fewer Asian Americans use government services; one of the startling facts Chang mentions is that while Asian Americans make up 12% of the city’s population, they recieve about 1% of the government or private funding. From seniors isolated to their apartments to the Bangladeshi man working two jobs to build a better future for his children, the stories are uniformly heartbreaking and underscore how these communities are suffering. The Executive Director of an NCSO partner SAYA!, Annetta Seecharan, speaks to the importance of investing in these communities and helping them build more secure futures. Check the video out at <>

Does the Stimulus Bill Impact South Asians?

Nina Baliga, National CAPACD

Nina Baliga, National CAPACD

Check out this blog post from February guestblogger, Nina Baliga, Development and Communications Manager at National CAPACD. Nina tells us how she thinks the stimulus bill may impact South Asians:

“Knowing and understanding the diversity of our communities, it’s hard to say what the final impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will have on South Asians across the country.  Personally, I think there are enough stipulations in the bill that provide hope for our communities.

For example, $1 billion will go towards the 2010 Census.   Why does this matter?  Well, the census provides the backbone of information that determines how a lot of public money and even private sector money is spent.  Part of this $1 billion will be used to increase in-language partnerships and outreach efforts to minority communities and other “hard-to-reach” populations.  If more South Asians are counted in the 2010 Census, then there will likely be more resources for our communities.

We do know that there are some provisions that will help low-to-moderate income individuals, and this will definitely help many South Asian families.  For example, there is the Make Work Pay refundable tax credit which could give $400 to single filers and $800 to joint filers in 2009 and 2010.  The bill has also expanded Pell grants to a maximum of $5,350 in 2009 and $5,500 in 2010, hopefully increasing access to a college education to more young adults.  And for those of you who are looking to buy their first home, do it in 2009, because you’ll receive up to an $8000 tax credit from the federal government.

The bill is large and multi-faceted, including tax cuts for individuals and small businesses, funding for education and job training, more money for transportation and health coverage, food assistance, funding for states and local governments, and so much more. The final impact on our communities is yet to be seen.  We can truly hope for the best during this economic crisis, and pray that this massive injection of capital into the country’s economy will prove worthwhile.”

So what do you think? How will this stimulus bill impact the South Asian community? What do you like about the bill and what do you wish it did/did not include?

Nina Baliga joined the National CAPACD staff as the Development and Communications Manager in 2007.  Nina develops our communications strategies, and oversees our outreach to members, funders and other stakeholders. Prior to National CAPACD, Nina worked as a Research Analyst for SEIU Local 11, organizing condominium workers in South Florida. In 2004, she worked as the Canvas Director of the Miami office of America Coming Together, where she mobilized tens of thousands of voters in the largest voter contact program in history.  She began her political career heading up Florida PIRG’s Clean Water Campaigns.  Nina has served on the Board of Directors of SAAVY (South Asian American Voting Youth) as the Fundraising Chair, and mentored SAAVY fellows at the University of Florida as part of a larger South Asian Youth Voter mobilization movement.Nina graduated from New York University with degrees in Sociology and Environmental Studies and recently received her Masters in Business Administration from the University of Florida.

The Good and the Bad in the Stimulus Bill

After weeks of intense debate and negotiations, Congress passed an economic stimulus package that is headed to President Obama’s desk for his signature today. The final law includes spending for domestic infrastructure projects, funding to state and local governments, and tax relief in the form of cuts and credits. The government knew that it needed to take quick action to pull the economy out of its downward spiral, which has affected everyone’s lives – from immigrants and citizens, to students and seniors, to the wealthy and the working-class.

No one can claim to be unscathed by the recession that we are going through, including H-1B workers. Vast numbers of South Asians rely upon this visa, including lawyers, engineers, artists, and scientists. Yet many fear losing not only their jobs, but also their immigration status, during these rough economic times. Take, for instance, Shalini, whose story was captured by Little India

Shalini (name altered), who came to New York City from Mumbai one year ago to work with Ernst & Young, is coping with just such an eventuality. Within a few months she was promoted from assistant manager to manager in her division. However, in November, the company let her go. Her first thought was, “How am I going to find another job in the next six weeks in this kind of environment?”

Shalini is on an H1-B work permit, which means that if she doesn’t find work within 30 to 60 days, she has to leave the country. Her prospects are bleak. Most companies in the U.S., India and across the world have either frozen hiring or are sacking their workforce. Shalini has realized that there is no safety net in the U.S. without a Green Card or citizenship. So she is following the example of several NRIs [non-resident Indians], who have applied to non-U.S. companies, sent resumes to contacts in corporate India, put up notices to sell their homes and furniture, and postponed plans to get married or start a family.”  [Little India]

These workers help build the vibrant innovation of this country. In fact, Thomas Friedman had a thought-provoking piece in The New York Times recently about how we need more immigrants, not less, because it’s good for the American economy …

“We live in a technological age where every study shows that the more knowledge you have as a worker and the more knowledge workers you have as an economy, the faster your incomes will rise. Therefore, the centerpiece of our stimulus, the core driving principle, should be to stimulate everything that makes us smarter and attracts more smart people to our shores. That is the best way to create good jobs.” [New York Times]

Unfortunately, Congress went the other way on this issue. As part of the stimulus bill, financial institutions receiving funding through the Department of Treasury’s Troubled Assets Relief Program (or TARP) intended to stabilize the financial markets, must jump through extra hoops before they can hire H-1B workers. Given the immense contributions of H-1B workers to help America remain on the cutting-edge, it makes you wonder if this is not only bad news for South Asians, but bad news for the economy.