The Time is Now! What Immigration Reform Means for the South Asian American Community

“You should take those to the Hispanic grocery stores,” says Ahmed, a Pakistani immigrant who sells phone plans outside the local Indian market. He says it in an effort to help me improve my outreach around citizenship resources. He and I have met several times, and each time he tells me the Latino community needs more help becoming U.S citizens. Before he even finishes his thought however, Ahmed calls out to nearby friend in case I have any resources for him. The friend is an Indian man in his 70s who, due to a fraudulent attorney and employer, lost his visa status, and has been undocumented for over a decade. He continues to work under the table in the U.S., in order to send money home and support the family hasn’t seen in 17 years. Ahmed’s friend tells me he has worked with several lawyers, and is now just waiting for the laws to change. He has been paying taxes through the social security number he received upon arrival and is hopeful that with a new law he may gain status again. Ahmed shakes his head as his friend speaks, clearly frustrated with the sheer injustice of the situation. I wonder how Ahmed can hear stories such as these and still believe that the Latino community needs more help with citizenship and immigration than ours. Yet have South Asian Americans engaged enough in the conversations and push towards comprehensive immigration reform?

Last Tuesday night at SAALT’s Maryland Town Hall on Immigration Reform, I thought back to my conversations with the Ahmed. At the town hall, I had the opportunity to hear three more community members tell their story, and speak on struggles they’ve faced due to our current immigration system. Pratishtha, a student at UMBC and a DREAMer, described barriers to common rites of passage and earned accomplishments that people with valid immigration status can take for granted. Being undocumented she couldn’t celebrate her acceptances into university or obtain a driver’s license the way other students could. Yves, another DREAMer and activist, shared the story of his parent’s deportation and his ongoing separation from them. He described emotions that don’t quite translate into words, including the sorrow of not being with his parents to celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary the next day. Finally, Mini, stood up and shared how she left behind her family in Kerala for a job opportunity as a domestic worker. Yet, she was so exploited and mistreated in her position that she had to run away, losing her visa status in the process. Today, domestic worker meetings at CASA de Maryland are her lifeline and inspiration, as she too waits for a new law that will give her pathway to citizenship. The struggles that each of these community members faces is unique, yet an overarching theme rang strong; in the South Asian American community, the time is now to fix our broken immigration system. Our community, like the Latino community and many others, is in dire need of a comprehensive immigration reform.

After the community members spoke, the audience had a chance to hear an analysis of pieces and ask questions about the Senate immigration bill (S. 744) from SAALT’s Policy Director Manar Waheed, CASA de Maryland’s Legal Program Manager Sheena Wadhawan, and Caseworker Angel Colon-Rivera from Senator Ben Cardin’s office. Despite the need for a comprehensive immigration reform in our community, it was clear from the questions and comments made by the audience that there are many flaws in the current version bill. Though the Senate Bill represents a huge step forward in the immigration debate and proposes many positive changes, it is still needs much work, particularly in with respect to family reunification and an effective and inclusive prohibition on the profiling, among others. As various immigration bills are currently being debated in the House and the outcomes in the House and Senate still need to be resolved in Conference Committee, there is still time to ask for changes and make our voices heard.

After a powerful two hours of sharing stories, analysis from the panelists, and questions and comments from the South Asian American community on immigration reform, it is unmistakable that we need to take action. We need to put a South Asian face to the call for immigration reform. Let’s continue to share our stories, for the undocumented senior who hasn’t seen his family in 17 years, and never met his grandson. Let’s call on our representatives to take action for the legal permanent residents who are tirelessly working and waiting, sometimes decades, for the siblings and adult married children they sponsored to gain their visas. Let’s demand that our government prohibit the baseless and ineffective measures of profiling that violate the civil rights of all Americans. Let’s rally behind Yves, Pratishtha, and Mini who deserve unrestricted access to higher education, real living wages, and family reunification. Please join SAALT and engage in the discussion around immigration reform by sharing your immigration story, and joining our upcoming town halls in Houston and Detroit.

*Some of the names in this entry have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.

SAALT will be hosting more conversations on immigration reform. View our calendar of events for more information.

Avani Mody
Maryland Outreach Coordinator, AmeriCorps
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT


Why We Need to Care about Bias-Based Bullying

When I was 4 years old, I remember my older brother coming home one day from Junior High with distress and tears.  Although, at that age, I did not comprehend every single thing that was talked about, I knew one thing–my brother was hurt and upset.  Later, I found out that another student grabbed his turban from behind him while he was walking.  This same student had taunted him for weeks about his turban before the incident, but no administrator at the school did anything about it.  At the time, I did not even know about bullying or who a bully was, all I knew is I never wanted my brother to experience this again.  This situation was finally resolved only after the school administration saw to what degree the attack took place.

It is a known fact that bias-based bullying and harassment towards South Asian students and families is a growing problem.  According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education study, over 54 Percent of Asian American youth reported experiencing bullying, the highest percentage of any ethnic group surveyed. In SAALT’s report, In the Face of Xenophobia, the New York City Department of Education and the Sikh Coalition’s 2007 report indicates that in the nation’s most diverse neighborhood of Queens, 77.5 percent of young Sikh men reported being harassed, taunted, or intimidated because of wearing a turban.  Like my brother, many students and community members face harassment every day because of their ethnic and racial identity and religion.  But what comes across as more problematic than the issue itself is that there is no system in place to prevent bullying before it happens or so it never happens again.  Currently, legislation is being considered in Congress that will help vulnerable students and families. The Safe Schools Improvement Act is a proposed federal anti-bullying law.  If enacted, it will require schools and school districts to collect and publicize data about incidents of bullying and harassment.  This will create incentives for school officials to protect students and allow government agencies to quickly identify schools and school districts where problems exist. It is important that our policymakers know that this is and important step in protecting all victims from bullying in our schools. Last summer, with the helpful guidance from the Sikh Coalition, I went to Capitol Hill and lobbied two congressional offices with the hope that they would consider this an important issue and act on it.

This piece of legislation is very important but creating effective tools to prevent bullying and educate students is just as critical. Personally, I was very distressed growing up seeing more and more Sikh children facing such gruesome bullying incidents.  I wanted to help in any capacity I could, even if it was small.  While in college, I created a “Combating Bullying” project with leadership training from the Sadie Nash Leadership Foundation.  I was able to develop lesson plans for 8 workshops bringing 8 Sikh youth together every 2 weeks to learn about bullying, understand that they are not alone in this process, and explore various resources that were available for them if they were bullied again.  Upon completion of the program, the students were more confident and better able to address the issue.

In July, SAALT will be bringing students from across the country to the nation’s capital to attend the 2013 Young Leaders Institute. The students will build leadership skills, explore social change strategies around bias-based bullying among South Asian and immigrant communities in the US, and develop exciting project ideas to enact change on their campuses and in their communities. I am excited to work with these Young Leaders and support their creative projects to educate peers, raise awareness, and campaign for change as they work for a safer schools, safer families, and safer communities.

Learn more about SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute and our incoming 2013 Young Leaders!


Manpreet Kaur Teji
Program Associate, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Volunteer Advocate, The Sikh Coalition

Oak Creek: Personal reflections 6 months later

August 5, 2012 will always stand out as a day that shaped my work, my goals, and where I wanted to see my community in the future.  Growing up in a post-9/11 world, I saw community members suffering terrible hate crimes, witnessed my brother and father constantly getting an extra screening at TSA, and experienced a general, alienating message from American society that I was perceived as different. This sense of “otherness”had a major impact on the interests I wanted to pursue moving forward.

Caring so deeply about the Sikh community and backlash we and other Arab American, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian individuals and families experienced after 9/11 propelled me towards a career path where I could advocate and speak on behalf of not only the Sikh community but other minorities in this nation that have been the targets of bias and discrimination.  This drive brought me to South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). For me, this was a great way to finally put all that pain and frustration from 9/11 into actual work on behalf of a shared community.  But less than a month into my work at SAALT, the tragedy in Oak Creek took place.  The motivation and determination that resulted from the frustrations faced after 9/11 became even more solidified.  The continuing issues and needs further highlighted by Oak Creek—hate crimes, discrimination, xenophobic rhetoric in public discourse–lent even more shape to my career path and gave me higher goals of where I would like to see my community 10 years from now.

As a Sikh woman working at SAALT and a volunteer Advocate for The Sikh Coalition, I was very involved with the response efforts to the tragedy on August 5, 2012.  On February 26, 2013 at DC’s SAALT Circle a group of young professionals and leaders in the community came together for a discussion titled “Revisiting Oak Creek: Where Are We Now?”  This dialogue explored many thoughts on how we as a South Asian community responded to the attack; how SAALT, The Sikh Coalition, and Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) responded in the wake of the attack, including community crisis support, policy advocacy with key officials and government agencies, and media messaging; and next steps we can all take to prevent another tragedy.  Many participants voiced their pain and initial reaction to the attack.  But one thing that seemed to resonate with everyone in the room was concern.  There was concern on how to prevent this from happening again, concern about the response the government had to the attack, and concern about how, as a community, we are moving forward.  That concern that everyone was feeling in the room last night was the same concern I felt 11 years ago after 9/11 and 6 months ago on August 5th.

This concern is not only felt by the select few who work at these organizations or who came to the SAALT Circle last night, it is felt by everyone who was affected by this horrific tragedy.  However , I believe, the most important thing to do with a concern is to act on it.  My concerns led me to a place where I can advocate and elevate the voices of South Asians.  Everyone can lend a hand in this battle and take action.  We should all voice our concern, but, as a community we are all responsible to act as well. We can all be agents of change whether it is sending a message to your congressman asking that hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs are added to the tracking form, being an effective spokesperson in the media on behalf of your community, or joining hands with our communities as supportive allies.  Post-9/11 discrimination and the Oak Creek tragedy brought our community together in pain and concern.  Let’s make sure we still stay together by voicing and acting on our concerns for each other, across race and ethnicity, across religion, and across all walks of life.

Manpreet Kaur Teji
Program Associate, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT)
Volunteer Advocate, The Sikh Coalition

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

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

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

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 and

• 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

Celebrating 5 Years!

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

From Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of SAALT:

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

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

Celebrating 5 Years! Take One!

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

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

From Priya Murthy, our Policy Director:

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

Celebrating 5 Years! Take Two!

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

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

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

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

This is just the beginning.”

Celebrating 5 Years! Take Three!

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

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

Celebrating 5 Years! Take Four!

To continue our series celebrating five years since SAALT’s first staffed officed, today we feature Madhur Bansal, SAALT’s Americorps VISTA Development Assitant from 2006 to 2007:

“To me, SAALT represents a collective and progressive voice for South Asians in the US. SAALT offers community members a way to engage directly in civic life and public policy issues. In the next five years, I hope that SAALT continues building support across the country and that it can be the primary national advocate for the South Asian community in public affairs, particularly in the upcoming debate over immigration reform. I also hope that SAALT can expand by reaching even more community members and getting them involved in its work.”

..and from Imrana Khera, former SAALT staff member:

“I can’t believe it’s been five years already–Congratulations!  SAALT represents the very diverse South Asian community living in the United States, a challenging job for any organization.  SAALT pushes our community forward by advocating for change within a social justice framework.  SAALT’s strength is its respectful and effective collaboration with organizations that are working with South Asian community at a local level across the country.

My expectation is that SAALT will continue to grow over the next five years and continue to affect change on behalf of our community – through education, policy, and research – like the award-winning Raising Our Voices DVD, through SAALT townhalls/community forums, and reports like Washington DeSi: South Asians in the Nation’s Capital (July 2009).”